Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Historical Fiction Seminar Continued

Sticks and Stones: The N Word

Your comments and Greenblatt’s article have helped focus what we want from HF: that "hallucination of presence." We’ve begun to explore, though, what is allowed in order to weave that spell, and what breaks it.
In the Horn Book guide (which is called A Family of Readers — suggesting that it is not a book for parents  who want to get their kids to do something the parents avoid) there is a second piece on Historical Fiction, this one written by the well-known critic and retired professor Betty Carter. Betty brings up the matter of racial epithets, in particular the N word. In her view, shocking an offensive as it is to many modern readers, there are contexts in which it is not only accurate to the period, but necessary to convey the extremely common attitudes, expressions, and mood of the time. She and Macleod make a similar case about women — that to understand the change  in the status of women today, you need to show that the woman who stepped out of line was much more likely to end up on the train tracks with Anna K than off  to some glorious independent future. Or take the case of anti-Semitism in America. In 1939 when the St. Louis carrying nine hundred Jews–nearly half of whom were women and children — trying to escape Hitler neared Miami, one poll showed that some 80% of Americans were against allowing in more European refugees. The point is that the attitudes we now deplore were not only accepted, they were normative. So if the dream is meant to allow us to enter something like the past, it is world that in its language, its attitudes, its behavior seems toxic to us now.
       What to do? Debbie Reese, a professor who often writes about children’s literature from a Native American POV, urged us to read an article that takes a view very different from Betty’s. Here is the link, but it seems you now have to pay to read it: Present harm versus past fidelity? As Vickey mentioned in her first comment — nothing was more common than slavery in ancient Rome. Roman slavery was not based on race, and only rarely had to do with gang agricultural work (as in the later plantation slavery of the New World). But it was enslavement — and perhaps particularly harsh for women or children, since  your body was not your own, and what we would call sexual depredation was just an accepted use a master could make of something he owned. Which actually brings to mind a recent review article ( of two books on homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome. As the reviewer said, the elephant in the room is that what was considered normal in Greece is what we would instantly call predatory pedophilia today.
    So, N. word, mad women in the attic, commonplace anti-semitism, sexually predatory slavery and bathhouse culture — these are all true to times and places in the past. What dream can we weave for younger readers that is true to those times and places but does not abuse our intended audience? What are the boundaries?