Historical fiction is tough.
Too often the fiction takes a back seat to the history, and readers are drowned in detail or left feeling vaguely cheated by secondary characters who flesh out the story but whose experiences seem to cover a laundry list of additional details.
This is not to say that historical fiction can’t make for a darn good read, but the gap between a darn good read for an hour (or five) and a book you want to raise above all others with a shiny sticker is actually a pretty big one.
Take Martha Brooks’s Queen of Hearts, which received two starred reviews and came up in comments as a book worth looking at for the Printz.
It held my interest. It made me cry. It also prompted me to do quite a bit of reading on tuberculosis (just how does deflating a lung help anything, ever, anyway?) But in the end, the novel struck me as a little bit flat. The spunky oldest sister, the frail younger brother, the romance that blooms in the midst of terrible circumstances: haven’t we read this before? What I haven’t read before is the history, but the strength of a novel should not be the real world events it uses as a basis. Historical fiction that is history first lacks something critical necessary for recognition in the context of the Printz award.
I read this ages ago, long before this blog came into being, and initially dismissed it from my Printz considerations: it’s a sequel—in fact, it’s the middle book of a trilogy—it’s a family epic, and although I adored the first one, I have to concede it was a bit soap operatic.
Only then I found myself pointing to this volume as an example of historical fiction not drowning under the weight of its own research, and Kirkus gave it a nod as a best book of 2011, and I reconsidered everything I thought I thought.
And what I’ve realized after a second read is that it’s brilliant. It’s chock-full of historical information and lots and lots of it could be exposition heavy, but the conceit of the novel being the journal of Sophie, previously sheltered but bright and observant, allows all of the history to be real and immediate without swallowing the characters or the story.
So let me gush a little.
Sophie’s diary feels real: the slightly self-conscious way she writes, as if she has some sense that someone might someday read it. The way she slips between serious and frivolous; her slightly jumbled sense of the world: she is trying so hard to make sense of the insanity that is Europe on the eve of World War II. Sophie is at the heart of this gem of a book, and it’s really her voice that makes everything work. As someone who kept a journal for most of my adolescence, I was struck by how genuinely teen-aged it sounds. There is wisdom and some idiocy, there is real pain and there is posturing. The see-saw of emotions, the attempt to bring order to life by writing it all down are exactly what a teenaged girl’s diary always sounds like, whether it’s the 90’s or the 30’s.
The setting! The FitzOsbornes are the perfect lens through which to see the last days of English aristocratic glory: royalty themselves, but slightly out of step due to their unusual upbringing. This allows Cooper, through Sophie, to bring England to life with lots of details and lots of observations about all sorts of things, from fashion to social customs to education and politics. The social status of the FitzOsborne family also means that we as readers get to “meet” everyone under the sun: Churchill and the Kennedys, to name a few of the most famous. Over on Goodreads a few reviews I skimmed across raised this as an absurdity, but from everything I know about high society in England at the time, it’s absolutely reasonable to think that anyone who was anyone would have met anyone else who was anyone, and the interjection of one fictional family into otherwise fairly accurate history brings the whole world delightfully to life.
The characters! Not only are they lively and splendid in their own rights, they serve to explore some really gritty issues, in ways that feel natural, because Sophie’s (Cooper’s) writing makes everyone feel so real, with the possible exception of too-spunky-for-words little sister Henry. The explorations of gender and homosexuality: why are other books pulling their punches? Toby and Veronica and Simon, all of whom we see perhaps through rose-colored glasses, allow for reflections both ex- and implicit on same sex relationships, the power of privilege and the obligations of power, the rights of women, and more. The use of actual historical persons as characters also means that secondary characters are the history and thus never have to be flattened to allow historical explication.
Have I convinced you yet, readers?
Because this is what historical fiction should be: glorious storytelling full of real characters and real history, all tied up together so smoothly that you can’t remember where fiction leaves off and history begins, or where the history ends and the fiction takes over.
But in the end, the question that matters here is: Does this stand a chance?
I fear not: the reasons I initially dismissed this (second volume; soap-opera worthy plotlines from the first book that carry over despite the ever more serious narrative as war approaches; lack of critical attention to force a second look) are all likely impediments. But I hope the committee is looking at this one, and I certainly think this the best historical fiction I’ve read this year (even if everyone else is likely to give that honor to Between Shades of Gray).
So, if you haven’t tread this one yet, get cracking. And if you have, do let me know how much you agree with me. (Or not. But of course, I’d rather you agreed, because I want this series to get more loving.)
Pub details: Queen of Hearts, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, August 2011, reviewed from final copy; The FitzOsbornes in Exile, Knopf Books for Young Readers, April 2011, reviewed from ARC.