Monday, October 5, 2009

Making history come alive with literature: The importance of historical fiction

I’ve just returned from a trip to Western Australia. I was attending a conference in Fremantle just south of Perth perhaps the most isolated major city in the world. Fremantle is home to one of the most interesting museums I have visited, the Western Maritime Museum, specifically, the historic shipwrecks gallery. A central part of this museum is part of the wreck of the Batavia (see below) that floundered on uncharted rocks of the Western Australian coast on 4th June 1629. The British ship the ‘Trial’ was the first confirmed European landing on the great Southern Continent in 1620 some 150 years before Cook, but the circumstances surrounding the Batavia and the fate of its crew and passengers have made it the most famous of the early ships to stumble upon Australia’s at times treacherous coast.

The story of the Batavia is an horrific one. The ship hit Houtman’s Abrolhos Rocks off the West Australian coast on the 4th June 1629. Most of the 260 passengers and crew survived the wreck and landed safely on the barren islands nearby. The captain left the passengers and most of the crew and headed for Java in an open boat to get help. He successfully returned 14 weeks later only to find that 120 men, women and children had been brutally murdered by members of the crew and the passengers. The Captain tried the men, supervised the hanging of 7 after first cutting off their right hands. He showed mercy to two additional young men found guilty but seen as minor 'players', one a 17 year-old boy Jan Pelgrom and the other a soldier, Wouter Loos. They were marooned with a small amount of water, food and supplies.

Literature meets history

While visiting the museum I discovered Gary Crew’s book ‘Strange Objects’ (1990) in the gift shop. Crew won the 1991 Children’s Book Council Australia award for Older Readers, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Fiction Award (Crime Writers of America) for this book. Crew’s book is an example of historical fiction. He takes an historic event and tells a story that illuminates this historic event while telling a powerful story of human cruelty, suffering and survival.

The story commences in 1986 with a teenager Steven Messenger who lives with his family in a roadside truck stop in the middle of nowhere along the highway that weaves its way up the western coast of Australia. Messenger discovers some gruesome relics in a cave while on a school excursion. This begins a mysterious tale where his life is interwoven with the lives of two of the survivors of the Batavia responsible with others for the murder of the 120 people. Like many works of historical fiction, Crew uses the metaphysical encounters of one of his characters to transport us back to another time. A ring found attached to a severed hand provides a vehicle for regular time slips between his life in 1986 and the events that unfolded when Wouter Loos and Jan Pelgrom were set adrift in a small boat that gave then an outside chance of survival.

What is historical fiction?

Historical fiction offers readers a narrative that takes place during a specific (often significant) period in history. It often focuses on a specific event in the period and presents some of the actual events at the time through the presumed voices of actual people (using diary, journal, illustrative and secondary resource material) and offering a particular point of view of people living in the period. The extent of the accuracy of the historical detail varies greatly. In some historical fiction, famous events are given new points of view using characters whose voices have not been recorded in mainstream accounts. Sometimes actual events are explored in new ways, as speculation based on evidence available. At times, events and characters are invented but set within accurate historical settings, events etc. But the characters can also deal with events that are not related to historical accounts. Many other forms of artistic licence are taken as well, including inventing new characters, using new or altered names and places and creating new events. Depending on how far these accounts vary from historical accounts, they may be classified as alternate history or historical fantasy. The latter is often associated with the exploration of the metaphysical. 'Playing Beatie Bow' discussed below is an example of historical fantasy with characters, narrative and events largely invented but set within historically accurate settings and with events that were typical of the time.

Why encourage children to read historical fiction?

As I have written previously, literature can teach us a great deal (here). As well, as enjoying being lost in a good book we can learn new things about our world and the history of its people. Here are jhust some of the reasons that historical literature has value.

1. Historical fiction can illuminate history - One of the great advantages of this genre is that in presenting history through the voices of different characters and using the many devices of narrative, at times dry historical accounts can come alive. As such, the reading of a good piece of historical fiction in parallel to history can enrich our understanding.

2. It can increase children's interest in history - This flows very much from the second advantage but it is worth stating separately. Many a student has been bored by modern history (for example) when a piece of historical fiction might just have increased their interest.

3. It can highlight and make sense of the tiniest of details of history often missed in textbook reading - This brings life and excitement and can increase creativity. In this way, people are also put back into history and made real.

4. In presenting multiple perspectives it can present complex issues in multi-dimensional ways, helping us to see things for the first time - For example, when reading 'Tom Appleby Convict Boy' I was able to understand the horror of life as a chimney sweep and the cruelty of 18th century life in England in new a new richer way.

5. It connects children's learning right across the curriculum - My experience as an adult exploring contemporary Western Australia was enriched as I encountered the wreckage of the Batavia in the National Maritime Museum in Fremantle, as I toured the rugged coats and as I then read 'Strange Objects'. My learning using varied sources and senses was enriched and integrated by my reading of Crew's book.

How to choose good historical fiction?

While I'm reluctant to try to set criteria for judging good historical fiction, because even if the book does not conform to the patterns of many historical novels, the narrative alone might be worth the read. However, if you want to choose books that will enrich learning and that will appeal to the desire of some boys and girls to learn about specific historical periods you might consider the following:
Are the characters portrayed accurately, or if invented, are they consistent with the times and the events?
Are the settings real or at least authentic?
Does the narrative weave in accurate historical details and avoid stereotypes and frequently repeated myths?
Is the story well told and believable?
A few more good examples of good historical fiction

a) Playing Beatie Bow (1982) by Ruth Park

When Abigail Kirk joins in a traditional chanting game of 'Beatie Bow' in modern day Sydney she sees a mysterious urchin girl in the background and follows her. Unwittingly she stumbles into the past as she follows her up stairs and down alleys in the Rocks area of Sydney. She encounters a strange and different Sydney and finds herself walking the streets of the colony of New South Wales in 1873. Abigail is taken in by the Bow Family who believes that she is a mysterious 'Stranger' who is said in tradition to arrive to save 'The Gift' for future generations of Bows. Abigail remains in this past world to fill her role and in the process falls in love for the first time.

While this book is an authentic representation of the setting and the times, the metaphysical elements of the book probably place it in the historical fantasy sub category. Nevertheless, it is a brilliant novel for 12-16 year olds. It won the Children's Book Council Australia Award for Book of Year in 1981.

The book has been adapted for film (details here), but like so many good books, the screenplay falls well short of the quality of Park's book.

b) Number the Stars (1989) by Lois Lowry

Number the Stars is set in Denmark during World War II. Ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen is the central character, who is living in Denmark under German occupation in 1943. Her family becomes a target for the German forces as they help a Jewish family. Annemarie and her family risk their lives to help Annemarie's best friend, Ellen Rosen, by pretending that Ellen is Annemarie's older sister. The title is taken from Psalm 147 in the Bible that speaks of God's power as the one who knows and has numbered every star. It is also probably a reference to the fact that God had promised Abraham the father of the Jewish nation that he would have as many offspring as there are stars in the sky. The novel was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1990 as the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children".

The Jews of Denmark are being 'relocated', so Ellen moves in with the Johansens and becomes part of the family, but as the risk grows Annemarie is asked to go on a dangerous mission mounted by the resistance movement; a trip that is almost as dangerous as the occupation.

This is a moving and compelling book that engages the reader from the start and in the process offers an insight into the lives of many innocent Jewish families in World War II and the lengths that some went to in order to survive.

c) Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) by Scott O'Dell

Off the coast of California is a rugged rock known as the Island of San Nicholas. The seas around it are filled with dolphins, otters, sea elephants, cormorants and marine life all kinds. It was here in the early 1800's that an Indian girl spent 18 years alone. Karana has to maintain her food supply and avoid Aleutian sea-otter hunters and the perils of a pack of wild dogs that killed the brother she jumped ship to save. The spirit of this young woman and her ability to survive against all the odds offers an interesting insight into the challenges of life in another age.

This wonderful novel was O'Dell's first book and won the Newbery Medal in 1961. It is an excellent book for 10-14 year olds.

d) The Machine-Gunners (1975) by Robert Westall

Living in World War II Britain, Chas McGill has the second best collection of ware souvenirs in Garmouth and he wants to have the best. He is determined to outdo his rival Boddser Brown in obtaining the ultimate war souvenir. An opportunity comes when he finds a crashed German bomber in the woods complete with machine gun, he knows he can not only beat Boddser hands down, but can also play a role in the war. All he has to do is to remove the machine gun from the plane.

This has to be one of the best books for boys that I've read. Not surprisingly it won the highest British honour for children's literature, the Carnegie Medal in 1975. Any boy aged 10-16 years who can read will love this book.

And there are lots more....

Of course there are many more wonderful books in this genre (including many in the historical fantasy sub-category). I have far too many to review in detail, here are just a few more that are amongst my all time favourites:

Leon Garfield has written many fine examples mostly set in late 18th century England including 'Devil in the Fog' (1966), 'Black Jack' (1968) and 'Smith' (1967). He also branched out into picture books with the great Charles Keeping illustrating 'The Wedding Ghost' (1985) and Margaret Chamberlain illustrating 'Fair's Fair' (1981) and in a newer edition with Brian Hoskin as the illustrator (2001).

Allan Garner has also written a number of fine examples set in Cheshire and often stimulated by local history and legend, including 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' (1960), 'The Owl Service' (1967) and 'The Stone Book Quartet' (1978).

There are many books that deal with World War II (like 'The Machine Gunners' and 'Number the Stars') but one of my favourites is 'Summer of My German Soldier' (1974) by Bette Green and 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' (1971) by Judith Kerr (two great books for teenage girls).

'Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry' (1976) by Mildred Taylor, which won the 1977 Newbery Medal Award, tells the story of a poor African American family living in Mississippi during the Great Depression.

I'd best stop. What are some of your favourites?


Keith said...

The Batavia.
I saw the reconstruction Batavia in Sydney some years ago, very impressive. Well worth seeing.
Le Loup.

New England NSW Australia.

Catherine said...

I can't suggest any historical fiction for children that you haven't already mentioned, but I remember reading Strange Objects as a teenager and being captivated by the book. It is a book that has stayed with me even now, 15 or so years later.

Keith said...

Great children's books, Winter Danger by William O. Steel.

The Matchlock by ? (Can't recall, sorry)

Indian Summer by F.N.Monjo

Maggie Among The Seneca by Robin Moore.
Regards, Le Loup.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comments Le Loup and CatWay. Your blog looks interesting Le Loup and like you CatWay I loved 'Strange Objects'. Thanks also for the book suggestions Le Loup. Trevor

Alan said...

"Literary Advocates Redefine Their World Without Books" Read it at

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for the link Alan, it's an interesting read. The world wouldn't be the same without books. Perhaps the electronic book can take the place of paper books but I doubt it. Regards, Trevor

Unknown said...

Thank you for your blog. I teach seventh grade Language Arts in the United States and historical fiction seems to be a challenge for some of my students. They have trouble distinguishing between historical fiction (with no metaphysical aspects) and historical non-fiction when they are not told the genre before reading. My students tend to like the historical fiction that we read and they do say it contributes to their learning about the topic. I also understand that reading historical fiction helps them solidify their learning because they will share other details that they have learned about the historical event or setting. I do not know if they realize that they are embedding their learning with deeper connections.

To go along with the recommendations you made, a large number of my students have been reading the I Survived series published by Scholastic. This series includes many stories about American history events, but there are some that cover other countries (I Survived the Destruction of Pompeii, 79 AD, I Survived the Nazi Invasion, 1944, I Survived the Japanese Tsunami, 2011).

As a class, we also read the book Out of the Dust. This is a historical fiction account about the Dust Bowl in America, but it is written in the form of poetry. This adds to the content that can be discussed (figurative language, poetry structure, rhyme, etc.).