Welcome to the past: historical fiction month

What’s the first thing that springs to your mind when you hear someone say “historical fiction”?

Admit it, the first image was something from the middle ages, peasants wallowing in hovels or nobles garbed in silk and velvet, riding noble steeds or strolling down the marble halls of a palace. Or else of pirates. Or else (embarrassing, but be honest) the mental image was of some bodice ripper you saw on the shelves of a supermarket – “The Governess and the Viscount,” for example. (I’m making that title up, but I bet that if this book doesn’t exist, somebody will write it.)

There are a few major historical and geographic regions that dominate the popular conception of historical fiction – Medieval Western Europe being the main one. This narrow slice of time and place – a wonderfully rich slice of history – is far from the only past age that writers and readers have found fascinating, thank goodness! During this month, the Book Warriors plan to introduce, discuss, and query historical novels – that is, fiction set in the past written by people who did not live during the time their book is set. Historical fiction can also be set in a time in the author’s own past – think of Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, for example, or her children’s book Naomi’s Road. Sometimes the boundary between historical fiction and historical non-fiction is thin. Sometimes the boundary between historical fiction and fantasy is thin – after all, other times and other places can present such different cultures and perspectives that the addition of dragons or spirits, which may or may not have been known to be real at that time, to those human characters, hardly makes the tale any more fantastical to modern, perhaps very young readers. And, depending on the quality and depth of research, some historical fiction is closer to flat-out fantasy than to the era it supposedly represents.

Did anyone else catch the article in The Vancouver Sun last month on an interview with television’s Paul Lee? The headline was “Don’t call it diversity; call it real life,” drawing attention to Lee’s statement on the culturally diverse casts of ABC’s upcoming comedies and dramas: “It’s not so much diversity as authenticity, if you’re reflecting America.” And not only if you’re reflecting America, and not only today; as my history professors reminded their undergrad classes, human populations have been connected and engaged in exchange of goods, technologies, ideas, and other cultural products throughout history. Which makes for a lot of good stories.

Things to watch for this month:

  • Nafiza will discuss why we need diversity in realistic historical fiction, review Mercury by Hope Larson, and take a look at a title (TBA) by Patricia McKillip
  • Yash will contemplate oppressive narratives and truth-building in history
  • Steph will consider the conundrum of fact and fiction while telling history, and read the graphic novel Louis Riel
  • Janet will take a look at the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, compare medieval murder mystery series, and look at non-medieval historical tales
Happy reading!