Histories and Historical Novels

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Over the last few years, I’ve read a lot of 18th and 19th century North American history. In the very old days, I was a career historic archaeologist, so I have some professional background in history, but an archaeologist is not an historian by training or experience. As I went about reading this American history, I learned something that most non-historian Americans find unbelievable. So unbelievable that I won’t tell you now, other than that it has to do with Donald Trump and his followers. Maybe we can discuss it another time.

I’ve always liked historical fiction as well as history, and I’m starting to work on a project that puts the two together: a list of accessible histories (books written by historians who are good writers) and parallel (maybe even matched-up) novels that may be reasonable representations of the past. The novels are a challenge in this project. A book can be a good novel but a lousy history. Also, what do we do with historical science fiction or fantasy, that might involve a good description of some bygone era or culture, but that includes aliens or ghosts? (Time machines probably don’t present this problem, in and of themselves.)

By and large, I expect that most novels are not good representations of our past. I believe culture can vary dramatically across time and space. A 20th century account of the 17th century (anywhere) or a contemporary account of a very different region of the world (or neighborhood) is likely to be written to be understandable and relatable. That may require significant shifts in nuance and context, expectations and norms. By sticking with work covering time periods that are not too far in the past, and on the North American Continent, this problem is somewhat reduced. Or, made worse, because our own history, as quasi-scholarly work or as fiction, is bound to be biased in ways that get around our own BS filters. One way to pretend to avoid that is to include more work by women, non-white people, and stories about someone other than white men. That does not really remove all biases, but it makes us feel better, and that is what is important, right?

The following is a first draft of a list (with links*) of some of the fiction items in this project.

Colonial era

Caleb’s Crossing: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks (author of one of my favorite novels, People of the Book). Bethia Mayfield is a restless and curious young woman growing up in Martha’s vineyard in the 1660s amid a small band of pioneering English Puritans. At age twelve, she meets Caleb, the young son of a chieftain, and the two forge a secret bond that draws each into the alien world of the other. Bethia’s father is a Calvinist minister who seeks to convert the native Wampanoag, and Caleb becomes a prize in the contest between old ways and new, eventually becoming the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. Inspired by a true story and narrated by the irresistible Bethia, Caleb’s Crossing brilliantly captures the triumphs and turmoil of two brave, openhearted spirits who risk everything in a search for knowledge at a time of superstition and ignorance.

Colonial Era and beyond

These novels start in the Colonial area then continue, epic fashion:

Chesapeake: A Novel by James Michener (a classic, needs no introduction) and New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd (also a classic).

Revolution and Federal Era

Someone Knows My Name: A Novel, originally published as The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill is the story of an African woman who is abducted as a girl in her native village and sold in to American slavery. Her subsequent story is complex and fascinating. I think this book is underappreciated in the United States because Americans can’t handle the name. The author, who is Black and Canadian, explains the title: “”I used The Book of Negroes as the title for my novel, in Canada, because it derives from a historical document of the same name kept by British naval officers at the tail end of the American Revolutionary War. It documents the 3,000 blacks who had served the King in the war and were fleeing Manhattan for Canada in 1783. Unless you were in The Book of Negroes, you couldn’t escape to Canada. My character, an African woman named Aminata Diallo whose story is based on this history, has to get into the book before she gets out.”

I am putting these two novels I’ve not read (but plan to) here because they belong here and maybe you will tell ME about them.

I, Eliza Hamilton by Susan Holloway Scott “In this beautifully written novel of historical fiction, bestselling author Susan Holloway Scott tells the story of Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Eliza—a fascinating, strong-willed heroine in her own right and a key figure in one of the most gripping periods in American history.”

and

My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamole. From the New York Times bestselling authors of America’s First Daughter comes the epic story of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton–a revolutionary woman who, like her new nation, struggled to define herself in the wake of war, betrayal, and tragedy. In this haunting, moving, and beautifully written novel, Dray and Kamoie used thousands of letters and original sources to tell Eliza’s story as it’s never been told before–not just as the wronged wife at the center of a political sex scandal–but also as a founding mother who shaped an American legacy in her own right.
Antebellum

Civil War, Mid-19th Century

There is approximately one gazillion novels set in the US that have something to do with the Civil War, so this is a very much narrowed down list. I won’t make it bigger until some of the other time periods are better covered. Ultimately, there are probably two or three dozen excellent novels in this era, which perhaps can be divided into categories like “the Civil War is actually in the novel” vs. “The Civil War just ended but the smoke still rises from the ashes,” and also, along gender or ethnic lines.

The March: A Novel by E.L. Dostorow. In 1864, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman marched his sixty thousand troops through Georgia to the sea, and then up into the Carolinas. The army fought off Confederate forces, demolished cities, and accumulated a borne-along population of freed blacks and white refugees until all that remained was the dangerous transient life of the dispossessed and the triumphant. In E. L. Doctorow’s hands the great march becomes a floating world, a nomadic consciousness, and an unforgettable reading experience with awesome relevance to our own times.

Late 19th Century, Turn of the Century

Little Big Man: A Novel by Thomas Berger is said by some to be one of the most underappreciated American novels. One reason may be that the literati saw no need to appreciate a Western. Another may be that Berger eschewed the establishment in the publishing world. It is, of course, the story that is told by a very old man who may or may not be an unreliable narrator of his life wafting back and forth between being a white settler/cowboy/gambler/gun slinger/guide vs. a Native warrior, husband, and student of a great shaman. This book was made into what may be one of the great movies of the 20th century. It is also, sadly, the only contribution I can find that involves Native Americans that I’d recommend. Still looking.

A Study in Scarlet: A 1887 detective novel written by Arthur Conan Doyle marking the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, who would … most famous detective duo in popular fiction. by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You may not think of a Sherlock Holmes story as an historical novel. Well, it really isn’t because it is a bit more of a contemporary novel. But that was then, and it was set in the American West. I have to add this caveat: I’m not sure if this book is the sort of insightful and real look at a particular historcial time period as the other novels discussed here. But it is a classic, and I wanted to include it simply because if you nave not read it, you now must do so! Wikipedia actually has a nice summary of the conversation over Doyle’s coverage of the Mormons. Do not, that he was an historian as much as he was a detective story writer. But not of that time or subject necessarily.

Beloved by Toni Morrison. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement.

Ultimately I want this list to go up to and include World War II. I am not short of entries for that period, but I’ll get to that later.

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
*Please note:
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2 thoughts on “Histories and Historical Novels

  1. Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr. –
    https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Two_Years_Before_the_Mast

    In the book, which takes place between 1834 and 1836, Dana gives a vivid account of “the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is”. He sails from Boston to South America and around Cape Horn to California. Dana’s ship was on a voyage to trade goods from the United States for the Mexican colonial Californian California missions’ and ranchos’ cow hides. They traded at the ports in San Diego Bay, San Pedro Bay, Santa Barbara Channel, Monterey Bay, and San Francisco Bay.

    You get a real idea of what life was like along their route – told like a novel, but completely historical.

    Dana arrived in Alta California when it was a province of Mexico, and no longer Spanish colonial Las Californias. He gives descriptions of landing at each of the ports up and down the California coast as they existed then. The ports served (south to north) the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, Mission San Juan Capistrano, Pueblo de Los Angeles (and Mission San Gabriel Arcángel), Mission Santa Barbara (and Presidio of Santa Barbara), Presidio of Monterey, and Presidio of San Francisco with their very small settlements and surrounding large Mexican land grant ranchos. He also describes the coastal indigenous peoples, the Mexican Californios’ culture, and the immigrants’ and traders’ influences from other locales.

  2. A much better (and more culturally interesting) novel of the civil war era is Kevin Baker’s Paradise Alley. It focuses on a black family in New York City before and during the draft riots of 1863. Baker also illuminates the competing private fire fighting companies of the time, one of which sent a kid out immediately upon a fire alarm to put a barrel over the hydrant so other companies couldn’t find it. First company to hook up to the hydrant got paid for putting the fire out. Good reason to privatize everything, right?

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