Relevance of Historical Fiction
Good afternoon. Thank you for that lovely introduction, I appreciate that. I’ve come to talk to you about the relevance of historical fiction. Is historical fiction relevant? Purists will say no, they have time only for “real” history.
Remember when we were young we were given crayons and told to create, sent outside to smell the flowers and walk through puddles? Then we grew up. They took away our crayons, sat us in a chair and handed us a boring history book. We learned names, dates, events. We need to know names, dates and events. But ladies and gentlemen, there is so much more to history.
I love history! I love research and I love to write. I especially like reading and writing historical fiction. Because I love the good, the bad, the beautiful, the shameful, the boastful, the obscure, and yes, the names, dates and events from the past; I love it all.
Well written, well researched historical fiction takes the reader into another layer, down to the skin beneath the outer coat of names, dates, and consequence. Good historical fiction gives you all that, but more. You get the human quotient: the emotion, the personality, the force that drove the event, the hurt, the joy, the frailty, the sacrifice. Good historical fiction takes you off the page and into the story, into that day; into that moment in history.
History is important because it’s who we are. Knowing where we came from helps us direct our future. We don’t have to celebrate our history, but we need to commemorate it so we don’t make the same mistakes. We’ll make our own new ones, and hope future generations will be merciful. Don’t we all believe as Ann Frank that people are basically good even when they aren’t? Most people do the best they can with what they have and know at the time. We can’t do any better than that.
When I write historical fiction, I don’t indict. I don’t look back and point fingers of blame. It is what it is; it’s history. What historical fiction does is put
The historical fiction I write is for young readers and young at heart readers. The first two books I’d like to tell you about are Avery’s Battlefield, 1861-62, and Avery’s Crossroad, 1863-85. These books have each been awarded the Stars and Flags National Book Award for military-themed books, children’s division. This is the story of Avery Junior Bennett and his hound dog Gunner. They left home in 1861 when Avery was 14. He didn’t leave to join the war, he left on a family errand. The war caught up to Avery and for the next five years he and his dog worked as doctors in the field hospitals of Richmond and Alexandria, Virginia.
Avery is the human face of the five years of our Civil War. He is the fiction. That’s not to say there wasn’t a boy like Avery; there were probably many. But it’s Avery and Gunner who glue the historical facts together with emotion, compassion and human frailty and stick it to the hearts of my young readers. They make them care about what happened. I think that’s relevant.
Brand new on the market, just two weeks old is The Mysterious Life of Jim Limber. Jim Limber was a real person. Jim Limber was an orphaned Negro child in 1864 war-ravaged Richmond , when Varina Davis saw him being abused. She took him into her home, the White House of the Confederacy, not as a servant or a slave, but as a member of the Jefferson Davis family. Her husband signed guardianship papers with a magistrate, the closest thing to adoption in 1864, which means he intended to provide for him until he was an adult. An unknown side of Jefferson Davis, isn’t it? A slaver who loves and cares for a black child; the soldier who rode in battle but crawled on the floor under his desk with his children riding on his back. This man who watched men die, is the same man who knelt by his daughter’s cradle and sang and wept. It’s a different perspective; a deeper view point.
The story of Jim Limber is one of many obscure events in history that doesn’t make it into our history books. Research for this book was done at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. Here, stacks of Varina Davis’ writings, her diaries, her journals, her private letters to friends, relatives in the north and to her husband, reveal the human side of a woman married to a slaver, the President of the Confederacy. Every day she documented what her children did, what they wore, what they said, how they played. For the last fourteen months of the Confederacy, this included Jim Limber. I even know when Jim Limber was constipated! A bit more than I needed for my book! But my point is, these are not political essays, not war strategies, or advice as the press believed, nothing traitorous, nothing a spy would write. She was a wife, a mother, doing the best she could for her family in difficult times. We empathize; we care. She is more than history.
The first third of this book is biography. Fourteen months of Jim’s life as a Davis. All historical fact recorded by Varina, archived, and told in the voice of young Jim Limber. Get ready to fall in love with this kid!
The middle third is historical fiction. It’s what this author thinks might have happened to Jim through adolescence. The final third is a choose your own ending. Or, better still, write your own ending. You see, the mystery of Jim Limber is where did he come from, where did he go? Who did he become? This is the creative side of historical fiction. I’m giving the reader his crayons back.
The book will be shelved as historical fiction. Readers will discover a new understanding of events and personalities, empathy, compassion, forgiveness. I think that’s relevant.
Last but not least, the books are fun to read and kids want to read them. That! is relevant.
My books are available wherever books are sold, and of course, I have them with me in the author tent. If you’d like to talk to me about them, or purchase a book, get it signed, come by. I’d love to meet you and talk to you.
Thank you for your kind attention. Have a wonderful day in Appomattox.