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Rewriting History

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By distorting the past to fit modern notions of right and wrong, authors of children's historical fiction do readers more harm than good.

I expect we can all agree that historical fiction should be good fiction and good history. If we leap over the first briar patch by calling good fiction an "interesting narrative with well-developed characters," we are still left with the question of what, exactly, good history is. Alas, there are nearly as many thorns here as there are among the briars. The German historian Leopold von Ranke said that writing history was saying "what really happened"—but according to whom? Writers of history select, describe, and explain historical evidence—and thereby interpret. Not only will the loser's version of the war never match the winner's, but historical interpretations of what happened, and why, are also subject to endless revision over time. A transforming event of the past—say, the American Revolution—can be understood as a social, economic, or intellectual movement; as avoidable or inevitable; as a tragedy of misunderstanding or a triumph of liberty.

Historical revisionism makes its way into historical fiction, of course, including that written for children, usually in response to changing social climates. Esther Forbes wrote Johnny Tremain, her famous novel of the American Revolution, in the early 1940s, when the United States had recently entered the maelstrom of World War II. Forbes' story took the traditional, Whig view that the Revolution was a struggle for political freedom, fought, as one of her characters said, so that "a man can stand up." The parallel Forbes saw with a contemporary war against political tyranny was implied but clear. A generation later, James and Christopher Collier's My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974) and Robert Newton Peck's Hang for Treason (1976) saw the same history through a different lens. Writing in a time of passionate division over a modern war, these authors looked back to the American Revolution and saw not idealism but the coercion, hypocrisy, cruelty, and betrayal that are part of any war in any country. In the Colliers' story, the success of the Revolution had to be weighed against the suffering it inflicted on ordinary people: "I keep thinking that there might have been another way, beside war, to achieve the same end." Peck looked behind the heroic legend of Ethan Allen and his band of Green Mountain Boys and found more greed for land than hunger for liberty and renegade tactics as barbarous as any tyrant's. In Peck's telling, Allen's brand of irregular warfare was terrorism, not a noble struggle for liberty.

Revisionist history is still history, subject to normal standards of demonstrable historical evidence and sound reasoning. While the novels I've named approach the American Revolution from different points of view, they are firmly grounded in documented evidence. Different as they are in emphasis and attitude, all three stay within the bounds of 18th-century American social history. None ignores known historical realities to accommodate political ideology.

Historical novels of the past 20 years evade the common realities of the societies they write about.

A good many recent historical novels for children do. Children's literature, historical as well as contemporary, has been politicized over the past 30 years; new social sensibilities have changed the way Americans view the past. Feminist re-readings of history and insistence by minorities on the importance—and the difference—of their experience have made authors and publishers sensitive to how their books portray people often overlooked or patronized in earlier literature. The traditional concentration on boys and men has been modified; more minorities are included, and the experience of ordinary people—as opposed to movers and shakers—gets more attention. American historical literature, including children's, takes a less chauvinistic approach to American history than it once did, revising the traditional chronicle of unbroken upward progress.

However, amid the cheers for this enlightenment are occasional murmurs of doubt—and there ought to be more. Too much historical fiction for children is stepping around large slabs of known reality to tell pleasant but historically doubtful stories. Even highly respected authors snip away the less attractive pieces of the past to make their narratives meet current social and political preferences. Many of these novels have been given high marks: "an authentic story," "fine historical fiction," say the reviews. Many are on recommended lists, and some have won awards. As fiction, the accolades may be earned; as history, they raise some questions.

Patricia MacLachlan's Sarah, Plain and Tall won the Newbery Medal in 1986. It is a simple, warmhearted tale, as popular with children as with adults, which cannot be said of every Newbery winner. The setting is a 19th-century farm on the American prairie, though exactly where and when is unspecified. As there is no mention of farm machinery, and because there is a reference to plowing a new field in the prairie, the period would seem to be the 1870s or 1880s. Sarah, an unmarried young woman, answers a newspaper ad and travels from Maine to the Midwest to stay with a widowed man and his two children for a month. The understanding is that if all goes well, she and the father will marry. If not, she will return to Maine. She comes alone and stays in the house with no other woman present.

The realities of 19th-century social mores are at odds with practically this entire scenario. It was unusual (though not impossible) for a woman to travel such distances alone, and much more than unusual for her to stay with a man not related to her without another woman in the house. Had she done so, it is unlikely that she could have returned home afterward with her reputation intact. MacLachlan has said that her story is based on a family experience a couple of generations ago, and I have no reason to question that. Even so, the story as told is highly uncharacteristic of its time and place.

They set aside the social mores of the past as though they were minor afflictions, small obstacles, easy for an independent mind to overcome.

Besides bypassing the usual social strictures of the time, the novel also glides lightly over a basic reality of farm life in the last century: work. More than work, in fact—toil, a word that has all but disappeared from modern vocabularies. Hamlin Garland, who grew up on farms in Wisconsin and Iowa in the 1860s and 1870s, wrote about his experience in A Son of the Middle Border. Again and again, Garland describes the constant labor of a farm family's life. A farm asked a great deal of boys and men, yet women's work, Garland thought, was even more relentless. "Being a farmer's wife in those days meant laboring outside any regulation of the hours of toil...a slavish round with never a full day of leisure, with scarcely an hour of escape from the tugging hands of children and the need of mending and washing clothes...from the churn to the stove, from the stove to the bedchamber, and from the bedchamber back to the kitchen, day after day, year after year, rising at daylight or before, and going to her bed only after the evening dishes were washed and the stockings and clothing mended for the night." Even when machinery began to lighten the men's work, "the drudgery of the housewife's dishwashing and cooking did not correspondingly lessen."

Though no one expects a child's book to be a litany of toil, work was so central to daily life on a farm that one does expect to see it treated as more than incidental. As Laura Ingalls Wilder tells it in her Little House stories, the work people did amounted to events in a child's life, as indeed they were; the cheesemaking and the building of a new door were as memorable for Laura as Pa's fiddling. In Sarah, Plain and Tall, on the other hand, work is named but not described; somehow it is manageable enough to give Sarah leisure to lie in the fields admiring nature or making daisy chains for the children. And there is an interchange of jobs between Sarah and the farmer-father that is more New Age than 19th century. Papa bakes bread; Sarah helps to reshingle a roof and learns, under Papa's tutelage, to plow. While none of this was impossible, neither was it typical. Division of labor on a farm was a matter of practicality as well as custom. Papa would not often have been in the house enough to tend bread, and Sarah would have plenty to do without taking up plowing. As for farm children, their work was essential and by no means light. As one woman wrote, "Sometimes I would lie down on my sack and want to die....[But] it was instilled in us that work was necessary. Everybody worked; it was a part of life, for there was no life without it."

Avi's The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle was a Newbery Honor Book in 1991, praised enthusiastically in many reviews. A "thrilling tale," one said, and that's true—it's a fine vicarious adventure story. It is also preposterous. The reader is asked to believe that in 1832, a 13-year-old girl boards a sailing ship to go from England to America, joins the crew of hard-bitten sailors (all with hearts more or less of gold), performs surpassingly difficult feats of physical strength and daring under the eye of a villainous captain who hates her, and not only survives (sexually unsullied, of course) but becomes captain of the ship. Home at last, she tries out conventional life with her parents for a week or so and finds it restrictive—unsurprisingly—so she climbs out of the window and returns to her old ship as crew.

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