Rewriting History

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What is at stake here is the truth.

This is great fun, if you are 12 or 13, or if you read it as fantasy, but I have to wonder about the reviewers. Kirkus called the book "well researched"—on ships, perhaps, but not, I think, on probability theory, or even human development. Unless she falls off a mast or a spar or a bowsprit, Charlotte will be 14, then 15...and then what?

Catherine, Called Birdy (a 1995 Newbery Honor Book), by Karen Cushman, is a brave excursion into medieval social history through the diary of a 14-year-old who questions nearly everything that governed the lives of medieval people in general and of women in particular. Birdy's world seems real enough—it is rough and dirty and uncomfortable most of the time, even among the privileged classes. Her feisty independence is perhaps believable, as is her objection to being "sold like a parcel" in marriage to add to her father's status or land. However, those were the usual considerations in marriage among the land-holding classes, for sons as well as daughters, and Birdy's repeated resistance might have drawn much harsher punishment than she got. The 15th-century Paston letters record what happened to a daughter who opposed her mother about a proposed match: "She has since Easter [three months before this letter] been beaten once in the week or twice, sometimes twice in one day, and her head broken in two or three places." As the historian of the Paston papers points out, "The idea that children...had any natural rights was almost impossible to a medieval mind. Children were just chattels...entirely at the direction and disposal of their fathers." If this attitude applied to sons, it applied even more to daughters.

Cushman sticks to historical reality while Birdy considers and discards the few alternatives to marriage she can think of—running away, becoming a goatkeeper, joining a monastery. But once her heroine agrees (for altruistic reasons) to her father's final, awful choice for her, Cushman quickly supplies an exit. The intended husband dies, so Birdy can marry his son, who, fortunately, is heir to the land and thereby meets her father's purposes. The son is, of course, young and educated where his father was old, ugly, and illiterate. Even granting that life is unpredictable, so fortuitous an escape strains the framework. In fairness, I think Cushman knew this; she just flinched at consigning her likable character to her likely fate.

And therein lies the difficulty I find with these—and many other—historical novels of the past 20 years. They evade the common realities of the societies they write about. In the case of novels about girls or women, authors want to give their heroines freer choices than their cultures would in fact have offered. To do that, they set aside the social mores of the past as though they were minor afflictions, small obstacles, easy—and painless—for an independent mind to overcome.

In the case of novels about girls or women, authors want to give their heroines freer choices than their cultures would in fact have offered.

To see authors vaulting blithely over the barriers women lived with for so long brings to mind Anna Karenina. Anna's is the story these contemporary writers don't want to tell. When she left her husband and child for Vronsky, Anna suffered all the sanctions her society imposed on women who defied its rules. Whether the reader, or, for that matter, the author, believed that the rules were unfair or the sanctions too harsh is irrelevant. Tolstoy was telling the story of a woman who lived when and where she lived, who made the choices she made and who was destroyed by the consequences.

It isn't that contemporary writers of historical fiction do not research the topics and the times they have chosen. They do, and they often include information about those facts and about the sources they have used. Yet many narratives play to modern sensibilities. Their protagonists experience their own societies as though they were time-travelers, noting racism, sexism, religious bigotry, and outmoded beliefs as outsiders, not as people of and in their cultures. So Birdy, though she approaches her first experience with Jews with all the outlandish prejudices of her society, overcomes them instantly. So Sarah insists on wearing overalls when it suits her, and her future husband accepts not only this, but all her nonconformities, without question, let alone objection. A ship crew's acquiescence to a 13-year-old girl's decision to join them as a working sailor—in 1832—hardly needs comment.

And so, too, Ann Rinaldi's novel about the 1692 Salem witch hysteria, A Break With Charity (1992), in which all the significant characters are outsiders, one way or another, and all hold views closer to 20th- rather than to 17th-century norms. No sympathetic character in this novel really believes in witches, though many 17th-century people did. Cotton Mather—who indeed took witchcraft seriously—appears once, wrapped in a black cloak, an onlooker at one of the hangings and the embodiment of evil. Puritanism was, and is, an ambiguous, complex, enduring influence on American culture; to picture it as simply evil or alien is to ignore the historical truth.

Didacticism dies hard in children's literature. Today's publishers, authors, and reviewers often approach historical fiction for children as the early 19th century did—as an opportunity to deliver messages to the young. Bending historical narrative to modern models of social behavior, however, makes for bad history, and the more specific the model, the harder it is to avoid distorting historical reality. The current pressure to change old stereotypes into "positive images" for young readers is not only insistent but also highly specific about what the desirable image is, and often untenable. If the only way a female protagonist can be portrayed is as strong, independent, and outspoken, or, to take a different example, if slaves must always be shown as resistant to authority, and if these qualities have to be overt, distortion becomes inevitable. Betty Sue Cummings' novel about the American Civil War, Hew Against the Grain (1977), establishes her heroine's strength as a credible result of wartime conditions. Her picture of slavery, however, is less easily reconciled with history. How many slaves this Virginia family owns is not clear, but the four described in any detail are all free-thinking and outspoken—"Elijah neither looked nor acted like a slave"—and the two younger ones, at least, can read. The odds against such a situation in Virginia on the eve of the Civil War were considerable. More important, however politically acceptable it is, this kind of idealization glosses over the real price slaves paid for slavery.

Today's publishers, authors, and reviewers often approach historical fiction for children as the early 19th century did—as an opportunity to deliver messages to the young.

What is at stake here is truth. It can't, of course, be true, and wasn't, that all or even most slaves and women rebelled openly, let alone successfully, against the legal and social limitations put upon them. Moreover, resistance takes a variety of forms, not all of them straightforward, some of them not even conscious. A literature about the past that makes overt rebellion seem nearly painless and nearly always successful indicts all those who didn't rebel: It implies, subtly but effectively, that they were responsible for their own oppression.

Strength, too, has more than one face. As Louisa May Alcott judged it when she wrote Little Women, Mrs. March was a powerful figure, well in control of herself and what the 19th century called the "woman's sphere." Today's feminism understandably disparages Marmee's kind of power, but that doesn't change the fact that it existed. Writers who impose 20th-century formula feminism on narratives set in the 1860s only ensure that readers will not learn what readers of Little Women learn about the structures and strategies of 19th-century society.

Formulas deny the complexity of human experience and often the reality of it, as well. Most people in most societies are not rebels; in part because the cost of nonconformity is more than they want to pay, but also because as members of the society they share its convictions. Most people are, by definition, not exceptional. Historical fiction writers who want their protagonists to reflect 20th-century ideologies, however, make them exceptions to their cultures, so that in many a historical novel the reader learns nearly nothing—or at least nothing sympathetic—of how the people of a past society saw their world. Characters are divided into right—those who believe as we do—and wrong; that is, those who believe something that we now disavow. Such stories suggest that people of another time either understood or should have understood the world as we do now, an outlook that quickly devolves into the belief that people are the same everywhere and in every time, draining human history of its nuance and variety.

But people of the past were not just us in odd clothing. They were people who saw the world differently; approached human relationships differently; people for whom night and day, heat and cold, seasons and work and play had meanings lost to an industrialized world. Even if human nature is much the same over time, human experience, perhaps especially everyday experience, is not. To wash these differences out of historical fictions is not only a denial of historical truth but also a failure of imagination and understanding that is as important to the present as to the past.

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