I’ve thought a lot about the purpose of historical fiction and what it provides readers. I’ve always enjoyed being entertained while also learning about something new, which I had thought was enough. But recently, while listening to a podcast on history while I was driving, I kept tuning out and had to force myself back to what the person was saying, because I was interested in knowing what happened. Finally I made it through, and I thought about it. The story was interesting enough that it ought to have kept me going, so I wrote off my disinterest as having other things on my mind.
Then I realized I had no context for the story. I didn’t understand why the people did what they did, and the podcast was simply a recitation of facts, much like our children have to listen to in their history and social studies classes. The teacher drones on about Henry Ford or America’s Progressive Era, and the students are expected to memorize the facts and regurgitate them on a test. Why would they care about these long-ago people?
Of course the answer that probably came to your mind is that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, but that isn’t likely in the top 1,000,000 concerns for the average high school student these days.
But what if they knew that Henry Ford mercilessly drove his only son to his death, that he was a rabid believer in the dominion of Jewish bankers over the world, that his famous “Four-Dollar Day” was an effort to decrease employee turnover that stood at 300% a year? Or that the Progressive Era was caused by the revulsion felt by the rich and rising middle class that immigrant children were starving on the streets of the United States by the thousands, that millions were forced to beg and steal to live through another day, and the government was doing nothing for them?
That’s what we do—provide that context. Facts are cold and uninteresting to most—this war started here and ended there, this man ruled from this time to that time, etc. (And often facts aren’t facts. They were written by the side that won. But that’s another story.)
If I can immerse a reader into an immigrant’s life in 1910 Detroit as well as into the lives of the era’s wealthy, I have provided context to the social struggles that ensued. History so often provides the what, where, and when, but it usually leaves out the why, which is all-important.
Why did millions of Germans stand by and allow Hitler his atrocities? Were they bad people? No. There were complex social and historical factors at play, as well as masterful manipulation of the press. What they knew, what they believed to be true, was different than what history remembers.
Until history teachers are allowed to teach the humanness of history and not rote memorizations of fact, we have to provide the “why’s.”
That feels like a pretty useful way to spend a life.