In Ann Weisgarber’s marvelous novel The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, there is an unforgettable moment when the outside world intrudes on what is, up to that point, a family drama. The novel is set in post–World War I South Dakota: an African-American family struggles to survive amid harsh conditions, loneliness, and unpleasant secrets. Then suddenly the larger historical context makes itself felt. A letter arrives from Rachel’s sister in Chicago with the news that their brother Johnny has been killed in the East St. Louis race riot.
The news precipitates the novel’s final crisis. Rachel must decide whether to stay and face an uncertain life in the Badlands or return to Chicago to heal her family and herself:
I pictured him bent over a piano, his long fingers barely touching the keys. I saw a swinging baseball bat smack the back of Johnny’s head, knocking him into the front of a brown upright piano, its wood scarred with cigarette burns. Sheets of music scattered as the last notes that Johnny ever played crashed under his collapsed weight.
Historical novels are not history, nor are they meant to be, but the historical novelist has something valuable to contribute to our understanding of past events. We turn to historical fiction not for a comprehensive understanding of an era or event but for a sense of what the lived experience of that era would have been like; not for what happened but for how it felt.
Ron Rash’s The Cove, for example, is not about World War I in the usual sense. The novel takes place on the home front, in the year 1918. But the war permeates every page of the book, from the wounded veteran to the runaway internee to the troublemaking recruiter. A lesser-known incident from that war—the seizure and repurposing of the German passenger liner Vaterland and the interning of its passengers and crew—casts light on the labyrinthine path of German-American relations in the early years of the war and reminds us that, when great powers collide, little people get crushed.
The historical novelist can compound our misunderstanding as well as clear it, unfortunately. The classic example is Gone with the Wind, which perpetuated the mythology of chivalric Southerners, docile and loyal slaves, and crass Northerners that has lasted, in some circles, to this day.
Gone with the Wind is a descendant of Thomas Dixon’s work, the most famous of which is the 1905 novel The Clansman (later dramatized as Birth of a Nation). In fact, in the year that Gone with the Wind was published, Margaret Mitchell wrote to Dixon: “I was practically raised on your books, and love them very much.”
With such powerful cultural influences shaping the minds of Americans for more than a century, it is little wonder that the current debate over the statues of Confederate Civil War leaders is rife with misconceptions, preconceptions, and superficial ideas about history. But when one encounters a historical novel that sheds new light on an era, there’s a sense of awakening, almost of revelation.
The Swedish novelist Vilhelm Moburg’s series The Emigrants depicts with breathtaking (and sometimes stomach-turning) detail the hardships and struggles of a group of emigrants as they make their way from the stony-soil farms of southern Sweden to the equally backbreaking but ultimately more prosperous terrain of eastern Minnesota. What we learn from The Emigrants is not the great sweep of the American immigration story, nor the demographic and cultural changes it brought about. What we learn is how it felt to immigrate: the hopes and fears, the family arguments, the aspirations both realistic and unrealistic, the small victories and the deep sorrows.
Historians can teach us these lessons, and sometimes they do, but in the end this is the territory of the novelist. So in a time when even the most elementary questions of history are the subject of bitter debate, and when the question of who owns our history is more acute than ever, we would be wise to pay attention not only to the reasoned assessments of the historians but also to the passionate voices of the novelists. Our understanding of history is shaped by our grasp of facts and by the creative contributions of our artists.
Steve Wiegenstein writes historical novels set in the Missouri Ozarks. His most recent is The Language of Trees (Blank Slate, 2017).