word craft


History as Story

I’m a believ­er in what the philoso­pher George San­tayana once wrote: “Those who can­not remem­ber the past are con­demned to repeat it.”

Con­sid­er the word, HISTORY. Embed­ded in it is the word, sto­ry. So, it is not a sur­prise that in a recent review of the book, Mak­ing His­to­ry by Richard Cohen, an account of how his­to­ry has been writ­ten, the review­er, Louis Menand, sub­ti­tled his review with the state­ment, “How­ev­er fas­tid­i­ous they may be about facts, his­to­ri­ans are engaged in sto­ry­telling, not science.”

And his­to­ry, as sto­ry, matters.

Short­ly before the Ukraine war, I read news accounts about how the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment was sup­press­ing a Russ­ian orga­ni­za­tion that com­piled sto­ries of the Stal­in­ist era. If you read any of the state­ments by Putin pri­or to the inva­sion, he jus­ti­fied the war by telling a sto­ry about Ukraine so as to insist it had no legit­i­ma­cy as an inde­pen­dent sov­er­eign country.

And in our own coun­try these days there are many news accounts telling how text­books are being chal­lenged because of the nar­ra­tives they offer about Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Not just old his­to­ry. The way you under­stand the his­to­ry of the 2020 US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion may well explain how you act today.

His­to­ry mat­ters. A lot.

It should come as no sur­prise that I think one of the best ways of shar­ing, teach­ing, and enlarg­ing one’s knowl­edge of his­to­ry is with his­tor­i­cal fiction.

That’s par­tic­u­lar­ly so with young readers.

Broad­ly speak­ing, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion is a lit­er­ary form of nar­ra­tive set in the past, which may, more or less, hew to his­tor­i­cal facts.

His­tor­i­cal fic­tion came into Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture with Sir Wal­ter Scott’s (1814) nov­el Waver­ley, which was wide­ly laud­ed and imitated.

But in order to write his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, the nov­el­ist should do a fair amount of research. I know I do.

For my recent­ly pub­lished book, Loy­al­ty, I need­ed to do a great deal of research to gath­er as many facts as I could even as the human sto­ry I told was fic­tion. My goal was to share Rev­o­lu­tion­ary his­to­ry with young peo­ple in a more inclu­sive way than, say, John­ny Tremain, which was writ­ten almost eighty years ago. I was try­ing to do what E. L. Doc­torow sug­gest­ed: “The his­to­ri­an will tell you what hap­pened. The nov­el­ist will tell you what it felt like.”

Hope­ful­ly, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion is one of the most intrigu­ing forms of lit­er­ary enter­tain­ment, which also offers new ways to remem­ber, teach and learn.

Again: “Those who can­not remem­ber the past are con­demned to repeat it.”

2 thoughts on “History as Story”

  1. I’m an adult who loves your books. I’ve read so many, begin­ning when my kids were small, then lat­er as a mid school lib’n. I had a whole shelf of your books. I focus on WWII with my books, based on inter­views with vets. I appre­ci­ate the research you put into your his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. Real­ly loved Char­lotte Doyle. Thanks for your con­tri­bu­tions to our kids’ read­ing for so long.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.