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April 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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So what exactly is historical fiction? Well, obviously fiction about or set in the past. But the question remains, How far in the past? Before the reader was born? I don’t think so, for consider that if the reader is in his or her early teens, the past could be as recent as 2004, and I refuse to call a novel set in that year historical fiction. How about before the author was born? That’s a better measure unless the author is a wunderkind, in which case all bets are off. The British novelist of historical fiction Geoffrey Trease once opined that historical fiction must be “outside the time of living memory.” As for me, I’ve arbitrarily decided to say that any work of fiction set 50 or more years in the past qualifies. I’m personally uncomfortable about that, even though it marks half a century, because not only was I alive 50 years ago but I was already an adult, 27 years old, in fact, which makes me something of an artifact, I guess.
Well, enough about that. Here’s another question: What about the history of historical fiction? Turns out it has a proud, well, history. It began with Sir Walter Scott in the second decade of the 1800s (Waverly, his first, was published in 1814). Though published for adults, Scott’s novels were quickly appropriated by young readers of the time, and, indeed, interest in them continued to flourish throughout the nineteenth century. An 1888 survey found that Scott was the third-favorite boy’s author, with his Ivanhoe as the fourth-favorite novel. One of the first historical novels to be published for children, however, was Captain Frederick Marryat’s The Children of the New Forest (1847), which might be said to have ushered in the first age of historical fiction. The title “Captain” was not an honorific but earned, asMarryat captained his own ship in the Royal Navy.
Another prominent and influential writer of the time was Charlotte Mary Yonge, whose best-known works were The Little Duke (1854) and The Dove in the Eagle’s Nest (1866). Three years later, R. M. Ballantyne published Erling the Bold: A Tale of the Norse Sea-Kings. Two decades after that, another prominent favorite was G. A. Henty, who wrote mash-ups of adventure and historical fiction, beginning in 1881 with The Cornet of Horse: A Tale of Marlborough’s Wars. A prolific writer (he reportedly produced 6,500 words a day), he generally published four books a year and wrote some 80 in all, many of them published in the U.S. in pirated editions. In 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped appeared, a book that literary historian Humphrey Carpenter has called “arguably the masterpiece of nineteenth century children’s historical fiction.” In the same decade, Mark Twain gave eager readers in the U.S. The Prince and the Pauper (1882). Meanwhile, also in America, the popular author-illustrator Howard Pyle was producing three historical novels: Otto of the Silver Hand (1888), Men of Iron (1892), and Jack Ballister’s Fortunes (1895). Pyle was arguably more famous for his retellings of the King Arthur and Robin Hood stories, which he also illustrated to great effect.
Looked at retrospectively, the historical fiction of the nineteenth century tended to be about characters of privilege and royalty (days of old when knights were bold, anyone?). It wasn’t until the twentieth century, roughly speaking, that ordinary people and their ordinary lives became the subjects of historical fiction.
Because many of the historical novels of the nineteenth century doubled as adventure fiction, their target readership was boys. That changed in the early years of the twentieth century when a group of female authors began writing historical fiction. Included in this company were the likes of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rachel Field, Elizabeth Coatsworth, Elizabeth Janet Gray, Cornelia Meigs, Carol Ryrie Brink, and, a decade later, Esther Forbes, whose Johnny Tremain has to be included on any list of the top historical novels of the century. Yet another decade later, in England, one name led all the rest: Rosemary Sutcliff, whose novels of Roman Britain are exemplary in their research and verisimilitude.
There have been plenty of exemplary others over the years, but at some point, publishers started saying that historical fiction was hard to publish, by which I presume they meant the novels didn’t sell because kids didn’t like the genre. I can partially understand that because historical fiction is often identified with the curriculum. And yet historical fiction has had its good years in terms of numbers published. The period around the millennium was particularly productive, probably because the turn of centuries always generates a focus on the past. Another reason, I believe, was the great success of Scholastic’s Dear America and related series, which proved that historical fiction could sell.
As for now, well, consider that last year when I assembled my list of 121 best YA books of the year, only 8 were historical fiction. The news is better this year. Thus far, I’ve assembled 60 bests, of which 8 are historical fiction. Still, a modest total but, perhaps, a step in the right direction? The rest of the year will tell the tale.
And speaking of tales . . . I find it ironic that, though purportedly “hard to publish,” historical novels have routinely been winners of glittering prizes, especially the Newbery, though a handful have received Printz recognition, too: Aidan Chambers’ Postcards from No Man’s Land (2002), Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2006), and M. T. Anderson’s two Octavian Nothing novels, to name a few. Is it too much to hope that someday in the future, we might be able to match quality and quantity? If so, that would be one for the history books.
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