At a panel presentation at the recent SIWC, writers of historic fiction agreed that many people learn their history through fiction. How do novelists imagine the past, not as painted by the whitewash brushes of history, but as it really might have been? Research, imagination, memory.
The latest novel of Joseph Boyden unfolds a poignant and utterly believable account of the troubled personal interactions that ensue when a Jesuit priest from France lands joins a group of Hurons at war with nearby Iroquois. The author is descended from both Anishinaabe and Jesuit roots.
In The Secret River (2005), Australian author Kate Grenville portrays a colonial society that began as a penal colony. In this novel we follow a poor London couple following a brush with a harsh legal system which allows a prisoner to escape hanging by agreeing to be transported to Australia.
Once there, protagonist William Thornton must pay a high personal price for land and freedom; this casts a long shadow on his eventual success. "The great power of fiction," says Grenville, is that it's not an argument: it's a world. Inhabit it for a while...and you're likely to come out a little changed."
We definitely learn a lot about history by entering the fictional worlds created by good writers. In fact, I learned more as I drove home from the SIWC listening to Diana Gabaldon's latest novel. Her
tale portrays the complex and shifting loyalties that
characterized the North American colonial period preceding the
American Revolutionary War.