Is it a symptom of extreme naivete or simple egocentrism that it’s just come to my attention that there are many critics of historical fiction, and even fiction, itself?
I first got wind of this form of literary prejudice while selling my historical novel, Receive Me Falling, at an art festival last year. When a man came up to my table to ask about the genre of my book and I replied that it was historical fiction, he literally turned up his nose and said, “I never read fiction. What’s the point?”
I think I actually felt sorry for him. No wonder he was so grumpy, never having read fiction. Did he mean to imply that he never sat horse-side to the children in Narnia, tumbled down a rabbit hole, or slipped through a tesseract? Had he never snuggled up with his children and imagined traveling through a fireplace, disappearing in the ivy of a secret garden, crying over having to shoot a beloved dog, or losing an eight legged friend at the fair?
And that just touches on a few of the great moments in children’s fiction.
I tell you my understanding of slavery was never so vivid and devastating as when I read Toni Morisson’s, Beloved, where a woman would rather kill her child than send her to slavery.
Or the moment a man went from understanding his humanity to understanding his divinity in Anne Rice’s, Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana.
Or the humanizing of an entire region in the Middle East that had previously been informed by my daily dose of media dehumanization, through Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.
Or the layers of meaning behind a painting when I’d never known how to look at art, that Tracy Chevalier taught me through Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Or the devastating psychology of segregationist society on its victims in Gaines’, A Lesson Before Dying, or Stockett’s, The Help.
Or the horrors of a concentration camp through Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
I could go on all night.
Part of my love for historical fiction is that I’ve always been drawn to books that started out, “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…” But more so than that–much, much more–I value the animation of times, places, and people that helps me internalize what those simple history book or religious text sentences mean, by feeling the pain and loss, learning the lessons, and understanding the interconnectedness of all of humanity, in all of time and space.
That is the value of historical fiction, and of all fiction.