RANT OF THE WEEK: Could Historical Fiction Be Disrespectful?
News reached me yesterday about a new novel, and it gave me a chance to think about something.
It’s called Mrs. Nixon, a historical fiction about President Nixon’s wife. Slate’s Browbeat blog talked to a historian, Betty Boyd Caroli, about other First Ladies that could inspire some quality historical fiction. I’ll let them get into specifics.
What I want to speak of here is the nature of historical fiction itself. As a boy, I read the genre. I didn’t read much more or much less of it than any other genre, but I read it and I enjoyed it. Here, like in any good story, I found risk, adventure, and everything else that captivates a 5th-grader. I haven’t read as much of it since I got older, but after running into several indie authors who dabble in it, it is clear the appeal is just as strong for us grown-ups.
As a grown-up, and a history minor at Benedictine College, I have been confronted with the fact that history is no fairy-tale. This may or may not seem like a profound statement. If history truly happened, then the Holocaust should have the same impact on me as the remembrance of losing a relative to a car crash.
Well, it doesn’t. History still seems like a game to me at times. It seems detached from the world I live in right now, the world in which I’m typing this blog post. I think back to that historical fiction I read avidly as a child. It was thrilling stuff. So were the novels that claimed to have no ties to the world. What was the true difference? As a 5th-grade boy, there was none. I never took a moment to realize that there were event sin that historical fiction that had implications in my own world.
As a 5th-grader, that’s not as much of a problem. But it continues today. I struggle daily to realize that our history lectures truly are previous chapters in a story happening right here, right now. It is not merely a fascinating and entertaining study, but a gravely serious encounter with the story of humankind.
Considering all this, I must say that Mrs. Nixon sounds like a disrespectful idea. In fact, so does historical fiction in general, as an idea. Do we have the right to spice up these facts that form our heritage? Aren’t the facts compelling enough stories in and of themselves? Instead of embellishing what we already know, might we not set out instead to learn more, and to understand it?
STORYTELLER OF THE WEEK
It’s funny that we talk about historical fiction today. Our Storyteller of the Week also made a mark on history. This is Roger Casement, who forced the king of Belgium to his knees.
Casement was an Englishman whose eye was on the Belgian Congo. For years, King Leopold II of Belgium had run the place, and harvested an enviable amount of rubber. He trumpeted the coming of western civilization to the Congo. Apparently, the natives were being taught their manners, and virtues, and all sorts of wonderful things.
Whispers started to sneak around Europe that this wasn’t the case. Casement snuck into Africa to find the truth. He disguised himself as a deckhand on one of the steamboats, and saw everything that happened. The reality was brutal. The Belgians caused horrific violence on the natives to get their rubber.
Casement’s report in 1904 was a slap in King Leopold’s face. After Casement did more digging, it turned out that the king had taken money illegally to fund the operation in the first place. That was the end of that. The Belgian Parliament made sure the king’s authority over the Congo was ended.
That’s powerful storytelling, there. Give this man a salute.