Depending on whom you ask, the Search for Truth can be an elusive prey. Do we find it in the Historian’s facts or in the Philosopher’s Idealities? The Historical Novelist certainly employs facts and ideas, but what he aims to demonstrate is how an event felt to a character, thus allowing the reader to experience it vicariously. For example, how did it feel to be a black child during the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham?
This is the question that Tony Grooms, novelist and professor of creative writing, asked himself in Bombingham, for which he received the Lillian Smith Prize for Fiction. An angry foot soldier trying to survive in Viet Nam, Walter Burke remembers May of 1963, when he and his friend Lamar joined the Children’s Crusade to march to downtown Birmingham to meet the mayor. Instead, they were met with fire hoses and police dogs, under the direction of Police Chief “Bull” Connor. Walter still grapples with his conflicts from that summer—his mother’s dying from cancer, his father’s collapse into alcoholism, the loss of his best friend Lamar, and, now, from his own shooting of a “papa-san” running for cover through a rice paddy–as he struggles to write a letter to the parents of an army buddy killed in a firefight. What he comes to understand is this truth: “how difficult it is to be moral.”
Of course, historical novels are more than big truths—they have a sense of historical setting. But how far back in time they should go is debatable. Some say 100 years; some, 50. To me this argument sounds like trying to decide if a piece of furniture is “antique” or “vintage.” Tony’s position is that there is no magic number. “The event must be long enough ago that, as a culture, we can reflect on it,” he says, as opposed to the present from which we have no distance.
Another question: how factual must the historical setting be, how much can it “play” with the facts and still remain true to the event? Let’s start with world building. Literary agent Kate McKean says the historical novelist does not have to show “the expected, the mundane things,” details that a reader could imagine. And even the facts themselves may be distorted. “The Lying Art of Historical Fiction” distinguishes between telling lies and making mistakes: “A lie is intentional and purposeful; a mistake is accidental and sometimes unforgivable.” An intentional lie might be writing dialogue in somewhat modernized English. Lynn Cullen addressed this issue in her recent novel, Mrs. Poe: “While I knew that I had to modernize my characters’ speech or risk putting my readers to sleep, I was true to the time period by using only words in use in 1845. I fudged on one word: shanghaied,” she admits. “I felt no other word would do in that sentence.”
According to “The Lying Art,” an example of a forgivable mistake is seen in Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. There, he has people of low status eating a regular breakfast, when such people would normally eat only one meal a day; however, the article continues, “the book is so well thought through in other respects that the breakfast issue becomes a minor quibble.”
But there are facts that are not quibbles, deeper facts, essential truths. Tony Grooms discusses the problem of what he calls “the white redemption novel,” a well-known example: The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Another such novel is Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund . The four spirits are the four little girls killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. For Tony, the unforgivable mistake is that Naslund has a white character lead a group of blacks to a sit-in demonstration. (White people did not lead any demonstrations.) He says that her book “claims agency,” where there was none. An accurate way to portray white involvement? Include the Rev. Bob Graetz, a white Lutheran minister, whose house was bombed, or Clifford and Virginia Durr, white lawyers in Montgomery, who participated in, but did not lead the bus boycott.
The “white redemption novel” illustrates the conflict between American myth and American history. Most of us are probably old enough to remember the silence in our US history textbooks on topics such as the horrors of slavery and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. I’ll never forget my shock reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, the Native American version of How the West Was Won. No, American history, like American literature, used to be the province of Dead White Men.
Tony Grooms knows about hard historical truths. In fact, he is a kind of historical figure himself. As a child in Virginia in 1967, he participated in the Freedom of Choice Plan, meaning that he attended a white public school to achieve partial integration. (He notes the irony that this wasn’t his freedom of choice, but his parents’.) And he continues to confront hard choices—some would say “bleak”—in his writing, most recently The Vain Conversation, a novel about lynching, and his work-in-progress, the story of African American deserters who fled to Sweden during the Viet Nam War.
Tony calls himself an optimist, though. He’s optimistic that we are brave enough to face our history. “Most people try to do the right thing,” he says, “but getting out of our comfort zone is hard.” In his American Studies class, at Kennesaw State University, he has his students examine novels, film, and other art forms that confront history’s hard truths. He says, “It takes a certain kind of bravery to want to know.”
What novels have you read that did an especially good job of putting you “in the moment” of the historical period?