Saturday, November 2, 2013

History from Fiction

By Jeff Burns

Historical fiction is a great way to learn history.  Done right, a novel can be just as educational as any course or textbook, and a lot more interesting.   In a great historical novel, it is evident that the author has done a lot of research in order to get details just right.  When the historical details are just right, the reader is submerged in a different time and place.  I got hooked on a few masters of the historical novel in high school; coincidentally, in those days (the 70s and 80s), many of these titles were made into television miniseries.

The “granddaddy” of them all, of course, was Alex Haley’s Roots, a fiction/non-fiction amalgam based on his own personal genealogical research.  The impact of the book and miniseries was truly phenomenal.  Their success paved the way for both the publication of more historical epics and the making of television movies and miniseries.  It sparked new interest in genealogy, especially among black Americans who saw that family research could be done;  slavery made it more difficult, perhaps, but it could be done.  Roots also stimulated national discussion about race, race relations, and the legacy of slavery, even.  In my hometown in South Georgia, where schools had only been integrated a few years before the book came out (My first grade class was the first to start school integrated.)   My parents were as riveted to the television screen as I was.


Later, I read other novels that became miniseries.  Herman Wouk’s books, Winds of War and War and Remembrance, deftly intertwined the stories of several families and real historical characters with the events of World War II and the early Cold War.  James Clavell’s Shogun took me to feudal Japan, a place and time just about as far removed from South Georgia as could be.  James Michener was the king of sweeping historical novels that told the story of whole generations over the course of hundreds of years:  Centennial, Texas, Poland,  and Space.  (He apparently also had a thing for one-word titles.)
More recently, I discovered Ken Follett, author of Pillars of the Earth  and World Without End about feudal England.  I learned more about feudalism and medieval history from reading these books than from any other source.  Follett’s attention to detail is meticulous.  He’s now completing his CenturyTrilogy.  In this trilogy, he is telling the story of the 20th century, in a manner very reminiscent of Wouk.  He focuses on several families in the US, England, Germany and Russia and their involvement in major world events and with real historical figures.

One night on “The Late Show with Craig Ferguson”, Ferguson interviewed Philip Kerr, and I first heard about his series of novels featuring Bernie Gunther.  Gunther is a Berlin police detective in the 1930s who is an observer of, and unwilling participant in, the rise of Nazi Germany.  Fired from the force for not being Nazi enough he becomes a private detective and immediately finds himself involved in case after case that bring him into contact with historical Nazi figures and events.  So far, there are 9 books in the series, and they span about a 40 year period, taking Gunther from Berlin to the eastern Front to a POW camp in Siberia to Castro’s Cuba.  Gunther is an engaging character in the detective noir style of characters created by Dashell Hammett and Mickey Spillane.  Kerr paints a vivid picture of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.  I never really knew how grim post-war Germany was before reading these books.   Kerr also wrote Dark Matter, a murder mystery set in early 18thcentury London featuring Sir Isaac Newton in the role of detective a la Sherlock Holmes.  This book takes the reader into the workings of the Tower of London, Newgate Prison, the Royal Mint, and a seedy London Underworld of counterfeiters, political conspirators, opium addicts, to name a few.

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