Monday, July 14, 2014

Stopping the Midnight Madness: Jennifer Bohnhoff on Historical Fiction

They say the devil is in the details.  Even though it was thirty years ago, I remember the day I showed my sophomore English class the old, (1959) movie The Diary of Anne Frank.  We had just finished reading the book, and as I threaded the 35mm film through the projector, I thought about how seeing the story was going to enrich their understanding.  We had just gotten to a scene in which the Frank family cowers in their attic hideaway while Allied planes bomb Amsterdam when one of my students left her seat and scurried over to me, bent in half so that she wouldn’t block the picture from the screen.

                “Mrs. Bohnhoff, I don’t get it,” she whispered.

                “What don’t you get?” I whispered back. 

I was probably glowing with joy as I anticipated her question.  Maybe she was wondering how the Frank family could deal with the emotional vulnerability of staying in an attic when everyone else was hidden away in underground bomb shelters.  Or why the Allies would bomb the Netherlands when it was occupied territory and therefore filled with non-Axis-supporting civilians. 

But no.  You can imagine my surprise when she asked why there were midnight madness sales going on.  Wouldn’t the bombing scare away all the customers?  It took me a while to figure out what had bedeviled her: in her experience, the giant search lights that streak across the sky are intended to draw people into Kmart midnight madness sales, not help anti-aircraft batteries blast bombers out of the sky.

If we want our children to understand the great sweep of history, we need to make sure they understand the minutia.  Otherwise, those details will bedevil them and they will miss the point.

The best way to teach the minutia of history is through historical fiction.  Tarry Lindquist,  a Washington State fifth-grade teacher  who was been recognized by the National Council for the Social Studies as National Elementary Teacher of the Year, says that historical fiction  “hammers home everyday details,” providing “visual and contextual clues to how people lived, what their speech was like, how they dressed, and so on. When accurately portrayed, these details are like a savings account that students can draw on and supplement - each deposit of information provides a richer understanding of the period.”[1]   

When students read historical fiction, they begin to absorb historical details without even realizing it.  Students learn about the period’s geography, the size of towns or cities and modes of transportation.  They learn about the period’s governmental and social organization, distribution of wealth, social classes, religious beliefs, and laws.  They get a sense of the manner of dress, types of food and entertainment.  Students may be focusing on plot and characterization, but they are learning about an historical period and depositing information in their intellectual savings accounts so that they won’t draw on their own limited experiences and misinterpret those details like my student did.

Historical novels give life to these details in ways that textbooks can’t.  A history textbook, pressed to get all the dates of important offenses and names of key politicians and generals in World War II, is unlikely to give more than a mention to wartime rationing.  The textbook is not going to discuss “sleep-sickness,” a lethargy caused by malnutrition and too few calories common among civilians and POWs, nor is it going to explain how the details of rationing became the organizing force in many people’s lives.

In Code: Elephants on the Moon, my middle grade novel set in France during WWII, the protagonist goes to town every afternoon, looking for cards in merchant windows announcing that  “meat was allowed to Category A, which encompassed most adults including Maman and Barbe, or that Category J3, those aged 13 through 21, deserved extra bread from the Boivin Sisters, or milk from the lecherie.  Of course, just because she deserved them didn’t always mean Eponine got them.  One could only buy what the stores had to offer.  If the shelves were empty, so was her stomach.”  Reading this helps students understand the hardships of war on a more personal level than they would have gotten from a textbook.  It might even compel them to do some research, further deepening their understanding of the period.

Once students have a firm grasp of an historical period, they can then consider the relevancy of the past in relation to their own society. The students can begin to see how a study of the past helps them to understand the present.

Civil War historian Bruce Catton believes that, by recreating the past, the historian is also creating literature: “the historian has to face the fact that he is engaged in the literary art . . . what he writes is finally going to have the effect of expanding his reader’s horizon. It is going to move the reader emotionally just because a true account of man’s unending struggle with destiny is always moving. To discharge his obligation fully - to meet the challenge which the writing of history presents - the historian must always bear in mind that he is for the moment acting as an artist.” [2]

The writer of good historical fiction recreates the past with an immediacy and attention to historical detail that neither history textbooks nor pure fiction can achieve alone.

Even the minutia of history can compel students to ask big questions.  When I was researching my Civil War novel The Bent Reed, I learned that women of the period dipped shirts into water in which the potatoes had been boiled before ironing them because the potato water provided the starch that stiffened the shirts.  While I did not include this detail in my book, consider how it might lead to a discussion on the use of resources in modern society.  How many things do we throw out that could be used in some alternative way?

An historical novelist who creates a compelling story draws a reader in and helps the reader not only discover the period, but realize the importance and usefulness of studying history. Students who grasp the significance of historical details begin to understand that that an understanding of the past is a means of dealing with the challenges of the present and the future.  They may begin to realize that they can help shape their destiny and, in doing so, help shape the destiny of others.  Students who aren’t bedeviled by interpreting the world around them through the lens of their own limited experiences might just perceive the terror of remaining in an attic during a bombing raid.  At the very least, they won’t go in search of midnight madness sales while death rains down on them.

The author, proving she's old
enough to understand history.
Jennifer Bohnhoff is a middle school social studies and language arts teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Her World War II novel Code: Elephants on the Moon is now available as an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords and will be available in paperback in August.  Her Civil War Novel, The Bent Reed, is scheduled for publication in September.

[2] Bruce Catton, Prefaces to History. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1970. p. 91


  1. Interesting! I have been reading a lot of historical fiction lately so this let me view it in another light. I've added your story to my TBR list. Thanks for featuring it today.

    1. Thanks, Greg. Let me know what you think of my story when you finish it. Writing this article made me think about what details to put in and what to take out, so I ended up addressing that in my blog:

  2. Thank you for being our guest poster on Project Mayhem. I found your inclusion of details in historical fiction fascinating. I will be on the look out for CODE:ELEPHANTS ON THE MOON for sure!

  3. Lovely seeing you here, Jennifer! What an interesting detail about kids bringing what they know -- or what they think they know -- to the books they read.

    1. Lovely being here, Caroline Starr Rose. I'm honored to be in such good company.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!