Thursday, November 10, 2016

On the Present Need for Historical Fiction, by Anne Nesbet

When I was a kid, "history" was divided into two very different phenomena:
1. the subject at school, in the form of textbooks and multiple choice tests; and
2. the stories my mother told. Some were family stories, but a lot of them were about places we were visiting at the time: "So here's where poor Marie-Antoinette waited to have her head cut off . . . they had old straw on the stones--imagine what the place must have smelled like!"

....or tales of her friends' childhoods during the war: "So she was sent, when she was little, to live in hiding with a big family in the French countryside, and one day a Nazi officer came to that very house, and pointed her out, the one who wasn't actually related to anyone there, and said, all smiling, 'This one's the spitting image of you, Madame, isn't she?"--and none of the little children in that room said a single word. Imagine that!"

....or stories about the wonderful objects she took us to see in museums:
"See the patch missing in that skull there? They used to cut pieces out of people's skulls to let the bad spirits out--see the round edges, there? That means this person SURVIVED that surgery long enough for his bones to start to heal......"

We were agog.

What I didn't realize at the time was how the difference between "school history" and "Mom history" was itself playing out a meta-historical story. My mother--a history major and a schoolteacher, herself--had been swept up in the shift in historical studies from old-fashioned lists of the reigns of kings to a fascination with all the little details of "everyday life."  (She had a whole long row of books in French with "la vie quotidienne" in the title. I remember that because "quotidienne" was the longest, fanciest word I knew in French, much more elegant than the English "everyday.")

I came to care about history--Mom's version of history--because of the textures, the stories, the smells.

Every now and then I would find a book in the school library (or through the Scholastic book club) that affected me the way my mother's stories did. I remember, for instance, a book called Children of the Resistance, by Lore Cowan, which was a collection of stories of quite ordinary children who performed heroic acts of resistance in Europe during World War II. I read and reread those stories, wondering always whether I would be able to be half so brave and so resourceful in such circumstances. 

And another book, The Endless Steppe, by Esther Hautzig, about a Polish girl who is sent with her family in 1941 to Siberia by the Soviets, contained a vivid image I've never forgotten: Esther's memories in Siberia of the hot chocolate she had fussily refused to drink, back in Poland before the Soviets came, because it had cooled a little and developed a skin.
How much she longed for that cocoa in Siberia! These books did more than remind me to drink my own cocoa without complaining: they gave me warning that "History" can happen to you at any moment. Even if you are just an ordinary sort of person.

Ordinariness can be very suddenly interrupted.

Reading books about people in other times and places reminds us of the thin border between History and the everyday. Such stories can even be a way to "practice" being caught up in historical events.

"If something like that happened, what would I do?"

That's a good question for readers of all ages!

The children in my new book, Cloud and Wallfish, find themselves facing hard choices in East Berlin in 1989.
The children reading that book today will almost certainly find themselves living through History at some point, too. I hope that those real and ordinary children will then feel the comforting presence of all the stories they have read, stories about other times when life was complicated and when choices were hard.

Because the more we read about history, the better equipped we are to face the present with courage--and the future with hope. 


  1. Great post. I used to love Mom stories, too, even though my mom wasn't a history teacher. I'll have to look for Children of the Resistance, I could use a good book about resistance right now. I loved The Endless Steppe and haven't read Cloud and Wallfish yet, but plan on it.

    1. Children of the Resistance certainly inspired me when I was a kid--it would be interesting to reread it now....

  2. Lovely post. I wish I would've had the opportunity to have more of those stories with my grandfather and to have had his perspective on growing up. I'm looking forward to reading Cloud and Wallfish.

    1. There are so many stories we haven't collected! My mother died fairly young, and I've been feeling that absence very strongly recently. I didn't ask the right questions when she was alive--certainly I didn't ask ENOUGH questions.

  3. Thank you so much for this, Anne. Indeed, your mother's history made it come to life. What a great teacher and, clearly, an inspiration.

    1. My mother's family contained a lot of excellent storytellers, that's for sure. There are a lot of those voices I miss very much!

  4. Replies
    1. Thank you, dear Caroline! I know you yourself are a Teacher in the deepest sense.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!