Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Historical Fiction: When the Questions Take a Different Track

pioneer cemetery along October morning walk 2014
"Every age has a keyhole to which its eye is pasted." --Mary McCarthy

I kinda' went on a binge my last visit to the library. A historical novel binge.

Here's how it worked. Instead of going through the library doors with a list of book titles or authors that I wanted to check out, I just walked up and down the shelves looking for the words "historical fiction" on the spines of books. I do this occasionally since this is one of my favorite genres to read, has been since I was a teen.

I stopped myself this time at seven books. They included:
The Girls of Gettysburg, Bobbi Miller (Civil War)
Maggie's Door, Patricia Reilly Giff (mid-nineteenth century Ireland)--sequel to Nory Ryan's Song which I read last month
R My Name is Rachel, Patricia Reilly Giff (Great Depression)
Willow Run, Patricia Reilly Giff (WWII America)
Ronnie's War, Bernard Ashley (WWII London)
One Shining Moment, Gilbert Morris (post WWII)
Motherland, Maria Hummel (WWII Germany)

Two observations: I enjoy Patricia Reilly Giff's books (can you tell?) and Hummel's book, Motherland, posed an approach to writing historical fiction that I'd not given thought to before, a position the author herself embraced only after a time of thoughtful searching and story development. This approach came with a shift in the kinds of questions she asked herself.

First of all, from Goodreads: Motherland is inspired by stories from the author's father and his German childhood, and letters between her grandparents that were hidden in an attic wall for fifty years. It is the author's attempt to reckon with the paradox of her father--a product of her grandparents' fiercely protective love and their status as Mitläufer, Germans who "went along" with Nazism, first reaping its benefits and later its consequences.

This page-turning novel focuses on the Kappus family: Frank is a reconstructive surgeon who lost his beloved wife in childbirth and two months later married a young woman who must look after the baby and his two grieving sons when he is drafted into medical military service. Alone in the house, Liesl must attempt to keep the children fed with dwindling food supplies, safe from the constant Allied air attacks, and protected against the swell of desperate refugees flooding their town. When one child begins to mentally unravel, Liesl must discover the source of the boy's infirmity or lose him forever to Hadamar, the infamous hospital for "unfit" children. The novel bears witness to the shame and courage of Third Reich families during the devastating last days of the war, as each family member's fateful choices lead them deeper into questions of complicity and innocence, to the novel's heartbreaking and unforgettable conclusion.

The story is haunting, troubling, and heart-wrenching, centered as it is on a stepmother's devotion to her three stepsons, trying to keep the family together in the absence of her husband during the travesties of war. But here's where it impacted me. In the author's Acknowledgements, she writes: 

             "My father is a good man, who has always expressed clear love and devotion for his parents and his children. My grandparents died when I was young, but they also struck me as generous and kind, and my grandmother, rather courageous for single-handedly raising three small kids at such a harrowing time. When I started working on this book, I obsessed over the idea of complicity, how ‘good’ people could nonetheless participate in one of the most brutal regimes in contemporary history. The questions What did they know and when did they know it? were key to this investigation. How was it possible that my grandfather worked so close to Buchenwald and still insisted he had no knowledge of the crimes committed in that camp? How could my grandmother be such a loving mother to her stepchildren and not teach them what the Germans had done? My father claims he learned abut the Holocaust only as a teenager, at an exhibition...in Frankfurt, half a decade after the war.
            “Hindsight is always a delicate issue in historical novels. The author and the reader often have a distilled set of facts about an era that the characters do not possess. Perhaps no era is more traveled and judged by readers than World War II, and so we collectively assume that all books about Germans in the 1940s will be books about complicity or resistance to their government’s murderous practices. In fact, most books are. The narrative we get is the one we expect.
            “Yet the more I thought about my grandmother’s letters, the more I realized they weren’t about Naziism. Or rather, that Naziism shadowed her world, but it was illuminated by the antics and accidents of three small boys, by conveying through code that she was sending secret supplies to her husband for his imminent desertion. Yes, she was afraid—of denouncement, of the ever-increasing air raids, of enemy invasion. And yet her narrative was not about totalitarian law, the bloody battles, the Jews and the camps. It was about family, and, paradoxically, it was about protecting her new sons’ innocence in a time when the sky was literally falling.
            “The more I wrote, the more I knew I had to change my fundamental questions. I could not use hindsight as a knife to slice through the past and find anything but what I expected to find. Instead of asking, What did they know, and when did they know it? I began to ask, What did they love? What did they fear? And in place of a prefabricated fable, a complicated human story began to emerge..."

A simple shift in questioning. From What did they know and when did they know it? to What did they love, what did they fear?

Here the emphasis is not on trying to explain history but to experience history. Not to examine and dissect reasons and motives but to invest in lives and struggle with them.

We'll never have all the answers but maybe if we start with different questions...?

What questions do you ask when you start a story?


  1. My question is an offshoot of the story question (the question that will make the reader continue reading). What happens if my protagonist does not get what he or she wants?

  2. Rachna, so nice to see you :-) Your question gets to the heart of the story and creates the tension that makes the reader needs to keep reading. Great reminder--thanks for sharing!

  3. Oh I love the questions. I believe the deeper we dig with our questions, the better our writing gets.

  4. Great questions! I try to ask myself "what's deepest desire of my protagonist's heart?" when starting to write~ that usually helps solidify my internal arc.

  5. Terri, I agree. Good questions help us not only probe deeper into our characters' motives but also sharpens our storytelling skills. Great point :)

    Jess, another good question. Knowing our character's desires helps us set up roadblocks to them and that in turn spells story. Good stuff-thanks!

  6. This is very thought provoking. I wish I were better at asking questions. Since I usually write fantasy, I guess my question is "what if ..."

  7. Peggy, I remember hearing Mary Higgins Clark speak at a conference once. She shared how she always starts a story by asking herself "what if" so you're in good company! Actually it's one of the foundational questions to ask , I think. Thanks for a good reminder :-)