Truth or Fiction? Five Books That Reinvent History

I love history but have to admit that sometimes I've come to it by the back door, through fiction that takes readers from the real to the possibly real, from facts to playing with the facts, from what was to what might have been. These are books that start with something true and move quickly to the writer imagining who someone was, what a place was like, what might have happened. Many well-known novels immediately spring to mind: We've seen the Civil War interpreted differently in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and Geraldine Brooks's March. Or we see the French Revolution -- that best of times, worst of times -- in Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. Or we learn something about the founding of Israel in Leon Uris's Exodus.

I have a long list of personal favorites, but here are five that both fleshed out my own understanding of people who once lived and gave me memorable reading experiences:

Henry and Clara, by Thomas Mallon.
The title characters here -- Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris -- were with the Lincolns at Ford's Theatre on that fateful night in 1865. They were step-siblings who had fallen in love and were engaged to be married. Henry was seriously injured by John Wilkes Booth as Booth fled the scene. Clara remained with Mary Todd Lincoln throughout the night as Lincoln lay dying. Henry and Clara married two years later, in 1867. With great historical detail, Mallon presents these two real people whom someone once referred to as "casualties of history," their lives traumatized by that one night. It's a story well imagined and not to be missed.

The Shadow Catcher, by Marianne Wiggins.
I've just finished this book so it's fresh in my mind and, because of its luminous, visual writing, sure to remain so. Wiggins uses her own kind of lens to create a portrait of Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), known for his photos of the American West and Native Americans. Wiggins blends two stories here: one from the late 19th century that includes the development of the railroads and the Pacific Northwest and the attendant effects on the American Indians and a contemporary parallel one that also deals with identity and race and culture and families. Here are many big themes, an incandescent blend of fact and fiction, of lives outside of the photo frame.

Travesties, by Tom Stoppard.
This might be the first play I saw for which I went right out and bought the book. I wanted to see the words on the page, to read the pyrotechnics that I had experienced in the theater. Stoppard sets the play in Zurich in 1917, at a time when three revolutionaries in their own fields were all living there: Lenin, James Joyce and Dadaist founder Tristan Tzara. Stoppard also picks out another real person, a near unknown British consular official named Henry Carr, through whose muddled mind we see the interactions of art and war and peace and literature and revolution. These brilliant speculations on historical possibilities had me laughing out loud and running to the reference books for more on the real stories of these lives.

Burden of Desire, by Robert MacNeil.
Set in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917, MacNeil's story centers around the very real explosion of a fully loaded munitions ship in Halifax harbor that killed around 2,000 people and injured more than 10,000 and had a ripple effect on the lives of those who were even remotely part of the picture. MacNeil, a Canadian (and the former anchor with Jim Lehrer of the News Hour), creates a classic romantic triangle of a young woman who keeps a diary in which she explicitly writes about her longings for her husband who is in the trenches at the front in France, the clergyman who finds the diary, and his friend, a Freudian psychologist, with whom he shares it. Published in 1992, Burden of Desire was MacNeil's first novel. It's all here in this set piece: the traumas of shell-shocked soldiers, the class conflict between rough Canadians and the refined British, lost traditions in the wake of the forces of modernism, repressed emotions, morality, and the traumas that change lives forever.

Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker.
Known as the Regeneration Trilogy, these compelling books give a perspective on WWI that can't be had from reading a straight history of battles or litany of facts. Let's focus on Regeneration, which is based on real-life experiences of British army officers treated at Craiglockhart hospital for shell shock. At its core are the real-world characters of poet Siegfried Sassoon and psychologist/neurologist William H.R. Rivers, known for his experiments with nerve regeneration. Parading through the pages of the book are other real characters whose lives and thoughts are lyrically imagined: poet Wilfred Owen, writer Robert Graves, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell and pacifist and aristocrat Lady Ottoline Morrell. Barker's eloquent inventions, based on informed imaginings, focus on grand themes -- war, madness, manhood, bravery -- all of which resonate in the present.

So, what are some titles you'd add to the history books?

-- Evelyn Small

By Christian Pelusi |  July 10, 2008; 6:36 AM ET Evelyn Small
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Travesties is absolutely my favorite Stoppard play! I love the scene played out entirely in limerick form, as well as Tzara's introductory dadaist poem which, if you change the pronunciation slightly, becomes a French verse about Tzara himself! Excellent wordplay.
I really enjoyed Gore Vidal's "Lincoln," and of course there's Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" which goes over the history of the schism in the Catholic Church in medieval history. I'm planning to read "The Three Musketeers," a radical reinterpretation of French history, sometime this summer.

Posted by: Violet | July 10, 2008 9:17 AM

On the subject of French history, I'd put "A Tale of Two Cities." Granted, the characters are all fictional, but the background against which the story is set -- the French Revolution -- certainly isn't.

I also wonder if you couldn't include books like "The Executioner's Song" and "In Cold Blood." I think both Mailer and Capote called them "non-fiction novels" or something along those lines. Certainly, these are real stories (although Capote apparently made up his last scene, which took place in a graveyard), but the inner lives of these characters were, at least in part, the authors' creations.

Posted by: KLeewrite | July 10, 2008 9:51 AM

"The Plot Against America" by Philip Roth imagines that an isolationist, anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh won the 1940 presidential election.

Posted by: cari | July 10, 2008 11:43 AM

My three favorite are all by George Garrett and deal with Tudor/Stuart England: "The Death of a Fox", Walter Raleigh and James 1; "The Succession", James 1 and Elizabeth 1; "Entered from the Sun", the death of Marlowe.

Posted by: Tom | July 10, 2008 3:20 PM

You must consider the historical novels of Bruce Olds. Olds wrote Raising Holy Hell (about the "ardent abolitionist John Brown"), Bucking the Tiger (about Doc Holliday), and The Moments Lost: A Midwest Pilgrim's Progress (about the "bloody Wobblie-led 1913 copper mine strike").

Olds is a contemporary novelist who cannot write fast enough for me. His novels are highly stylized, original, and compelling, to say the very least. I don't believe that he is well known although, in my humble estimation, he certainly deserves to be. If you've not read him, pick up any one of his books: you'll be in for a one-of-a-kind and insightful reading experience. I realize my comments are gushing, but they're not codswallop, they're resoundingly true! Do yourself a favour, read some or all of Old's oeuvre.

Posted by: Jon Lauderbaugh | July 10, 2008 5:06 PM

I am nowhere near finishing it, but I have found what I have read of The Tin Drum by Günter Grass to be quite remarkable. I do not know if it is strict magic realism, but perhaps this was the only style Grass could have used to grapple with Nazism.

Posted by: basil | July 10, 2008 8:38 PM

I would add the modern classic "Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie.

Posted by: JohnJ | July 10, 2008 10:41 PM

Great comments -- and my list of books to read and re-read grows longer by the minute. By the way, if you're a Dickens fan, he only wrote two historical novels and the other one is Barnaby Rudge, focusing on another 18th-century revolution, the Gordon Riots in London. Among the many others I didn't list here, one of my favorites is a lesser known Michael Ondaatje (at least less known to most than The English Patient): In the Skin of a Lion, which deals with the building of Toronto and weaves in Canadian history and politics. What stands out for me even more in the book, though, are its many memorable scenes -- which, now that I think about it, may become the topic of my next Short Stack.

Posted by: Ev Small | July 11, 2008 8:25 AM

Historical fiction for me has the best of all worlds - serious information about different times and places, as well as the emotions and imagination that fiction can bring. An author who always comes to mind when I think of historical fiction is Leon Uris. Years and years ago I read "Exodus" and "Trinity", and both the stories and characters of those books, along with what I learned about the drama involved in setting up Israel and the conflict in Ireland remain vivid in my mind.

Recently I read a book by one of the authors you cited - Thomas Mallon. It is his most recent, "Fellow Travelers", and contains the best of both history and fiction. We learn about the climate and some of the classic characters in Washington, DC during the McCarthy period. Rather than focusing on the more commonly reported hunt for Communists, the focus is on ousting homosexuals from their government work, particularly the State Department. The avenue is the relationship between two gay men, one of whom is not likable, and the other of who is heartbreakingly so.

Please give us more recommendations for historical fiction reading.

Posted by: Brian | July 11, 2008 11:49 AM

It has been years since I read Ivan Doig's English Creek, one of a trilogy of novels set in Montana during the19th (?) century and going forward. It comes to mind whenever I think of favorite books. It gives a wonderful sense of that time and place in US history.

I am enjoying this topic and hoping for some more suggestions.

Posted by: Elaine | July 13, 2008 7:22 PM

I, too, as the last poster noted, am always looking for recommendations. Here are a few more historical fiction titles to add to your reading lists:
Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks (gripping and intense epic story of a soldier in the trenches and tunnels in WWI).
Another WWI tale, A Very Long Engagement, by Sebastien Japrisot, is an absorbing read.
You can also find lots of Web sites that deal with historical fiction, including So, go noodling around, and don't forget to ask your local librarian. Most libraries have great readers' service sections at the ready with some suggestions in any category you want to read.

Posted by: Ev Small | July 15, 2008 11:07 AM

Charlotte Gray, also by Sebastian Faulks. Just bought it, haven't read it yet, but my understanding is it takes place against the background of the French Resistance during WWII.

Posted by: KLeewrite | July 15, 2008 11:34 AM

One of my favorite fictional re-imaginings involving American history is Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, a trippy take (it's Pynchon, after all) on the two surveyors who ran the boundary between MD and PA.

I'd also include Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales. Whether or not they were based on real people, or urban (colonial?) legends, or simply made-up allegorical sketches set in the American colonies, they give me a real feel for the inner lives of the people of the era, esp their moral imaginations. (In a recent New Yorker issue, E.L. Doctorow rewrote a Hawthorne classic, Wakefield, and set it in a contemporary suburb, which was fun.)

Posted by: mark tarallo | July 15, 2008 3:38 PM

I was glad that you mentioned Burden of Desire. I have read it twice. Here is a side note. I was totally absorbed in the book, and having a friend in his eighties, who I knew was from Nova Scotia, I asked him what he know about the Halifax explosion. He told me that his mother was pregnant at the time and ironing in the living room. After the explosion, she found herself in the basement with the ironing board on top of her. He was born a few months later.

Posted by: Elaine | July 15, 2008 8:35 PM

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