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
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