Historical Fiction: On Sparks and Embers

Our week-long celebration of the release of J. Anderson Coats’ THE WICKED AND THE JUST has me thinking about historical fiction.

Textbooks and documentaries are necessary and wonderful in their own right, but there is something about novels and movies that I connect with on a very personal level. I see it like this: historical facts and knowledge impact my thoughts and my understanding of the world I live in now, but seeing and feeling along with a character who experiences those historical events goes one step farther. It’s like a spark that feeds the embers deep in my soul—those passions that formed me into the person I am today.

Let’s talk movies first. What movie based on historical events has shaken you to the core and changed the way you view the world? Here are some titles to get you thinking:

  • Braveheart
  • Milk
  • The Power of One
  • Schindler’s List
  • Hotel Rwanda
  • In the Time of the Butterflies

For me, the answer is hands-down Iron Jawed Angels. Of course I learned about the fight for American women’s suffrage in school. Of course I felt an enormous debt of gratitude to those brave women who risked everything so that generations later my voice could be heard. But there is something about watching the wardens at Occoquan prison shove feeding tubes down Alice Paul’s throat to forcibly end her hunger strike that whips those embers into a frenzied firestorm.


What about novels that give us a kids-eye view of history? Again, a few ideas:


As a kid, my answer would have been ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS or FREEDOM TRAIN. As an adult, maybe ONE CRAZY SUMMER, or OUT OF THE DUST, or MOON OVER MANIFEST. I can’t decide—there are too many great historical novels for young readers for me to pick just one.

But please do chime in here—I want to know what your favorites are, past and present. And if this post has reminded you of a historical novel that you loved as a kid, or one that you’ve read recently and can’t get out of your mind, head on down to your local independent bookstore and pick up a copy (while you’re there, get THE WICKED AND THE JUST, too). When you’re done reading, donate them to a classroom in your town, or pass them on to  young reader in your community.

You might deepen his or her understanding of the world, and you may even help those little sparks begin to flicker and flare into the passions that will form the person he or she will become.


Filed under Celebrations

21 responses to “Historical Fiction: On Sparks and Embers

  1. Natalie Dias Lorenzi

    Great post, Melanie. For movies, the Italian Oscar Award winner LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (LA VITA E’ BELLA) has always stayed with me, especially near the end when the father is led off by the Nazi soldiers in front of his son who is hiding. OUT OF THE DUST is also haunting, and I also loved AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS and WHEN YOU REACH ME.

    I’m writing this pre-coffee, so will think of others to add later. :0)


  2. For books, I’d have to go with FEVER 1793. Amazing.

    Schindler’s List still haunts me and I saw it years ago. I have to admit that some scenes from Titanic have stuck with me, too. Don’t think I want to see that in 3-D…

    SO, my daughter is reading THE WICKED AND THE JUST and LOVES it !!!! (NO surprise!) Also, for those of you who haven’t heard, THE WICKED AND THE JUST just received its THIRD STAR!!! GO, J. !!!


  3. I was definitely impacted as an adult by M. T. Anderson’s YA novel, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. I’d never really thought about what it was like to be black in the northern states before the Revolutionary War, this story was totally gripping.This detail on the first page had me fascinated: “By the well, the servants lit bubbles of gas on fire, clad in frock-coats of asbestos.” The cadence of the language put me there just as much as the historical details.
    I think one thing that’s so important about historical fiction is that stories can make us care about something we didn’t much care about, or even think about, before. They get us asking big questions.


  4. Mike Jung

    DIE HARD, because it’s so hard to imagine a time when people got excited about using a “car phone”… OK, in all seriousness, a recent fave movie is PUBLIC ENEMIES, which is based on an equally good nonfiction book for adults, about the hunt for John Dillinger and the formation of the FBI by J. Edgar Hoover.

    Books? Nan Marino’s NEIL ARMATRONG IS MY UNCLE AND OTHER LIES MUSCLE MAN McGNTY TOLD ME is a stunner. Elizabeth Bunce’s work is fabulous. And an obvious choice is Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose LITTLE HOUSE books I read at least three times each.


  5. Great post! I vote for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Seriously–it is the most realistic portrayal of what life was like for the 99% in the middle ages that I’ve ever seen. And no wonder–Terry Jones is a medieval scholar.
    As for books, I loved Ashes of Roses about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. And the Midwife’s Apprentice, Catherine, Called Birdy, The Agency series by YS Lee, A Single Shard, Watsons go to Birmingham. . . must . . . stop. . . .


  6. A friend of mine has been doing hospice work in rural Minnesota, and recently told me that one the people she visits originally came out there on the “orphan train.” Immediately, details of Joan Lowery Nixon’s Orphan Train Adventures series, which I loved in elementary school, came flooding back to me. I hadn’t thought about those books in years, and I’m pretty sure I would have had no idea what my friend was talking about if I hadn’t read them. But because I had, I was able to imagine, in some small way, what her patient’s life must have been like.


  7. FEVER 1793 for me, too. I am crazy for all plague-related literature. Don’t know why. Some reincarnation issues perhaps?


  8. Obviously I love historical fiction and historical fantasy, since I represent so much of it! But aside from my amazing clients’ work, I always cite Jennifer Donnelly’s A NORTHERN LIGHT as the best piece of historical fiction for young adults I’ve ever read, and I know others who feel the same. And I’ll second THE AGENCY series by Y.S. Lee; I’m totally addicted.


  9. There are so many books and movies already listed that I’ve loved–Octavian Nothing, Al Capone Does my Shirts, and what can compare with Life is Beautiful? One historical novel that I picked up which blew me away was The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. I couldn’t put it down. My American History classes would’ve been so much more engaging with books like that.

    Congrats on the third star, J.!


  10. Oh, I could write a blog post on this topic myself! 🙂

    When I was about 13, I was prowling the adult section because the teen section was lame back then. I found a book called “The King’s Grey Mare” and I thought, “Oh good, royalty and horses.” But I was wrong: it was about Elizabeth Woodville (her married name was Grey) and her relationship with King Edward IV. This book literally altered the trajectory of my life, because upon discovering the fascinating, convoluted history of the Wars of the Roses, I made it my obsessive field of study. And when I write historical fiction, this is where my stories live.

    Historical movies and books help remind us that the great figures we read about were real people too. The “Elizabeth” with Cate Blanchett reminds us that before she became queen, Elizabeth was a girl who had been repeatedly hurt and betrayed by the people closest to her. Imagine being thrown into prison by your big sister as a traitor, and then reprieved, over and over again. Imagine being seduced by your step-mother’s husband and discovering that he only wants you because you are a stepping stone to power. Is it any wonder that she never trusted anyone and headed up the greatest spy network the world had yet known?

    Whew. Sorry. I’ll shut up now.


    • I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who takes historical fiction so seriously! I (and my goodreads to-read list) thank you all for your comments.

      And, J.–CONGRATULATIONS! I, can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of your starry debut!


  11. Its been such a busy week, I”m only getting around to commenting now, and many of my favorites are already on the list. I wore out several copies of the LITTLE HOUSE books as a kid, and the characters in my upcoming debut novel are Bohemian because of the influence of Willa Cather’s MY ANTONIA. (And I have to add that one of my key characters in my manuscript that is on submission is an Iron Jawed Angel, Melanie.) Most of the novels we’ve listed here are recent American history, which does seem to be the trend in kids books, but there are some great books in older times too. THE SHAKESPEARE STEALER is a great book (along with its sequels), and in the adult arena, I enjoy the Brother Cadfeal mystery books by Ellis Peters.

    As a kid (and an adult) I loved ancient and medieval history, and the novels there are a bit harder to find, which is one of the great things about THE WICKED AND THE JUST. I read a lot of fantasy because I was drawn to the sword fights and the European-esque settings, and the horses and long dresses. I think you could have taken the magic out and I would have been just as happy with it.


  12. And I can’t believe you’ve gotten this many comments on historical books and movies without someone mentioning DOWNTON ABBEY (or Pride and Predjudice, for that matter.)


  13. pammingle

    Looking forward to reading THE WICKED AND THE JUST. And am Downton obsessed, Jeannie. Some of my favorite middle grade and/or YA historicals: BULL RUN (Fleishman), WITNESS (Hesse), THE CIVIL WAR DIARY OF AMELIA MARTIN (also Hesse), THE SHAKESPEARE STEALER SERIES (Blackwood), anything by Scott O’Dell, and must mention Jennifer Donnelly’s newest: REVOLUTION, a blend of contemporary and historical.

    Love Emu’s Debuts!


  14. Pingback: Promotion Post-Mortem | EMU's Debuts

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