It Really Happened: YA Fiction Based on True Events
I wanted to write this mostly because of one YA writer who has begun the trend of basing her YA fiction books on real crimes. Initially, I thought I would focus on the increasing number of YA historical fiction books coming out that are based on true crime stories like the Jack the Ripper rip-off killings in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series. But, I realized that her books aren’t historical fiction, they are contemporary novels that contain events based on true historical events. So, I will focus here mostly on contemporary YA fiction with elements based on true historical events – with a few exceptions (I can’t resist a book based on a true story where a woman pretends to be a man and gets away with it).
A Soldier’s Story: the Incredible True Story of Sarah Edmonds. A Civil War Hero by Marissa Moss (2012, pbk. 2014) is is based on the true story of nineteen-year-old Sarah Emma Edmonds, who masqueraded as a man named Frank Thompson during the Civil War. Her adventures include serving as a nurse on the battlefield and spying for the Union Army, and being captured by (and escaping from) the Confederates. Sarah narrates her riveting story as she deals with the dangers of living a lie and the horrors of war and even the complications of romance while posing as a man.
The book includes real photographs taken from the Civil War. Moss states in the epilogue that the bones of the story are all true; she used actual names of the soldiers who served with Sarah and she used Sarah’s actual diary and that of others as primary source materials. She also says that of the over 400 women who dressed a man during the war, most shared with secret with loved ones. Only Sarah was known to have lived as a man before enlisting and the only one to be recognized by acts of Congress as an honorably discharged soldier.
Another intriguing historical fiction YA book that I like is Makiia Lucier’s debut historical fiction book, A Death –Struck Year (2014). It vividly describes the impact of the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918. Seventeen-year-old Cleo of Portland, Oregon signs up to volunteer with the Red Cross to help but struggles to help the sick and dying as she wonders if she’ll suffer the same fate as so many others. At the same time, she hopes for a future with a handsome medical student and war vet named Edmund. This is based on the real-life pandemic considered the most devastating in recorded world history and includes extensive source notes. An afterword explains the Spanish flu phenomenon and places it in the historical context of the early 20th century.
If you are of a certain age, you will be very familiar with the inspiration for several of these other books. I used to say to people that I was Sharon, like Sharon Tate, as a way to remind them of my name. Some of you might know who that was. Younger people and teens will probably have no idea, but Sharon Tate’s name is synonymous with the Manson Family cult. While that’s ancient history to many of you, it’s still very memorable to those of us who were around when her name made the news in 1969. The author I wanted to highlight is Micol Ostow because her recent books all focus on horrific events that are based on actual crimes.
Ostow’s book family (2011) is about a girl named Melinda, 17, who leaves her fractured family life behind and sets out for San Francisco. She meets a handsome, charismatic man named Henry who offers her love, a bright new consciousness and, best of all, a family. But, this family, while appearing to be everything Mel craves, isn’t all its cracked up to be. They share everything, including their chores, beliefs and even their bodies. If Mel really wants to belong she has to join in and do everything they do. Is she is willing to go this far and at what cost? Told in verse, this is a fascinating look at cult dynamics that’s made even more chilling if you recognize that it’s loosely based on the 1969 Manson Family murders. It also takes an unflinching look at people who are born broken, and the lengths they’ll go to make themselves whole again.
Ostow’s upcoming novel, Amity, (publishing 8/26/2014) is a very scary horror story, based on the real Amityville Horror story from the 1970s that is told in parallel narratives by a boy, Connor, 17, and by a girl, Gwen who both live in an evil house called Amity ten years apart. The house terrified Connor ten years ago with nightmares and strange sounds and visions and now it does the same with Gwen. The publisher states that, “Amity isn’t just a house. She is a living force, bent on manipulating her inhabitants to her twisted will. She will use Connor and Gwen to bring about a bloody end as she’s done before. As she’ll do again.” Ostow’s YA thriller is based on the real-life story of a family named Lutz who moved to a house in Amityville on Long Island in 1975 a year after a man shot and killed six members of his family there. The Lutzes knew this but moved in anyway, only to leave after 28 days because they claimed to have been terrorized by paranormal activity in the house. The case was the basis for the adult book The Amityville Horror: A True Story by Jay Anson (1977) that spawned a series of movies between 1979 and 2013. From the moment the book was published, there has been controversy about its accuracy, but, despite the lack of corroborative evidence, it remains a fascinating legend to this day.
My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt (2012) (2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults) is about 16-year-old Angel, who is grieving the death of her mother, and starts to shoplift shoes at the mall, fantasizing that she’s living a good life. Soon she falls prey to a pimp who buys her meals and tells her she’s pretty, eventually offering her a home in Vancouver, hooking her on crack, and forcing her into prostitution. This is based on real events of prostitutes who were murdered in Vancouver in the 80s and Leavitt honors them by listing their names in end of the book.
One book I’m really dying to read is Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman, coming out next Tuesday. It’s a fictionalized story of Adolph Hitler’s niece in WWII Germany. According to an interview from Jan. 21, 2014 with Anne by Carol Baldwin on Carol’s blog, Anne said she’s always been fascinated by World War II and after she read the book Geli, by Ronald Hayman, about Hitler and his beloved half-niece, she couldn’t get Geli out of her head. She says, “The lure of writing about a girl ensconced in the Nazis’ hyper-masculine, violent world was irresistible. I needed the freedom of having a fictional main character, though, so Gretchen Müller was born. But how, I wondered, can Gretchen figure out what the Nazis really stand for? How can she break free? Once I had my answers, I started writing.”
In the end, I realized there are more historical YA books with a real true-crime element than I’d originally thought.What other books have I missed in this trend?
-Sharon Rawlins, currently reading Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy and listening to Jennifer Nielsen’s The Shadow Throne: Book 3 of the Ascendance Trilogy