Beyond The History Books: Genre Guide to ‘Off The Beaten Path’ Historical Fiction
Historical fiction can be a deceptively complex genre to define. It would seem initially that any fiction set in the past might be considered historical fiction but as we examine this basic distinction, it becomes significantly less simple. After all, how far into the past does a novel need to be set to be considered historical rather than contemporary realistic fiction? Do we use a specific range of years? Do we consider the likely cultural memory and lived experiences of the intended audience? For the purposes of this guide, I’ve decided to define historical fiction as a novel set in the past in which the particular realities of that time and place play a significant role in the narrative.
The genre of historical fiction is vast and varied. The idea of compiling a definitive genre guide is fairly daunting so I chose a focus: “off the beaten path” historical fiction–novels set in the past that feature perspectives, places, time periods, or events frequently unexplored in both the average history class curriculum and historical fiction.
These novels expand the genre beyond the ‘white people in interesting clothing’ approach that can dominate the historical fiction shelves. In the process of creating history, many voices have been silenced, forgotten, or shoved aside. Good historical fiction–like all good fiction–weaves an absorbing story with complex characters, providing us with an opportunity to counteract simplified or biased versions of history. Through fiction, readers can look at well-known events from a new perspective, immerse themselves in unfamiliar cultures, or see an exploration of their heritage.
Unexplored Times and Places
It’s not just particular time periods or geographic locations that remain largely unexplored in historical fiction. Recorded history often reflects the biases and power structures of both the historical period in question and the present day. As a result, many perspectives, events, and stories are ignored or buried.
Native American and indigenous perspectives have been especially silenced in the telling of history and fiction that sheds light on native experiences is especially critical.
If I Ever Get Out of Here – Eric Gansworth (2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2014 America Indian Youth Literature Award) The friendship and coming of age story is steeped in the specific experiences and details of Onondaga culture as well as the music and popular culture of 1975 America.
Blessing’s Bead by Debby Dahl Edwardson weaves an Inupiaq family saga through dual story lines set in early 20th century and late 1980s Alaska while her novel My Name Is Not Easy (2011 National Book Award finalist, 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults) brings to life the buried history of parochial boarding schools, forced family separation & abuse, and the growing push for indigenous rights in 1960s Alaska.
While World War II is some of the most well-traversed territory in historical fiction, that era also contains untold stories. Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth C. Wein (2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2014 Schneider Family Book Award) enters the harrowing world of Ravensbruck, the notorious women’s concentration camp and the site of Nazi medical experimentation. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2012 William C. Morris finalist, 2014 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults) reveals the Soviet deportation of Lithuanian families to Siberian prison and work camps. Meanwhile, both Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith (2014 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults) and Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis (2014 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults) reveal the often forgotten contributions of African American women to the war effort during World War II as pilots and members of the Women’s Army Corps.
-Kelly Dickinson, currently reading an egalley of Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper and This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki