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Beyond The History Books: Genre Guide to ‘Off The Beaten Path’ Historical Fiction

2014 May 26
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Definition

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.

Characteristics

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.

Appeal

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

Certain chronological and geographical settings dominate this varied genre.  Accordingly there are certain times and places that are rarely featured in historical fiction–making novels that do focus on such settings and topics all the more exciting to read. Here are a few examples of historical fiction set in unexplored times, locations, and cultures.
Boxers Gene Luen YangBoxers and Saints – Gene Luen Yang (2013 National Book Award Nominee, 2014 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, 2014 Great Graphic Novels) This unique duology of graphic novels explores the Boxer Rebellion in China at the end of the 19th century.  The novels share characters & specific plot moments but from the viewpoints of protagonists on opposing sides of the conflict.
Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth (2007 APALA Honor Award), Climbing The Stairs by Padma Venkatraman, A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bloomsbury (2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults) all investigate the Indian Independence movement throughout the 20th century and the eventual partition of the nation in the late 1940s from a variety of perspectives.
anahita's woven riddle
Anahita’s Woven Riddle – Meghan Nuttal Sayres (2007 Best Books for Young Adults) Readers can enter the rich world of nineteenth century Iran in this entertaining tale of a young nomadic weaver determined to use her wits and weaving skill to take her fate into her own hands.
Cuban-American writer Margarita Engle has written several novels-in-verse focused on important figures and events in Cuban history, including  The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist (2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2014 Pura Belpre Honor).
Neglected Perspectives and Events

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 hereIf 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.

flygirlWhile 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 finalist2014 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.

fire horse girlTitles such as The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano (2013 Pura Belpre Honor) and The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman introduce readers to other, lesser known aspects of American history–the activities of the Puerto Rican activist group the Young Lords in 1969 Spanish Harlem and the dangerous adventures faced by Chinese immigrants in 1920s San Francisco, respectively.
Resources
So how do we track down  off the beaten path historical fiction?  The Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction  has been awarded annually since its founding in 1982 and this year, the New-York Historical Society awarded its inaugural Children’s Book Prize.  Additionally, Pura Belpre Award, the Coretta Scott King AwardAmerican Indian Library Association’s American Indian Youth Literature Award, Asian & Pacific American Librarians Association’s Literature Awards, and the Stonewall Book Award often honor historical fiction.  Finally, blogs such as American Indians in Children’s Literature and Diversity in YA  are excellent resources in finding titles.
What are your favorite ‘off the beaten path’ historical fiction titles?  

-Kelly Dickinson, currently reading an egalley of Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper and This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. May 26, 2014

    Another unique and wonderful title is No Surrender Soldier by Christine Kohler. It sheds a light on the rich history of the island of Guam in alternating chapters which tell the story of Kiko, a young teen whose brother is serving in Viet Name, and Seto, a Japanese soldier who’s been hiding in the jungle since the end of World War II. How the two impact one another’s lives is an incredibly powerful story.

  2. Sam permalink
    May 27, 2014

    I really like “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing” by MT Anderson. I think it shows a unique perspective on the Revolutionary War–that of a black teenager used as a experimental subject in a test of whether Europeans and Africans have the same intellectual capacity. Anderson has written the book in beautiful eighteenth-century language, another thing that sets it apart from most YA fiction today.

  3. May 27, 2014

    Great suggestions! Thank you so much for adding more titles to my very limited list of examples!

  4. June 9, 2014

    You were very kind to mention my book Rose Under Fire, so I hope it’s not too presumptive of me to mention my earlier books, A Coalition of Lions and The Sunbird (et al) – they take place in 6th century Ethiopian in the ancient African kingdom of Aksum, a VERY off-the-beaten-path time and place! Enjoy if you haven’t discovered them yet. Best, Elizabeth Wein

  5. Marney Welmers permalink
    June 17, 2014

    One of my favorites, because the topic is so unusual and the writing so wonderful, is “Letters from Yellowstone”, by Diane Smith (2000). It’s a story about the opening of Yellowstone, the nature of scientific research, the place of women, and a fascinating period, all told through letters from the young female expedition member, with, of course, a bit of romance thrown in.

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