Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 18, 2012

Historical Novels: How Much History is Too Much? Too Little?

Our class discussion of  The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963  by Christopher Paul Curtis touched on family relationships and the novel’s structure, but was dominated by the question of whether this novel, with a title suggesting some focus on Civil Rights, evaded the subject or racism. Was it too flip about differences between the North and South, focusing on weather more than politics? Some students felt that the book should have been more direct about suffering, that the author seemed too much like the parents in the book, too apt to let things be as long as the kids were relatively happy and supper got on the table. Some wanted stronger connections made to the outside world, while others argued that the main characters slowly learns about many things, until with a whallop and thud, racism can’t be avoided. One student pointed out the whiteness of most of our books –Alice, Dorothy, Harry Potter – and how race is taken for granted in these. What Curtis’s book provides is a similar stance: that race as a construct is part of the main character’s world, but so is being a middle child, having a lazy eye, and the everyday struggles of trying to make a friend. Should that be enough?

Some students thought they’d learned more from nonfiction about Ruby Bridges. Some think identifying with a character, rather than viewing him from the outside, as we might when considering history, can make a more lasting impression. Can one do both? Nobody much talked about the book being funny. One person mentioned that it’s unsettling that the novel ends with an epilogue about Civil Rights heroes such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, then says that such heroes can be in your home, or school: they can even be you.  Well, yes, but a bit of a soapbox, since part of the deliciousness of the novel is that it’s not filled with heroes, and Kenny’s first change comes about when he’s disobedient, and the second after he’s done an act he feels was steeped in fear. What the family survives might be called heroic, but we’re not given a context for that. They seem ordinary, which is one reason we like them. Kenny gets to be afraid, silent when he might talk, standing still when he might act, sometimes out-of-it, just like Jesse in Bridge to Terabithia, but both boys grow, and move us.

And just as Jesse connects to his little sister at the end of Bridge to Terabithia, the little sister gets the last scene in The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.  We’ll meet more innocents as little sisters in The Hunger Game next week, and I wonder if some students will feel the same need to underline metaphors and messages. The book critiques current culture norms re competition and violence, but can this, though for an older audience, be allowed to entertain more than draw parallels to today? Do we expect more from a book about history, and at least partly about race?



  1. Quiet is loud in historical fiction, I think. Subtlety delivers the message more strongly than a bop on the head. Best to focus on the individual and the family with the context wisping around them for the fullest effect.

    • I agree, Sarah, and love how you put it: Quiet is loud. I want that on my bumper sticker. No, I don’t want bumper stickers!

      And that focus on individual and family with context wisping: it’s what you do so well in your fiction.

  2. As usual, thought provoking. And makes me want to read the book.

    • It’s a great book, Amy. We took that usual English class route of people exclaiming about how much they loved it, then went on to tearing it apart, before getting our heads back above water to remember what was great.

  3. Excellent post, Jeannine, and I have to echo Sarah. Quiet is loud. Wow, great phrase. And I want to add that this isn’t only important in historical fiction. It’s true in most fiction for kids. Sometimes the best way for them to “get” it is by not confronting it loudly and head on. Wisping around them. I like that!

    • Karen, I’m happy to be in a quiet club with you and Sarah. Thanks for stopping to comment!

  4. I read this book when it first came out and remember how much I enjoyed it. This was my era, and my region, and I didn’t feel the author needed to beat us over the head with messages or drama. It works as a family story, which is what I’d categorize it (if I had to), in the same way All-of-a-Kind Family is a family story, and even the Little House books. Interesting discussion!

    • Yes, we really had one student who strongly argued for its right to be a family story told with humor, with suggestions of a world beyond the Watsons. Of course it’s a classroom filled with quite a few prospective teachers, so there’s a strong strain of preaching, which I know I have to watch in myself.

      And part of the love was its my era, too. Those shiny patent leather shoes. Those frilly white socks. That Life magazine after the bombing. I remember.

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