Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 24, 2013

Historical Fiction

I’m speaking on a panel called “Sculpting Stories from Fact: Four Writers of Historical Fiction Share Strategies” on May 5 at the NE-SCBWI  conference. What a treat to speak with three smart friends — Sarah Lamstein, Pat Lowery Collins, and Padma Venkatraman — who have written about a 1950’s childhood (and whether or not you lived through that decade, we’re calling it history now), Venice in the 1700’s, and India at the time of World War II, among other subjects. As I consider the hows and whys of delving into the past, I’ve been immersing myself in historical fiction and thinking about the purposes of each novel, which not only depict different times and places, but suggest different answers to why the author chose to set the work in a particular era.


A crisis in CASCADE by Maryanne O’Hara is based on a historic event in Massachusetts, when towns were flooded to make a reservoir to supply water to Boston. The threat of rising water and drowning is used as both plot element and metaphor. Desdemona, named by her theater-loving father, reacts to pulls of love, money, power, and other events that seem beyond her control, while keeping some sense of stability by painting. I loved a scene in which she breaks lots of eggs to make tempera paint, and her sense of her own recklessness is underscored by this taking place in the Depression. How many breakfasts would be missed because she wanted to paint? I also liked learning about the role of government support of art during the New Deal, which made me think about ways art is important, and supported or not, in the lives of people I know now.


THE POSTMISTRESS by Sarah Blake came out a few years back to both acclaim and good sales, but though I’ve been advised as often as anyone not to judge a book by its cover, that wrinkled purple rose suggested to me something more romantic than what I cared to read. There is love in the novel, but not of the beyond-belief variety, and the effects of war on three strong women are prominent as their lives are gradually laced together. The setting is integral for many reasons. One character is loosely based on Martha Gellhorn, and we learn about foreign correspondents during the war and the role of communication gone astray. This theme is echoed in a missing letter, which, like a missed phone call, is unlikely to cause a crisis in our times: one can so much more easily try again. The ante is also up because the missing mail is no accident: the postmistress chooses not to deliver the letter. In the afterward, Sarah Blake explains that she conceived the novel after the September 11 attacks, trying to understand the ways that public and private grief and fears intersect, as so many people experience during a war.

Bird Sisters paperback cover

“Used to be when a bird flew into a window, Milly and Twiss got a visit.” From that first sentence, I thought I’d be happy to know the two elderly sisters in Rebecca Rasmussen’s THE BIRD SISTERS rather than being sent back decades in the second chapter. But the games of Truth or Consequence, the yellow cakes, and shell-shaped soap all came together as a man with a box of framing nails and tin of black licorice escorted Milly from the general store to her car, where Twiss was reading the Farmer’s Almanac and drinking a cream soda. Love and sacrifice come together in a way that might be most believable in1947, and along the way we’re treated to moments of beauty and humor such as when Twiss asks a teacher about women during the Revolution, and is told that Betsy Ross sewed a nice flag. The novel examines happiness from more than the birds, who are often a symbol, but who the sisters well know have fleeting lives. In the first chapter, they run out of their mother’s old handkerchiefs that they used for burials of birds they couldn’t save.

A long ago sentence spoken to a boy who mows the lawn can change a life as definitively as a photographer chooses what will go in or outside a frame, a reference to the imagery in another wonderful novel, Marissa Silver’s MARY COIN, which I’ll write about next week, along some other novels that cross between scenes in both the present and the past. And I’d love to know the titles of some of your favorite historical novels!



  1. Oh, how I wish I could hear that talk! What a wonderful panel of speakers. And thank you for the book recommendations, too.

    Let’s see, what historical novels have I enjoyed recently? Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, Sally Nicholls’s All Fall Down, Irene Nemirovsky’s Fire in the Blood…

    Looking forward to your post about Mary Coin!

    • Thank you for your reading list, Amy! I only had Hilary Mantel’s books on mine, and have been shying away because of the bulk, which I know is needed for that cast of characters. Maybe in summer…

  2. The Bird Sisters on my list! Can’t wait to read your next post!

    • Candice, you will like the house the sisters live in, full of curiosities, and those voices. Sometimes I felt a bit weighed down with bleakness, then she’d pull me up with a funny line — funny in the dry wit/yes-this-is-real-life sort of way.

  3. Great recommendations, thanks! I mostly stick to tween/teen historical fiction. Two favorites, which you’ve probably read, are Joyce Moyer Hostetter’s HEALING WATER and Sherri L Smith’s FLYGIRL.

    • When I think of historical fiction I think of you, Becky, and Joyce — HEALING WATER is great, and, yes, I did enjoy FLYGIRL. You may really have to read MARY COIN, though. I thought of you, because among this novel’s many pleasures, I loved the historian protagonist, and also the CA setting — I’ll write a bit about this novel soon, but am at the rattling on stage having just put it down and while I have your ear…

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