Why is historical fiction important in education?

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In a mere three days, I will be making a presentation about Her Brother’s Keeper at the Mid-America Medieval Association (MAMA) annual conference, at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. I still haven’t written down what I plan to say. Since I am not at all sure I’ll even have an audience, I guess in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter much. Still, I want to do a good job. So I’ll stop the swirling of ideas in my head now, and try to get a few thoughts down on “paper”.

It’s true of other eras and persons in history, I’m sure, but for me, my real kinship and understanding of French medieval times and culture (in which my novel is set) awakened when I read books by the incomparable Maurice Druon. I stumbled across the second volume in his Les Rois Maudits (The Cursed Kings) series, La Reine Etranglée (The Strangled Queen) at the Strand Bookstore in New York, and with my very imperfect comprehension of French, became enthralled with its riveting story. I ended up reading the entire series, primarily in English, though I collected each volume in French as well, and always managed to read some of the most dramatic passages in French. (Truly, there is nothing like reading books in the original languages, but for most of us, that simply isn’t going to happen. Bless the translators who give us the next best thing.)

Thanks to Maurice Druon, I have an indelible sense of Philip the Fair and the Capetian dynasty he founded in my mind; I know and feel how and why the Knights Templar met their fiery end; I understand where Edward II and Edward III of England fit into French history; and the entire period of the French Middle Ages has a vitality and richness for me that I would never have acquired without Druon’s fictional–yet authentic–representation of the persons and events of those times. It is Druon’s example which inspires me as a beginning historical fiction writer. In some measure I would like to bring to my readers an understanding of the places and times and persons that I write about in Her Brother’s Keeper, so that when they hear terms and names like Hundred Years War, Christine de Pisan, or the Valois dynasty in the future, in some other context, they will be familiar to them.

But there is something besides transmitting the authenticity of a period which also motivates me; there is the desire to shed light on persons and developments that have been overshadowed or omitted from previous historical–fictional and non-fictional–accounts. In much the same way as women and minorities in recent decades have striven for inclusiveness by means of Women’s Studies and Black Studies programs and the like, I have a tremendous desire to shine a light on Christine de Pisan, the first woman in the world to earn her living as a writer, a woman whose presence I was totally unaware of until I was 50 years old. It’s important that young people learn about inspiring groundbreakers, be they Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, or Christine de Pisan. By the same token, I would like my readers to have a taste of what literacy meant for a young girl in Europe in 1429, and how it contributed to her life and sense of self. In other words, I want to help history come alive for young readers, but also to proselytize a little.

Because of this editorializing aspect of my book, I have no illusion that it’s true literature, at least not with a capital L. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll think out loud here about other reasons I wrote this book, and how utterly disparate interests and fortuitous events led to its birth.

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The Glacier Advances

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I now have in my possession 100 print copies of Her Brother’s Keeper. Whew. And the day before the books arrived, I saw a small deposit from Amazon in my bank account. I was puzzled for a minute, but then realized that someone had ordered the print copy, and I was being paid. Very gratifying. I’ve now also submitted the title of my talk to be delivered at the Mid-America Medieval Association on February 28: “Christine de Pisan and Medieval Feminist Literacy in Young Adult Historical Fiction”. I now have an appointment with Apple for February 3 to get the book into the Apple store, and once that’s done, I’ll get it uploaded to Nook, and then to the smaller e-publishing outlets, via an aggregator. I also need to get a slightly revised edition onto Kindle, since the current one has no historical notes, and also several small changes I made to the print edition. Then I’ll have publicity postcards made up, and–voila! I believe all the basic mechanics will be done for really moving forward, paving the way to actually start writing again.

Final (Oh, let it be so!) Proof Copy Now Ordered

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Like a snail, I creep ahead, hoping that a trail of slime is not behind me. I’m a writer-snail, not necessarily a slime-producing variety. If I continue at this pace I will have to live to be about 300 to become reasonably established as a writer. Oh well. There’s no hurry. And if I die before I’m “established”, I certainly won’t then care about not having hit the goal, will I?

As I creep… (No, that’s not the right word. Snails don’t “creep”. I think one has to have feet to creep.) OK, as I slither slothfully forward, I do make progress. I have now been accepted to present a “paper” related to my book at a medieval conference–Mid-America Medieval Association, or MAMA–on Feb. 28 at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. This happy development spurred me to make a leap (Imagine a leaping snail, and be impressed!) ahead to make corrections on the previous proof copy of Her Brother’s Keeper and get it submitted for review to the Amazon humans, or robots. The robots have now given the go-ahead, and the proof will wind its way to me in a few days.

While awaiting the proof copy, and with any luck then ordering a supply of the printed books, I will begin to think seriously about my proposed presentation to MAMA. Many ideas are skating through my head. The talk will focus on feminine literacy in the Middle Ages, one of the themes of the book, and by a bit of a stretch, a theme of the conference as well. But beyond that, little is settled in my mind. The conference focuses on academicians of medieval times–almost entirely graduate students and faculty. I am neither. I hope to use my lack of that status as a hook in the presentation. Let’s see what my mind comes up with, and perhaps I’ll have something juicy–but not slimy!–to share in my next post.

Now, where was I?

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Oh, life does have a way of intervening and thwarting our best intentions, doesn’t it? But I will once again find my writerly self and head again in a writerly direction.

It’s hard. We all know it is. And giving up is so easy. And though I’m not at all a Pollyanna by nature, I’m trying to look on the bright side of the tasks that drew me away so thoroughly from this blog weeks ago. Quite by accident, I learned some computer tricks (while single-handedly putting together a 110 page “memory book” for a big high school reunion) which should help me in my writerly world. Already, only a few days free of my non-writerly tasks, I’ve able to resolve a nagging problem which had bothered me for a long time: How to add the lettering on the cover of my recently published e-book for a print edition? I had worried and fumed and lost sleep over this silly problem, and suddenly I was able to “fix” it almost effortlessly.

Did you know that in a pretty much inalterable pdf file, you can easily add some limited editing–such as lettering over an image? Amazing! How many books had I consulted? How many people had I asked? How many web sites had I explored? Then, simply because I had to add page numbers to my “memory book” one by one (because they could not appear at the same place on my individual pages), a man at the Apple store showed me this delightful little trick for adding text to a pdf file.

So now I’m back to trying to get my book into a print edition. Whether this book ever sells a single copy (OK, it’s already sold a few, to friends), at least I’m learning the how-to for getting future books out there.

Whew!

Sneaking in a little spinach

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Just a brief entry about about making the study of history more palatable for young folks via lively historical fiction….

Several decades ago I was visiting the home of a school friend who lived with her mother and grandmother. Neither of the adults had had much formal education. They had probably both earned high school diplomas, but certainly nothing beyond that. Yet these women talked between themselves about an enormous number of characters from Tudor history as though they were discussing people they’d met at a block party, or in a less savory neighborhood setting. It was lively gossip, and the two had rather sharply divided opinions about the behavior and characters of some of the Tudor women (It’s always the women, isn’t it?). I was astounded. A mere teenager, I wasn’t sure what a Tudor was–there’s no time for English history in middle school or high school–but vaguely thought Henry VIII was one of them.

It sounds snotty to say it, but I have a feeling these two women–who loved to read the day away whenever they could–were not reading the most literary of novels. My guess is that the books they read were quite radically romanticized, in both senses of the word, and full of historical inaccuracies. Yet, I also have a feeling they got some of the basics right–the beheadings, the betrayals, the names of the primary lovers and traitors. How I envied their fluency with these basics! It was like a child fortunate enough to grow up bilingual; a second (or third) language is achieved without effort, just as these two very ordinary (Really, they were quite dull, if the truth be told,) women had effortlessly acquired some fundamentals of English history by reading books written with little more sophistication than offered in a bodice rippers.

I stored this observation away, and when I became a high school history teacher, I thought, “Let’s read some mysteries and adventures with a historical backdrop, and I’ll just bet these kids will absorb a little historical knowledge along with their pleasure in digesting a tale well told. It’s like sneaking a little spinach into a kid’s taco.

Meeting Christine de Pisan

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Back in the mid-90s, when I at last (see previous post) had my own high school classroom and was just beginning to teach history (after several years teaching English and drama), I was thrilled to be selected to participate in an NEH Summer Seminar for Teachers at NYU. It was called “Worlds of the Renaissance”, and was directed by one of the most remarkable scholars and kind human beings I have ever met: Dr. Albert Rabil. We read tons and tons and more tons of Renaissance-related books and papers and pamphlets during that six weeks, had some very thought-provoking discussions, and heard some marvelous scholars speak on a wide range of Renaissance topics. It was extremely intense to say the least, and more than once I found myself thinking, “Am I the only one who can’t possibly read everything that’s assigned, no matter how many hours I spend?” and “Wow. Does everyone else understand this paper I just finished reading–because I haven’t a clue…”

But one of the real high points in all that excitement and thought and absorption was learning about Christine de Pisan. Al Rabil has a very strong feminist bent–has even edited and continues to edit a series of works by lost women writers of the Renaissance through University of Chicago Press–and was the ideal person to introduce me to Christine–the first woman in the world to make her living with her pen. Toward the end of the very intense seminar period, Al asked each participant to come up with an individual “project” related to a Renaissance subject that he or she would complete by a date a few months down the line. Al said he would share our output with future seminar participants, just as he had shared previous participants’ projects with us.

I chose to write a biographical play about Christine de Pisan. When I finished it, and sent it to Al, I promised him that at a later time I would do something more substantive about Christine–something that would have a better chance of actually reaching students in the course of their middle or high school education.

Christine de Pisan plays only a small role in HER BROTHER’S KEEPER. She appears only briefly, crossing paths with the heroine of the novel, fourteen year old Geneviève. There is a little biographical overview of her as she is discovered writing in her little room in the convent where she spent the last years of her life, and a little excerpt from what turns out to be her last piece of published writing. That last poem by Christine de Pisan is an homage to Joan of Arc, who had just raised the siege of Orlèans in the Hundred Years War. Female literacy and female strength are strong themes in the novel, and Christine, Joan, and Geneviève–two historical women and one fictional one–are invaluable in developing those themes. Without Christine de Pisan, the book would never have come to be.

In the beginning….

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Many years ago, on a dark and stormy day…. No, really, I don’t remember what the weather was like, but I was a pretty new substitute teacher in Seattle when I was sent to cover for a middle school English teacher. Part of her lesson plan called for me to read aloud for 10 or 15 minutes to a large class after lunch. The reading was the next installment in a book the class was listening to almost every day, and I learned that the students had taken in quite a number of books during the school year in this fashion.

I loved it! My undergraduate degree was in speech and drama, and reading aloud was something I was good at and enjoyed doing. Also, a teacher reading a compelling story aloud was something I had enjoyed in my own classes in elementary school. But past about fourth grade, it just stopped happening. That day substituting, I wondered why. I suppose once students have reached an age when they can reasonably be expected to read to themselves, a teacher reading stories aloud is thought to be superfluous, if not downright inappropriate. I strongly disagree.

For one thing, the experience is entirely different for the listeners. There is no performance anxiety, and the listeners relax at the same time their attention comes into sharp focus. Even less attentive students tend to calm and become receptive–or at least, so it seems to me from anecdotal experience. And for struggling readers there is a subtle reassurance in the experience. There is the subliminal message that the reader/teacher is looking at the very same confusing coding on a page that these less skilled readers grapple with, and that blasted code is magically transforming into an engrossing tale.

Of course, reading aloud to unskilled readers is common in infancy and early childhood. For most parents and grandparents it is a natural and enjoyable way to instill a love of books in their young ones, and inspire them to learn to read, as well as being a great pleasure for its own sake. But that day, substituting in a class of restless adolescents, was the first time I realized that, especially in a classroom, it is a real shame to restrict our reading aloud sessions to babies, toddlers, and lower elementary age audiences.

And in a way, that’s how Her Brother’s Keeper came eventually to be. More on its embryonic life next time.