Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Historical Fiction with Leah White: A Program for Summer reading

As Readers Services Librarian for the Morton Grove Public Library, Leah White says that she is one person who really gets to use her English major. She has got “the bookiest job ever.” She visited the Thomas Ford Library on Monday night to discuss topics and trends in historical fiction, the genre that we are highlighting with our summer reading program Another Time and Place. Before a circle of readers, she defined the genre, described some of its categories, and suggested books that readers would like.

What passes for historical fiction is not simple. Readers might think it is just fiction that takes place in a past time. Leah says there are other considerations. To pass as historical fiction, (1) a novel has to have been written at a later date than the action, (2) the author has to have researched the time and place, and (3) the author has to have included vivid details of time and place as part of the setting and plot. If the main characters could be pulled from the setting and thrown into another time and place without changing the story, then the book is probably not really historical fiction.

Asked how a reader would know that an author did research, Leah replied that authors will usually let you know in their acknowledgements by thanking librarians, archivists, and other keepers of history. She also said novels with maps and genealogies usually required research.

Leah pointed out that few libraries ever sticker novels as historical fiction, for too many titles would qualify. Many novelists utilize historical settings and details, making learning history more fun for readers than reading textbooks. As a rule, most historical novels are atmospheric and lengthy, demanding a commitment to read. If well written, readers can immerse themselves in other times for days or weeks.

Besides asking your friendly librarian (which is always a good tactic), Leah suggested four tools for identifying historical novels:

The website
The blog Reading the Past
The book Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre by Sarah Johnson
The database Novelist Plus, available on many library websites

In her presentation, Leah described the following historical fiction novels:

  • Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosney
  • Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
  • Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (example of book that does not fit the historical fiction definition above)
  • The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  • True Grit by Charles Portis
  • The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
  • The White Queen by Phillippa Greory
  • The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear
  • Rise to Rebellion by Jeff Shaara
  • The Terror by Dan Simmons
  • Stonehenge: 2000 B.C. by Bernard Cornwell
  • Mexico by James Michener
  • People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

With warmth Leah succinctly described each book, placed it in a category (or two), and described why readers would enjoy it. In doing so, she kept the circle of readers engaged and responded thoughtfully to questions throughout the discussion. I enjoyed listening and recommend her to other libraries wanting someone to discuss fiction with staff or in public programs.

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