I’ve never found history a dull subject.
Walking into the highschool classroom, all geared up to begin my student teaching, it was apparent that I was in the minority.
Some freshmen and sophomores slumped in their seats, eyes glazing over in preparation for a lecture-induced coma. Others gripped pencils, grimly determined to make the grade, however painful the process might be.
No problem. After all, I was twenty-two, in my fifth year of college, and therefore knew everything I needed to motivate and excite them with THE WONDER OF LEARNING!!!
Why is that highschool reaction so common? Why does it seem that so many people expect history to be dull?
Maybe it has something to do with the way it’s traditionally presented.
After all, history teachers have a great deal of information to impart in a brief period of time. Great world events are, by necessity, boiled down to bullet points, lists of dates, and a few ageing photos.
While I don’t intend to debate teaching styles, I think it’s fair to say that oftentimes the people who lived history get buried in minutia, and with them is buried a chance for the modern learner to connect and empathize with the past.
Tales of heroism and cowardice, of kindness and cruelty, can engage even the most skeptical learner.
Of course, anyone who perceives history as dull and dry is unlikely to seek out non-fiction books to find these tales.
Therein lies the power of excellent historical fiction.
I was recently introduced to Connie Willis’ novel Blackout and the sequel All Clear. (Many thanks to Sarah Higbee and her Brainfluff blog.)
I was attracted to the books by the WW2 photos on the covers, but what sold me was the twist in their storytelling- a change from my diet of nonfiction to historical science fiction.
Oxford in the year 2060 sends historians to study history first-hand, via time travel. The process has been perfected, and all (well, nearly all) of the experts are convinced that the historians are unable to affect history’s outcome. However, when Polly, Mike and Eileen are stranded in World War 2, it appears that this philosophy may be entirely wrong.
Now, I like my historical fiction with an emphasis on the ‘historical.’ (Am I the only one nerdy enough to be wee bit disappointed that I didn’t learn anything new about World War I while watching the otherwise entertaining Wonder Woman? No one else? Sigh.)
Ms. Willis packs in a tremendous amount of early World War 2 historical detail. I’ll confess, I suspected at one point during the first book that a few of the POV changes existed for the sole purpose of including some of her research.
Hmmm. This story is primarily set during The Blitz . Ambulance drivers and Operation Fortitude fit in…where?
I’m pleased to announce that my suspicions were unfounded. By the end of book two, (in which I felt the pacing moved along a bit better,) all plot threads were accounted for in a most satisfying way.
Of course, incorporating a great deal of factual detail risks pulling the reader out of the narrative. Long info-dumps can weaken the most fascinating story.
I felt that Ms. Willis avoided this pitfall. Her main characters were visitors in the past, so conversations and observations about the period made sense. She didn’t lean on this ‘free pass to lecture’ overmuch; information was woven into the story as the characters lived the Blitz, the Dunkirk evacuation, and caring for evacuees.
A history lecture on these events might fail to excite skeptics.
I enjoy learning about history, and I still find the facts and figures blending together at times.
Books like Ms. Willis’ give an opportunity to experience history in a different way.
We readers can briefly slip on the shoes of her characters and walk the rubble-strewn streets of London, struggle through crowded tube stations as threatening cacophony fills the skies overhead, and meet the everyday heroes who survived the struggle, one day at a time…
…and it’s all hidden in a time travel sci-fi novel.
Side notes: Teaching history ended up being great fun. Every time I did something besides lecture, it was like I was a teaching ROCK STAR! 🙂
I enjoyed the stories and the fresh look at history that these books provided. Due to the harrowing nature of the Blitz and some language used in response to the dangers, this one’s not for the little ‘uns. 🙂 I’m planning to blog on historical fiction for younger audiences next time. (Ahem. Younger in theory. I still like them.)
At some point I’m going to get some more non-fiction on here, when I can climb out from under the piles of sheet music I’m trying to learn…
Thanks for visiting!