The value of historical fiction

Historical fiction is a small but growing genre and represents one of the most important ways modern audiences connect with history. David Von Drohle wrote an excellent biography of Lincoln that was purchased by over 2 million readers. Spielberg’s Lincoln grossed over 275 million dollars and was viewed by audiences all around the world. Oscar Schindler helped saved over a 1,000 Jews from the Holocaust but lived in obscurity for most of the 20th century. Not until he became the subject of an Oscar-winning film did he become a household name. Gettysburg has inspired countless academic texts but one of the most popular books ever written on the subject remains Shaara’s Killer Angels. All this begs the question: why?

After all, it’s not like historical fiction authors hold up their writing as the authoritative take on a subject. Flip to the back of any historical novel and you will almost always find some sort of note from the author that mentions the pains they went through to create an accurate story, followed by some sort of addendum regarding the creative licenses they employed. Authors like Hillary Mantel and James Alexander Thom are known for the exhaustive research they incorporate into their stories so it’s worth noting they don’t often turn to other historical novels when conducting research. Instead, they consult primary sources and secondary sources, even traveling to historic locations when possible.

There’s probably a myriad of reasons readers are quicker to pick up a historical novel than a history textbook but one reason stands out: historical fiction is fun. Plenty has been written about Lee and Longstreet but getting to imagine their mental state in the midst of battle or how they might have conversed in private brings them to life in a way that an academic biography cannot. A historical novel should never be used as the be-all-end-all take on a specific era or event, but it has undeniable value when it comes to nurturing an interest in history. After all, emotion is an important part of how we remember events and historical fiction is nothing if not an exploration of the emotions and actions of people from previous centuries.

Works like Gone With the Wind and Braveheart have given historical fiction a bad name when it comes to accuracy, but it’s difficult to argue that modern authors like Andrew Rowen don’t place a premium on research. Historical fiction does not lack for detractors and critics, but fans and authors have done a great job of elevating this genre to new heights. I hope the genre continues to grow and the plethora of great works in historical fiction should be a comfort to anyone interested in studying the past.

Review of The Moor’s Account

Historical fiction is a relatively small genre. Most bookstores in the US do not have a historical fiction section and the genre is not nearly as popular as fantasy or science fiction. Owing to authors like Laila Lalami, that could soon change. The Moor’s Account serves as her first foray into historical fiction and represents a towering accomplishment for the genre.

Set during the early days of Spanish colonization of the Americas, the novel follows the travels of a Moorish slave referred to in primary sources as Estebanico. Her decision to focus on Estebanico, referred to in the novel as Mustafa al-Zamori, is just as laudable as it is noteworthy. Had she written the novel from the perspective of Vacas or Navarez, she would have had far more resources at her disposal in terms of research tools. Despite the difficulties involved, Lalami chose to make Mustafa the protagonist of the novel and gives readers a character who provides some fascinating perspective on matters regarding race, war, and religion.

The story begins with the Navarez expedition having just landed in “La Florida” and the protagonist remarks in the opening sentence that “it was the year 934 of the Hegira, the thirtieth year of my life, the fifth year of my bondage—and I was at the edge of the known world.” The opening line is not particularly complex in terms of structure or diction, but it does a great job of setting the tone for the story.

Most Americans are not familiar with the Hegira–after all, Muslims make up less than 2 percent of the US population and the Gregorian calendar is used throughout most of the world these days. By invoking the Hegira, Lalami lets us know upfront the protagonist does not come from a traditional Western background and gives us information that savvy readers can use to better understand the setting. Moreover, by referencing the specific number of years that the character has spent as a slave, we learn the character was not born into slavery but forced into it, an important distinction that hints at a backstory which Lalami explores in subsequent chapters with enviable grace. Nonetheless, it is probably the final clause of the opening sentence which merits the most attention from readers.

A number of authors have remarked that almost every story can be boiled down to two basic plots: a stranger comes to town or a character goes on a journey. With the final clause, we know we have the latter but, importantly, we also know the character is journeying into the unknown. As a result, we know early on that the protagonist will probably be exposed to a great many unfamiliar sights and some of the most memorable scenes of the novel include these unfamiliar sights, such as when Mustafa comes face-to-face with an alligator for the first time. Considering that Mustafa and his captors have never seen an alligator before, it is all too easy to understand the terror that Mustafa experiences as he watches the animal attack a fellow slave.

To think the Moor’s Account is a simple travelogue of pre-colonial North America would be a mistake though. Where The Moor’s Account really shines is how it encourages readers to think about history. Almost anyone who has learned about the Navarez expedition knows that it was an absolute disaster and that the vast majority of the crew perished. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was fortunate enough to survive and historians have long turned to his writings on the Navarez expedition to understand the event. Whereas many authors would have felt bound by the official account, the Moor’s Account subverts Vacas’ retelling on multiple occasions to give Mustafa more agency and to give the Amerindians more voice.

In doing so, the author encourages readers to take a more critical view of this primary source and its purported veracity. If events unfolded as they did in the novel, would Vacas have included that kind of information in the official account? The account that Vacas provided to notaries strongly suggests that Navarez bore sole responsibility for the failure of the expedition and that the surviving crew members, the Moor included, were selfless missionaries for Christ during their time with the “Indians.”

The portrayal offered by Lalami in The Moor’s Account is decidedly more complicated. Not only does Vacas share some of the responsibility for the failure of the expedition in Lalami’s retelling, she also strongly suggests that the survivors were much more keen on assimilating into Amerindian society than proselytizing, a concept that would have been truly shocking in 16th century Europe. Furthermore, the Moor never truly converted to Christianity in Lalami’s retelling and helped save the expedition on numerous occasions, something Vacas would have elided for numerous reasons. Lalami’s account is fictional of course but it raises many interesting questions about how we engage with history and the importance of critically examining the established orthodoxy. I would highly recommend this novel to fans of historical fiction, or those keen on literary fiction, and will be sure to keep an eye out for more of Lalami’s work in the future.

The book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.

Review of People of the Weeping Eye

People of the Weeping Eye is a book I accidentally discovered. I was at Moorenko’s, a local ice cream store, with my younger brother and it just so happened the store had a bookshelf full of donated books. I had been meaning to read a book by the Gear’s couple for awhile so I was quite pleased to find a free version of their work. I was even more pleased, however, to discover what a great story these archeologists-turned-novelists had written and I have gone on to buy many of their books since.

People of the Weeping Eye takes place in pre-Columbian North America, a world very familiar to these archeologists but one probably less familiar to the average reader. For lesser writers, the challenge of grounding a story in the Lower Mississippi Valley—a region seldom visited by individuals not taking part in Mardis Gras celebrations—of the 1300s would have been too great. Nevertheless, the Gears’ meet the challenge head-on and give audiences a historical novel that entertains as much as it educates.

It helps a great deal that the Gear’s know how to populate a world with interesting characters. The People of the Weeping Eye is a multiple protagonist story with half a dozen interconnected storylines. While the answer will probably differ from reader to reader, I personally found the storylines involving Old White and Trader to be the most interesting. Some of the most exciting events in the early chapters, like the raid on the White Arrow town, have little to do with these storylines but what really makes these storylines stand out are the great anecdotes included in them.

Old White has spent decades journeying all throughout pre-Columbian North America and has gained incredible knowledge from his travels. He has witnessed human sacrifice on a massive scale in pre-Hispanic Mexico, he has met with envoys that claim to trade with boat people from the East (an allusion to the increasingly popular theory in archeological circles that numerous tribes in pre-Columbian America traded infrequently with Pacific Island people), and he has even heard stories of a shipwreck survivor with pale skin and blue eyes that speaks an unknown tongue. Trader is not nearly as well-traveled, but his storyline is no less interesting. Early in the novel, he finds a hunk of copper so large it could be “buy him a chiefdom.” The copper attracts interest from some unsavory individuals and one character, the delightfully wicked Snow Owl, is so depraved that he encourages his virgin daughter to bed Trader as part of an elaborate murder plot. Much to Snow Owl’s chagrin, his daughter seems to enjoy the tryst immensely and Trader escapes harm by stealing away in the dead of night.

In addition to colorful anecdotes, the story abounds with crafty political machinations and gripping drama. The story is not without flaws, the prologue is pretty much pointless and the first chapter with Hickory is a tad confusing, but I would highly recommend this story to anyone interested in learning about the Mississippi chiefdoms of old or anyone who enjoys a good story with unique characters.

The book is available at Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.