The Public Humanist

History in Fiction, for Young and Old

becoming_lwIn the thick of the Cold War in 1960’s America, young Juliet Klostermeyer’s mother finally agrees to sit down with her daughter to watch Mr. Ed on TV. It’s a big moment for Juliet, the eleven-year-old protagonist of Ellen Wittlinger’s This Means War. Lately, her mother has been too stressed managing the family’s failing store to spend much time with her daughter. But just as Juliet snuggles onto the couch with her mom, a special bulletin comes on – President Kennedy, announcing that nuclear missile sites have been discovered on Cuba. His speech, and the Klostermeyer family’s fearful uproar, take up the whole episode of Mr. Ed:

Juliet … hadn’t moved through the whole speech. “I wanted to watch Mister Ed with Mom,” she said, and then the tears began to trickle down her cheeks. It suddenly seemed as if President Kennedy and the Russians and the newscasters had stolen something precious from her that she could never get back.

Caroline [Juliet’s sister] was incredulous. “Oh my God, you’re crying about a TV show? We’re all going to be blown up, and you’re upset because you couldn’t watch a talking horse?”

Caroline, of course, doesn’t understand that her sister’s tears aren’t for a TV show. Juliet is crying for a lost sense of safety – both her sense of lost closeness with her mom, and the way history’s crises can rob us of our sense of security and stability even within our own homes.

Wittlinger and three other Massachusetts novelists–Burleigh Mutén, Jane Yolen, and Jeannine Atkins–expertly deploy such powerful moments to explain complex historical themes to young readers, in a way adults too can enjoy. The four authors will read from and discuss their books in a free event on Wednesday, January 7 at the Forbes Library in Northampton, geared toward adults and older children. The event, Engaging Young People with History: An Evening with Middle Grade and Young Adult Novelists, is part of the Local History/Local Novelists lecture series. The series often draws crowds of 70 people to hear area writers engage deeply with questions relevant to New England and its past.

For instance, in her book of historical fiction Miss Emily, Mutén imagines a moment in the life of Emily Dickinson, arguably the state’s most famous poet. By showing Miss Emily through the eyes of young neighbor MacGregor Jenkins, Mutén reminds us that despite the poet’s famed reclusiveness, Dickinson adored children and allowed them frequent visits. In a book woven entirely of highly readable narrative verse, Mutén invents a galloping secret romp by night. Miss Emily races her niece, nephew, MacGregor, and his sister through moonlit woods and fields to watch the late-night arrival of the circus by train–all without telling MacGregor’s strict pastor father.

The real MacGregor Jenkins, later in life, would write about Miss Emily in his book Emily Dickinson, Friend and Neighbor. His place in history was secured by his closeness with the complex and brilliant poet. But Mutén’s book captures something more subtle: the purity and playfulness of a friendship innocent of any desire for a place in history between a child and a wise, imaginative adult. Mutén’s book feels modern in its readability, but consonant with its historical setting, through its graceful lyric language evoking the atmosphere of 1800’s New England and borrowing at times from Dickinson’s own letters.

Like Juliet and MacGregor, the children in Jane Yolen’s Centaur Rising brush against history accidentally, but it irrevocably marks their lives. Arianne’s younger brother Robbie is a thalidomide baby, born in the 1960’s. The mothers of these babies were given the drug thalidomide during pregnancy to ward off severe morning sickness, but the drug turned out to cause major deformities in their infants. Robbie has flipper-like feet and hands, earning him the nickname “seal child” at school and causing him to need a wheelchair. Arianne is protective of her brother and avoids befriending the kids at school, tending to keep to herself and the family farm. To make things worse, Arianne’s father abandoned the family after Robbie was born.

But Yolen achieves a fresh, original twist to her book by combining historical elements with fantasy. When a centaur is unexpectedly born to a horse on the farm after a spectacular meteor shower one night, Arianne is forced to face the rural community around her to keep both the centaur and her brother from harm. Despite the potentially heavy nature of her topics, Yolen’s choice of fantasy and her gentle language keep the book light, exciting, and playful. It’s easy for readers to feel that Robbie is their own brother, creating a new sense of familiarity around disability–and, of course, for them to wish a centaur would come down and touch their lives, too.

Of the four novelists, only Jeannine Atkins writes of protagonists who are directly aiming for a place in history. In Becoming Little Women, a meticulously researched book of historical fiction, young Louisa May Alcott and her sisters join their father as he tries to create a cooperative farm in the 1800’s. He’s eager to prove that people can live without money and without slave labor of any kind–not even the labor of animals like oxen or bees. But Louisa’s father is ultimately overly idealistic, failing to take care of necessary practical matters in his zeal to trust only in God to provide.

In the end, it’s Louisa May herself who will create history–in her famous novel Little Women, inspired by the events of her own life. Atkins shows the development of Louisa’s need to write, describing how she acquires her very first notebook, how she plans theatrical performances to help distract the family from their hunger, and how she climbs a tree to find the solitude to record day to day life in her diary. The farm fails–and yet it doesn’t, because it leads Louisa May Alcott to create a literary masterwork still with us today.

And that may be the best lesson about history for readers both young and old in these four authors’ work. The exciting events of history would fade unremembered without the writers who commemorate them. Whether in formal history books, historical fiction, or fiction in a historical setting, writers like Wittlinger, Muten, Yolen and Atkins harness the power of story to bring the past back to life–or, like a time machine, to bring us back into the life of the past.

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