Posted by: downtothesea | August 10, 2009

History and the historical novel…with a dash of genealogy.

As the outreach coordinator for a museum, I spend a lot of my time thinking of ways to make our museum and the stories we tell accessible to our visitors.  The process by which a museum’s knowledge base is transmitted to the general public is called “interpretation.”  This can be accomplished in a visual, auditory, or tactile fashion, and the best museums employ all three to varying degrees.

When we work on genealogy, we are both museum and visitor.  We possess all this raw information and have to interpret it ourselves, FOR ourselves.  I try to use my own experiences to enhance my understanding of my ancestors, but I sometimes I need outside help.  Because I’m an unabashed bookworm, I often turn to historical fiction to help me fill in the gaps.

I have an uneasy relationsip with historical fiction.  As one who has received degrees in the study of history, I fully appreciate how difficult it is to understand a past event relying on the sources available.  Additionally, our own life experiences color our perception and comprehension of historical events.  The “TRUTH,” if there even is such a cut-and-dried concept, is desperately hard to pin down.  The harder we look at it, the blurrier it becomes.  Historical fiction takes history that extra step towards speculation as an author uses his or her own imagination to flesh out events, or characters’ mindsets.  But there’s a bravery there that appeals to me, a willingness to open one’s mind to the possibility of being completely and utterly wrong about history–or perhaps being more right than anyone could know.  Authors often take risks in interpretation that historians wouldn’t dare.  I admire that courage.

At the moment I am reading Kevin Baker’s historical novel Paradise Alley, set in New York City during the Civil War.  Most of the characters are Irish immigrants who came to America in the wake of the Famine.  As this was my family’s experience as well (though they didn’t end up in New York City), I have been reading Mr. Baker’s interpretation of souls damaged irreparably by the gross trauma of the Famine with morbid interest.  His description, flashback-style, of a family’s slow death by starvation and fever in a ruined cottage on the Burren is vivid to the point of gruesomeness and since I read it I have been haunted by it.  Was this what my family was fleeing from?  Was it like this, truly like this? 

In the end, I suppose it really doesn’t matter how pitch-perfect and accurate Mr. Baker’s descriptions are.  What matters to me is that his book is making my ancestors real to me in ways I might not have though of on my own.  He could be right or wrong, or perhaps somewhere in between, but his book is making me think.  It is making me think hard about history and how it was lived out by real people–real people who, though they didn’t know it then, were day by day, slowly creating me.



  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this subject. For what it’s worth, my husband, Mr. “Get the Facts Right” Historian, has quite a few piece of historical fiction that he respects and enjoys. He says that these authors have really done their research on the setting and background and know how to bring history to life. So based on your and his comments, I’ve decided to dip my toes into historical fiction and have started a reading list for myself (putting Paradise Alley on it). Thanks!

    • I can also be a “Gets the Facts Right” Historian, much to the dismay of my own spouse, the artist, who is always able to see wiggle room an any number of my historical theories. He keeps me honest by playing the devil’s advocate!

      Thanks, as always, Greta, for reading and commenting!


  2. I couldn’t have said this any more eloquently than you have. A “skeleton” of my family’s past is just not good enough for me. I want to really know them – know what their hopes, dreams, and fears were. Likewise, I hope in the future someone wants to know all about me. Thank you for sharing your passion!

    Caroline Pointer
    Family Stories

    • That is exactly how I feel. I spend so much time trying to know them that I often find myself lonely for and missing family members I have never met!

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Caroline!


  3. Wonderful post and comments. I’m from the “other side” of the discussion, being a historical fiction author. It’s refreshing when historians & those interested in true interpretation will give fiction a chance. If nothing else, I think a well written, heavily researched novel paints a picture and conveys the emotions of the era, inspiring the reader to want to learn more.

    • I completely agree! Thank you for being a brave fiction writer and for keeping this genealogist from going all curmudgeonly and reducing her wonderful family to a dry list of names!


  4. I so love your closing paragraph . . . thank you for putting words to my feelings in this manner.

    I have been a family history collector for what seems like my entire life (50+ years), and I’ve been reading historical fiction since my teenage years when I was probably the only person in my class to willingly read “Gone With the Wind” on my own time (we have ancestors that came to Texas from the plantations of Georgia).

    I like those big thick books that give me time to get to know and spend quality time with the characters involved.

    Within the last several years I found (quite by accident) that we appear to have one line that connects, e.g., all the way back to the “Katherine” of the book by the same name by Anya Seton.

    And by way of Katherine’s marriage to John of Gaunt, his line potentially takes us back to the time period of Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth,” which I had not read until just last year. And the decided advantage of reading “Pillars” so late in the game is that as soon as I finished it, I was able to dive right into “World Without End.”

    Ok, enough of my rambling . . . did I say, “Thank you!” from this kindred spirit?

    Vickie in Texas
    aka BeNotForgot

    • Have you read anything by Edward Rutherford? He follows family lines down through several hundred years in one specific place. I read his books _Sarum_, (about Salisbury, England), _London_, and now I’m working my way through his “Dublin Saga,” which starts with _Princes of Ireland_ and proceeds to _Rebels of Ireland_. They are wonderful “big thick books!”

      Thanks for reading and commenting!


  5. Hi,
    I really enjoy your blog and think it is deserving of the Kreativ Blogger Award. Stop by and pick up your award and follow instructions. Congratulations!

    Joan Miller
    Luxegen Genealogy and Family History

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