I’m gonna build a time machine,
So I can go back and make the scene,
I’m gonna make some time
With my Egyptian Queen
In my little old time machine.
That song leaped to mind today when I decided to look at some historical fiction, old books about old times, hefty tomes, what I sometimes call doorstopper books because of their weight. Summertime with its relaxed pace can be a great season to climb into one of these ink-and-paper time machines, turn our backs for a couple of hours a day on the headlines and our present-day squabbles, and slip into the past.
Today let’s look at just a few writers, some forgotten today, who can whisk us off to different places and cultures.
Sigrid Undset’s fictional trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter, first found its way into my hands when I was 40. Set in late medieval Norway, this story follows Kristin from her girlhood to her death by the plague. For a month, and then for another month when I read her four-volume The Master of Hestviken, Undset held me in her thrall as she brought that land and its people to life. Everything is here: the battle between faith and the world; family life; the conflict between desire and duty; birth and death. Undset, whose life was as moving and as tragic as her books, won the Nobel Prize in Literature for this one in 1928.
Closer to home, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind recreates the antebellum plantation society of Georgia, the devastation of the Civil War and the burning of Atlanta, and the South’s attempts to rise from the conflagration it had helped create. Like Kristin Larvansdatter, Scarlett O’Hara is the central character in these thousand pages. In part because of the film, Scarlett, Rhett Butler, and Ashley and Melanie even today remain household names to millions. In My Reading Life, Pat Conroy writes that Gone With The Wind is a war novel, an historical romance, a comedy of manners, a bitter lamentation, a cry of the heart, and a long, coldhearted look at the character of this lovely, Machiavellian Southern woman.” He describes at length his mother’s devotion to both the book and the film, and the influence on his own writing. (My Pennsylvania mother nearly flunked her high school chemistry class because she hid Gone With The Wind in her textbook and read while the teacher lectured.)
Next up are the novels of Kenneth Roberts, tales set in Colonial and Revolutionary New England. Arundel, Rabble In Arms, Northwest Passage, Oliver Wiswell: in my late twenties, in the space of a few months, I sailed through these fat novels and walked away with a renewed appreciation of the men and women who created our country. Having said that, my favorite of these was Oliver Wiswell, in which Roberts tells the story of the American Revolution through the eyes of a Loyalist who remained fiercely devoted to his King and to England.
If you want some hilarity along with your history, go George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman” novels. Here we follow the antics of Harry Flashman, soldier, sometimes spy, and always a coward, a sexual philanderer, and all-round blackguard. Along with Flashman, we ride in the charge of the Light Brigade, suffer the military disasters in Afghanistan, and do battle in China and India. Flashman even manages to become involved in American conflicts, finding himself trapped in the armory with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry and escaping near death at the Custer massacre. Begin with the first novel, simply titled Flashman, and then proceed as you will for laughs and learning.
Some novels contemporary in their setting and time with their authors become historical with the passage of time. Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, the World War II novels of Herman Wouk: the people who wrote such books did not regard them as historical novels, but age has made them so.
In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, for example, Betty Smith relates the story of an Irish immigrant family in New York City in the early 1900s. Smith, who lived this story during her childhood, takes us into the crowded tenant houses of the poor, the bars where men drank away their problems, the schoolrooms where children like Francie, the central character, hoped and dreamed of bettering themselves through education. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is a fine portrait of the struggles of immigrants and of Brooklyn.
Good historical fiction not only entertains, but it also educates. It connects us to our ancestors, makes some of our own difficulties seem petty when compared to theirs, and broadens our vision of what it means to be a human being.
And if you’re looking for such novels written by today’s writers? Just Google “great historical fiction,” and you’ll find dozens of choices.