So I’m a bit obsessed with a few genres, steampunk, historical fiction, and fantasy being among them. The other day I tweeted a bit about how I wanted to see more new historical fiction, because I think it’s a fabulous genre that gives a personality to time periods that most people don’t really bother to learn about. Literary historical fiction (i’m giving it that name) is one of my favorite subgenres of it because it gives a new twist to old writing, and as a fan of old and new writing alike I love when an author takes time to recreate a favorite tale.
Witch Child by Celia Rees was one of my first forays into historical fiction, and as a child I refused to acknowledge that I was learning something worthwhile about history while I read it. Now however, after learning quite a bit about the Salem Witch Trials, I see this as a relatively accurate portrayal the time, with a much more fantastic ending. Mary, the main character fled England for America after her grandmother was tried and convicted of witchcraft. Once in America, she finds herself living in a puritanical colony where the same frenzied witch hunt begins.
As Rees’ describes it, it becomes a story of a woman living in two worlds. In the puritanical society in which Mary finds herself, she is considered to be strange despite the fact that no one knows her past. Whereas in the Native American society she ensconces herself in towards the end of the novel, she is revered for her abilities and knowledge.
This story and the follow up novel Sorceress, are among my favorite historical fiction stories because they not only chronicle the life of Mary, but show how the past and future connect, when her descendant, a Native American teenager named Agnes stumbles upon her diaries (the contents of Witch Child), and goes through a journey that allows her to find herself.
Ophelia by Lisa Klein is pretty much my favorite example of Literary Historical Fiction, because it puts Ophelias perspective into Hamlet. Aside from Macbeth, Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play of all time. So reading what Klein had to say about Ophelia, and how her relationship with Hamlet developed was probably one of my favorite parts of the story; Since Ophelia had little to no character development in the actual play. She was perceived to be a wishy-washy female who was governed by her love for Hamlet. In this story however she is strong, intelligent, clever, and she is definitely someone I would want as my new best friend.
I’m looking forward to reading more of Klein’s work now that I’ve rediscovered her (I bought this book several years ago, and forgot about it till recently). The books she writes all seem engaging and entertaining and most importantly, they’re all historical fiction. (Cue my happy dancing).
I think that most of the Historical Fiction novels I enjoy have female heroines because I like to see how the women interact with their time period, and this one is no different. Set in 1912, A Company of Swans by the much loved Eva Ibbotson, is a fantastic read. It’s centered around Harriet Morton whose only dream is to become a ballet dancer. However when she is offered a professional position, it conflicts with the desires of her strict father, her nanny, and her newly appointed fiance. In true storytelling tradition, she flees to join the ballet company who happens to be going on a tour of the Amazon, a new and wild land that’s mostly jungle. Over the course of the novel she finds love, passion, and most importantly she discovers what it is she wants out of life. Since it is set in a more contemporary time period, it’s actually a little more interesting to see the character development, and compare it to historical fiction novels set in earlier time periods. All of Eva Ibbotson’s books are wonderful, but this one and A Countess Below Stairs deserve honorable mentions for historical fiction.
Ann Rinaldi is famous for her Historical Fiction, and rightly so. Her Novels are well crafted, Interesting, and have always seem to be in the Civil War or American Revolution. At least the 5 I have read are. The Girl in Blue is among my favorites, the second; Finishing Becca, and the third being The Secret of Sarah Revere. Girl in Blue is the one I choose for this, because Sarah Louisa is a bold young girl who after finding out she is to be wed to her despicable neighbor (do you see a trend?) runs away from home. She then concocts a plan to join the army, and does so successfully, fighting alongside her male counterparts. Of course she can’t do that forever, because like Mulan, she gets injured and found out. As a result she becomes a spy for Allen Pinkerton. The book is really really good, and as a young girl I spent nights mulling over what it would be like to fight for the US. Then I realized that I don’t like sports, or fighting, and most of what she did actually just sounded like legal torture. Nonetheless, Ann Rinaldi’s a dynamo, check out her awesome website!
Lastly will be another Celia Rees’ book, because I can’t confine this one to an honorable mention at the end of a bit about Witch Child. Pirates! gets a whole quote.
“I stood with Minerva as our first fight came, pistols primed and slung about me, my cutlass honed and as sharp as a razor, my axe hanging heavy from my belt. I could not keep my legs from shaking, my knuckles were white from gripping the rail, but Minerva had a stillness about her, her features as calm and expressionless as if they had been carved from ironwood. I’d seen the look before, on the faces of Phillis and Thomas and the other slaves when confronted by Duke in his fury. It was not resignation, more a refusal to show any reaction to whatever fate was about to enfold her. I was green and sick with nervousness. She put her hand on mine to steady me, whispering through the cannon’s roar.” -Excerpt from Pirates taken from Celia Rees Website.
This story is a tale of slavery, piracy and adventure. It takes the reader on a journey with main characters who have to do things that they never imagined themselves doing. Whether it’s killing a man in cold blood or running for their lives. Rees’ takes a slave and her mistress who become unlikely friends and sends them off in a battle for some semblance of equality. This book was one that I read as a child because I thought the idea of pirates was cool, and I’d never heard of a woman pirate before. Rereading it as an adult it just sparks a desire for a simpler life where gold was currency, and you didn’t need to be on twitter to know about other peoples lives. Though, the pirate things sounds dangerous, but cool.
I think that Celia Rees and Ann Rinaldi sparked my long lasting love with historical fiction, and I genuinely hope that the market is ready for them, and writers like them again. After years of vampire romance and dystopias, It’ll be truly refreshing to see the past again.