Thursday, April 12, 2012


"A historical novel . . . is qualified to be called that if it is set 50 years prior to the date it was written."

That statement was made by BookList's Brad Hooper, requoted by his colleague Keir Graff. This would imply that Pride and Prejudice, written in 1813 about life in 1813 and specifically mentioned by both Hooper and Graff as an example, would not be considered historical. Likewise, Little Women, written in 1868 about events in 1862, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, written in 1997 about events in 1991-92. It also means that books like Number the Stars, written in 1989 about events in 1943, would not be historical.

No offense to Hooper, but I'm not certain I agree with his assessment. While I do agree that Pride and Prejudice, for example, should not be considered historical, and that Harry Potter has enough fantasy in it to make it almost asynchronous, fifty years seems a bit stretchy. And, for that matter, totally relative and arbitrary. Why fifty? What makes that particular number so important?

Perhaps the number should be 30 years -- that seems to be when people begin reminiscing, and a lot of historical novels begin to come out There's been an influx in recent years of books about Vietnam, for example, although 30, like 50, seems rather arbitrary. My colleague S is of the opinion that a historical novel is any that is situated in a specific point in time, regardless of how long ago that point was.

What's your take? The following books all have plotlines that take place less than 50 years before publication. I've included the authors, the years the plots take place, and the years of publication. You tell me: Are they historical or not?
Number the Stars, Lois Lowry (1943/1989)
Meet Molly, Valerie Tripp (1944/1988)
Meet Julie, Megan McDonald (1974/2007)
Dead End in Norvelt, Jack Gantos (1962/2011)
When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead (1979/2009)
All the Broken Pieces, Ann Burg (1977/2009)
Lucky, Wes Tooke (1961/2010)
Neil Armstrong Is My Uncle, Nan Marino (1969/2009)
Summer of My German Soldier, Bette Greene (1942/1973)
Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Ellen White (1968/2002)
Criss Cross, Lynne Perkins (1970/2005)
The Wednesday Wars, Gary Schmidt (1967/2007)

1 comment:

Marcie said...

There's also the idea that readers of "contemporary" fiction could be reading a book decades or centuries after it was written. Naturally "Pride and Prejudice" wasn't historical fiction at the time it was written, but readers today can certainly glean information about the culture and time period in which it was set.

I think I've seen a loose definition along the lines of "if the time period in which a book is set is important to the story, then it's historical fiction." So, for example, books on 9/11 would be considered historical if those events are central to the story and to the characters.

On a related side note, there's a new-ish book called "Child-Sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms" by Sara L. Schwebel that addresses a similar topic. It's scholarly and so I skimmed more than read, but it was interesting. The focus is more on the way teachers teach history through novels. They tend to talk about characters while accepting any facts presented at face value, while ignoring the time period in which the author wrote. Attitudes of the time influence the way authors see past events, which doesn't mean they skew facts exactly but does skew the way they may present them.