Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why I Love Historical Fiction

A girl painting faux nylons on her legs during the 1940's
Some time ago I read the Children of the Promise books by Dean Hughes. The series follows a Utah family as their kids grow up and march of to battlefields, hospitals, and high school. In the author's note, he brags that he researched everything that could possibly be researched. If a character looks out a snowy window, then you can rest easy knowing the author looked up weather reports for that day. If the family goes to a movie you know it actually played in a theater near them on that exact date. I rolled my eyes a little. Who cares if it snowed in Sugar House, Utah on Christmas Day 1941? Sure, if you put snow on a historically dry battlefield, that'll screw up that war. But you can let it snow in Utah when you want snow.
Then I got to a scene in the second book. The women who got left behind on the home front stand around talking as they clean up dinner. There's a war going on. Their brothers and boyfriends and sons are fighting and dying on two continents. But what are they talking about? Fashion. Specifically nylons. The war makes it impossible for America to import nylon for stockings, but they want to be fashionable, so they draw a black makeup line down the back of their bare legs.
It impressed me because:
1. A male author is writing girl talk and it flows so naturally.
2. A modern author is writing 1940's talk and it flows naturally.
3. Everyone else wants to write about the bombs and battles of World War II. And there are plenty of those in the book, too. But a hardcore researcher doesn't just know who fought and won when. He knows how hard it was to draw a straight seam on your sister's leg. Little details like this make historical fiction come to life.
President Coolidge signing the Immigration Act, also known as the Asian Exclusion Act
My friend Tianna is a quarter Japanese. Our government teacher handed out a timeline on discrimination and democracy the other day. As Tianna read down the list, she was startled to find that the Asian Exclusion Act was passed in 1924. That's the year her great-granddaddy stepped off the boat.'d he get here if he was excluded? A quick search told her the law was passed on May 26, 1924. Alright, so he must have arrived in San Francisco before that. Then she pulled up a family history website and found the ship' s log. The date?
May 26, 1924.
And that's not when Grand-Granddaddy Masao got to America. No, that's when the ship set sail. They didn't dock until sixteen days later, but for some reason they were allowed in.
So what's the story there?
"Quick, son! We've got to book it down to the harbor and get on the last boat to America!"
"Wow, you're lucky you get here when you did. On the day you left, they passed this law banning Japanese immigrants. They just haven't started enforcing it yet."
"The last boat leaves on the twenty sixth? No, I want the tickets! Sorry, aspiring immigrant friends. These are mine!"
Whatever happened, there's a story here.
My favorite historical fiction is the kind that sheds light on the untouched corners of history. We all know what Hitler was up to during the war, but what about the Utah housewives? We know how the Asian Exclusion Act impacted immigration on a worldwide scale, but what did it mean for eighteen year old Masao? And what were the nylon details of his life? What was he eating when his dad told him to toss aside breakfast and get to the harbor? Did getting the last tickets to America mean he had to leave a girlfriend behind? Two decades later, when white housewives were drawing lines down their legs, did his family crowd around the wireless to hear about the attacks on Pearl Harbor?
I'm not fascinated enough to tell this story myself, and Tianna's books are full of fairies and aliens with vaguely Japanese names, but someday I'll stumble across a historical fiction book that touches on this topic in some way, and I'll read it. That's what usually happens when I get a "Wouldn't this be cool..." idea. Great-Grandaddy Masao isn't alone. Everyone who lived through history has some sort of story worth telling. Historical fiction is powerful because it makes global events personal and personal problems consume the world.

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