Jersey Reflections: The Historical Novel

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Recently, Vineland has had its first entrance into the realm of history-based fiction.

Now that Barbara Kingsolver’s 2018 fiction Unsheltered has given Vineland its first entrance into the realm of the historical novel by setting half of its narrative in the 19th-century version of the town, this might be a good time to examine the world of history-based fiction.

The historical novel is by no means a new form. Writers have used the past as the settings of their works for centuries, and the United States has some very recognizable works that fall into this canon.

Take, for instance, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a book still on school reading lists. This novel was written in the 19th century but set in the Puritan times of the late 17th century when the Salem witch trials had occurred and accusations of a neighbor’s sinfulness abounded.      

For Hawthorne, the setting was personal—an ancestor of his when the family name was still spelled H-a-t-h-o-r-n-e served as a judge in the witch trials, condemning more than a few souls to death. The family guilt led to the addition of a ‘w’ to the name in a feeble attempt to disassociate future generations from the judge, but it also consumed Nathaniel, who attempted to expurgate the tarnished reputation of his clan through his writings.   

It’s doubtful The Scarlet Letter purged Hawthorne’s guilt, but it did contribute to the development of American Literature at a time when shaping our own literary destiny had just begun.

Since then, other U.S. authors have employed historical settings in their novels to review their era’s relationship to the past and to provide real-life figures with new contexts in which to exist. The 20th-century author William Faulkner used the Civil War setting for one of his works, while Thomas Pynchon, in Mason & Dixon, created a fictional account of its title characters replete with 18th-century grammar and spelling.

Last year, this column examined a local contributor to the historical novel, 19th century Cumberland County author Everett T. Tomlinson, the writer of such fiction as A Jersey Boy in the Revolution, Mad Anthony’s Young Scout and Champion of the Regiment, all of which recreated battles from various wars for their narratives and had fictional young protagonists interacting with historical military leaders.

The historical novel hasn’t always been called by that title, brandishing various names throughout time, including the misnomer “non-fictional fiction” that was still popular 40 years ago. But, regardless of what it’s called, today’s era of fact-checking and accountability has begun to create new demands for the history component of the historical novel.

Last month, Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz, a historical fiction based on two real-life Holocaust survivors who were prisoners at the camp referenced in the title, reached the top position in the New York Times list of paperback fiction. The book, which includes an “Additional Information” section that examines various facts about the lives on which the novel is based, follows the tale of Lali Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, who met Gita Furman while they were both imprisoned at Auschwitz. Forced by the Nazis to tattoo numbers on the arms of prisoners, Sokolov met Furman when she came to him for her tattoo and immediately fell in love. They would eventually marry.

However, according to a New York Times article in November, “The Perils of (Mostly) Fact-Based Holocaust Novels” by Christine Kenneally, some of the details of the book have come under scrutiny. It’s reported that Furman’s tattoo number, for instance, is incorrect in both the story and the “Additional Information” section. And the novel’s portrayal of the couple’s first encounter is apparently disputed by interviews over the past several decades by Sokolov, Furman and their son.

In discussing the “Additional Information” portion of the book, Kenneally poses questions that would never have been asked of Hawthorne, Faulkner or other earlier authors of historical fiction. “Interestingly,” she writes, “the section raises questions about how we talk about what is true in a novel based on a true story. Does truth lie in the small details or the large events? Who is the arbiter? And what does fiction gain when it is said to be based on truth?”

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