If you were to ask Kathy, mother of @motherdaughterbookshelf, what her favorite genre of fiction is, she might hesitate a bit (so many are good – how to choose?!?) but then would pretty quickly land on historical fiction. So much about this genre is compelling. As readers, we find ourselves in different times and different places and become immersed in stories that draw us in both with their narrative arcs and with their illumination of history. Sometimes those stories are told by shining a spotlight on a major historical figure and can be quite powerful. Equally compelling, though, are stories told from a bit off-stage. Stories that breathe new life into history in ways often ignored by textbooks. In this blogpost, then, we feature three books we love that take on “history from the wings.”
Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
We all think we know about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. It happened right after the Civil War, when the fighting had barely finished. In a theater in Washington D.C. And we all remember the name of the murderer, it’s one of those “names that will live in infamy”: John Wilkes Booth. He was some sort of actor, right?
Karen Joy Fowler started writing Booth when she became fascinated with the families of famous killers. She pondered several questions. What can those families tell us about people who have changed history? What can they tell us about ourselves? This compelling novel, now on the longlist for the Booker Prize, take on these questions in an intense, illuminating, and powerful way.
The major points of view in Booth are two of John Wilkes Booth’s sisters and one of his brothers, and there are segments telling of Abraham Lincoln’s life interspersed throughout. We learn about the world of Shakespearean actors in which several members of the Booth family were famous. We see rising tension surrounding slavery and the abolition movement rendered in the very personal happenings of this family. There isn’t any mystery about the climax of the book, of course, but it is still utterly enthralling. Fowler’s writing is brilliant with vivid description and deft characterization and the perfect number of winks at the audience. If you want a book that combines detailed historical research with captivating prose, this is one you should pick up.
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams is a novel about how “women’s words” – and the words of most poor and working class people – were largely ignored in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Words? Feminism? History? Anyone who knows me (Kathy) knows this is exactly the kind of book I like, and like it I did.
The book unfolds at a leisurely pace, with the narrative interspersed with letters and dictionary entries. It features many actual historical figures and events, as well as Esme, our protagonist, placed in the midst of all the words. Esme’s father is one of the OED’s editors and she has grown up surrounded by those involved in the painstaking work of the dictionary’s creation. But she comes to realize that there are important words being left out. Words of the working class. Words of the poor. Words of women. To put it simply, words of those who had little or no power in Esme’s world.
The Dictionary of Lost Words reminds us that our world is shaped not just by the actions of individuals but by the systems that institutionalize those actions. And, most of all, it reminds us that we remember – and are remembered – through language. As a young Esme is told early in the book, “Words are the tools of our resurrection.”
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
And, finally, Geraldine Brooks tells a story about myriad sidelines in 17th-century New England in her brilliant book, Caleb’s Crossing. The setting is Martha’s Vineyard, and our narrator is Bethia, a young woman whose mother died in childhood. Living on the island is challenging, both in terms of basic subsistence and in terms of the tensions between the Wampanoags who have lived there for generations and the white interlopers who have settled in their midst. Bethia understands all the expectations of her world. Her father farms, does mission work among the natives, and tries to prepare his eldest son, Makepeace, for life off the island at Harvard. Bethia cares for her young sibling and anticipates an arranged marriage with a local boy.
And then, Bethia encounters Cheeshahteaumauck, a Wampanoag youth and nephew of one of the tribe’s most powerful leader. The two become friends and through that friendship seek out glimpses, and even more, of each other’s worlds. Eventually, Cheeshahteaumauck crosses into Bethia’s (or, more accurately, Makepeace’s) world, changing his name to Caleb and matriculating at Harvard.
Bethia’s first person narrative exquisitely captures the language of the day and, more important, the structures and strictures that define and divide her world. Men and women. Wampanoag and settlers. Learned and unlearned. It’s a fascinating story of history often forgotten, and Bethia’s sideline view makes it all the more powerful.
So if you’re seeking historical fiction, by all means read books about the people you’ve heard of – you’ve heard of them for a reason! But also consider history told from the wings. The views of those not centered in the story are often the ones we need to hear.