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Historical Fiction and Me

I don’t like historical fiction. It’s purely personal taste. I do, very much, like historic fiction and would (and do) read Jane Austen novels over and over again. Same goes for Louisa May Alcott’s books. This year (every year), a few historical novels are on the shortlists for the Newbery Award and while considering their literary merits, I think I hit upon why, perhaps, I don’t like historical fiction.

Several times (at least three), in Alchemy and Meggie Swann by Karen Cushman, a master of the historical fiction genre, we’re told that Meggie throws her sewage out into the street. Scraps from her meager meals, human refuse, a number of other things—they’re all thrown into the street. And because of this practice, Elizabethan London smells. I think Meggie, who is crippled, even falls down in the dirty street once or twice. OK. Point made: London is dirty, messy, smelly. Its sanitation leaves much to be desired.

It’s a teaching moment. We’ve learned something about Elizabethan England. And that’s what bothers me. I never cared about Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy’s sewage problems. I didn’t have to. Now, I hate to say, I’m slightly curious about 19th century New England plumbing. But, and I guess it’s because I prefer character-driven fiction, I don’t want to be taught about it when I’m reading Little Women (I just want Jo to change her mind and marry Laurie). If I want to know more about sewage in olden times, I’ll research it.

Of course, this is just me. And I know that historical fiction has a place in our libraries and schools and can really bringing a period alive. But I still don’t like it much.

So, it rather surprises me how much I enjoyed Countdown by Deborah Wiles. It is another of my top picks for the Newbery Award. (I read somewhere, and I can’t find the source now, that historical fiction is currently defined as any period up to and including the Vietnam War. So, the absolutely wonderful All the Broken Pieces, by Ann Burg, which takes place just after that war, may or not be regarded as historical. And last year’s Newbery winner, When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, would not, as it takes place later in the 1970s. Correct me if I’m wrong.)

Countdown is set in the October of 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Franny, the heroine of our story, lives in suburban Maryland, not far from Andrews Air Force Base, where her dad is a fighter pilot. Her great uncle is a veteran of World War II, her younger brother is hoping to be an astronaut some day, and her older sister is getting involved in the civil rights movement. Her mother is a bit frazzled and scared. Needless to say, the entire family pays attention to current events and the Cuban Missile Crisis is on everyone’s mind. Running parallel to that story is Franny’s. She and her friend Margie are involved in a cold war of their own. They’re growing older and little things are tearing their friendship apart.

Wiles does a great job of tying the microcosm story to that of what’s happening in the world. And the format of the book is unique: Chapters are interspersed with short biographies of contemporary figures like JFK and Pete Seeger; news headlines; song lyrics; and other literature of the time, including information given to kids about how to duck and cover during an air raid. It fits my criteria of bringing something new to children’s literature, while also being something classic, something you’d want to read again and again, and of knowing it’s audience. In fact, it transcends audiences, because it even gets those of us who wouldn’t naturally read a historical fiction novel to give it a chance.

(Countdown is the first of a planned trilogy and I can imagine the next two books will deal with the civil rights movement (and more about Franny’s sister’s involvement in it) and the Vietnam War. I hope it doesn’t suffer from what I’ll call the Lord of the Rings curse… The academy award was given to the last of the movie trilogy as if the voters were waiting to award it only when all three were finished.)

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