By Svetlana Grobman, Reference Librarian
I love historical fiction. For one thing, good historical novels introduce me to many colorful characters I would not be able to meet otherwise. For another, these books give me a better understanding of the past, and without learning about our past we cannot build the future. Having said that, I’d like to introduce you to several recent works of historical fiction from our collection. Let’s start with the reign of Henry VIII, as depicted in Hilary Mantel’s novel “Wolf Hall” (Henry Holt and Co, 2009) and its sequel “Bring Up the Bodies” (Henry Holt and Co., 2012). Both books follow the life of Thomas Cromwell. “Wolf Hall” starts as young Cromwell leaves his abusive father to join the French army. Several decades later we find him helping Henry VIII annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Ann Boleyn. This, as we know, will prompt creation of the Church of England and the execution of Thomas More. What we don’t know is that Cromwell -- according to Mantel -- is a rather sympathetic character and Thomas More is not.
“Bring Up the Bodies” begins as the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn is deteriorating: Ann hasn't produced a male heir, and Henry VIII has become attracted to Jane Seymour. Once again, Cromwell is given the task of eliminating obstacles to Henry’s next marriage. As Cromwell begins weaving his web of intrigue, he’s acutely aware that one mistake can bring him down, too. This will happen, although Mantel will describe that in her next book.
“The Good Lord Bird” (Riverhead Books, 2013), by James McBride, transports readers to pre-Civil War America. A young slave boy, Henry Shackleford, is snatched from his family by the quixotic white abolitionist John Brown, who mistakenly identifies Henry as a girl. What follows is the boy’s account of his life in a Missouri brothel and, two years later, with Brown and his ragtag band, including Brown’s unsuccessful raid on the federal armory in Harper's Ferry, VA. Funny and tragic, the book also features Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
“The Bartender’s Tale” (Riverhead Books, 2012), by Ivan Doig, is also told from a boy’s point of view, but the story takes place in the summer of 1960. Twelve-year-old Rusty comes to northern Montana to live with his father, a popular saloon owner. Since his father works long hours, Rusty and his friend, Zoe, spend lots of time watching the adult world from a concealed air vent in the saloon’s backroom. Then several new characters appear, and the story flashes back to the Depression era. Nostalgic and engrossing, Doig’s novel is sprinkled with delightful details throughout: fishing competitions, mudslide and quirky characters of the bygone era.
“The Wives of Los Alamos”(Bloomsbury USA, 2014), by TaraShea Nesbit, tells a story of a group of women who are relocated to Los Alamos, NM with their husbands during WWII. While the husbands work day and night on a secret project, the wives deal with everyday existence in a desert military town. They live in an atmosphere of high security: their names are changed upon their arrival, they don’t know what their husbands are doing, their letters are censored and, on top of that, they’re thrown together with people they have never met. The author uses a collective “we” to highlight different aspects of the women’s lives. Yet the women appear different from each other, especially after the first atomic bombs are dropped, and the women, as well as their husbands, grapple with the consequences of that action.
Many works of historical fiction are dedicated to love. We’ve read about Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Napoleon and Josephine, and many others. In “Under the Wide and Starry Sky” (Ballantine Books, 2013), author Nancy Horan brings to life the romance between Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (“Treasure Island,” 1883; “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” 1886) and American divorcee Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. The novel begins as Stevenson and Fanny meet in France in 1875. He’s just earned a law degree and she’s escaped her unfaithful American husband and recently buried her young son. Stevenson, ten years younger than Fannie, immediately falls in love with her and soon wins her over. Horan then describes the trials and evolution of their relationship: Fanny’s return to America, her eventual divorce and marriage to Stevenson and their extensive travels all over the globe in search of a suitable climate for adventurous, but sickly Stevenson.
“The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion” (Random House, 2013) by Fannie Flagg, moves between the present and past. Sookie Poole, a middle-aged Alabama woman, who lives in the shadow of her domineering mother, suddenly learns that she was adopted and a year older than she thought (!). Her birth mother, Fritzi, was a daughter of Polish immigrants from Wisconsin. Fritzi never went to college, but she and her sisters were courageous young women who ran a family filling station and could fly an airplane. During WWII, Fritzi joined the WASPs (Women Air force Service Pilots) and delivered military planes to the front lines. Finding inspiration in her heritage, Sookie learns how to make her own decisions and take pride in the person she is.
And if you’d like to learn more about our state’s history, "The Missouri Immigrant Experience: Faces and Places” Photo Exhibit will be open in the library April 5-25. Come join us on April 5, 10 am – 12:30 p.m., and you’ll be treated to the stories behind the photographs, presented by Danny Gonzalez of the Missouri Historical Society and several local photographers.