Can good fiction teach good history?

When what can be known is accurate and what can’t be known is apparent, good historical fiction becomes a vehicle for deeper understanding, even connection, with the past. History buffs and teachers alike have spent centuries mourning the general resistance school-children have toward the subject. Young minds are taken on field trips, shown movies, and assigned re-enactments in our effort to “make history come alive” to them. The efforts are valiant and often successful, but college professors still encounter the student who sees the history text the same way one would see an old black-and-white silent film, complete with popping and scratching noises, strange clothing habits, awkwardly speeded up action, and bits of slap-stick humor that aren’t funny at all. What can be done?

Are you saying to hand them a novel?

Well-done historical fiction can open eyes to the humanity of the past; the common-bond; the full-color, full-throttle action of it. But that’s not all it can do. Good fiction explores history in a way that seamlessly harmonizes the various disciplines within the field, and it does it effortlessly. Social history, political history, philosophical history, sociological history, archeological history… A writer of good historical fiction understands that all these factors come into play to mold a person of the ___ century, because they’re the same sorts of factors that influence who we are and how we think, today. Can a good historian write good fiction? Yes, possibly better than most. Can an excellent storyteller write good history? The answer is the same—possibly better than most historians.

Should our students be encouraged to explore the past through the medium of historical fiction? Another resounding “yes!” Not simply because it will bring into lively color in their minds what was dull—we all agree history can produce great fiction (the truth is often the strangest of all)—but because good fiction really can do good history, and that is something student and scholar alike don’t want to miss!

Amy Rachel Peterson, 8/29/2006