Historical Fiction for Children
Historical Fiction for ChildrenINTRODUCTION
OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
RACE, WAR, AND GENOCIDE IN HISTORICAL FICTION FOR CHILDREN
CRITICAL ISSUES IN HISTORICAL FICTION FOR CHILDREN
INDIVIDUAL WORKS OF JUVENILE HISTORICAL FICTION
Narrative fiction for juvenile and young adult readers that is based on historical fact, characters, and events.
Historical fiction for children attempts, as a genre, to blend the true events of recorded history with fictionalized characters and plotlines in an effort to create a narrative voice that will captivate young readers. While the popularity of the juvenile historical novel reached its zenith during the period spanning between 1880 and 1940, an era that witnessed the publication of such enduring classics as Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped (1886), Arthur Conan Doyle's Sir Nigel (1906), E. Nesbit's The House of Arden (1908), and Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series (1932–1943)—a period which some critics now call a "golden age" for the genre—the format still remains popular and has found a growing role in the classroom as an alternative means of presenting history to children. The concept of the historical novel is regarded as a relatively new literary creation, with several scholars crediting English novelist Sir Walter Scott with publishing the first modern historical novels, including Ivanhoe (1819) and The Talisman (1825). It should be noted, however, that at least one critic, Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, has argued that historical fiction traces as far back as 800 B.C. to Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Such extreme variations in determining the origins of the historical fiction genre are a reflection of a greater ongoing critical debate surrounding how best to define what constitutes a true historical novel. While no standard definition exists, there are several generalized characterizations ascribed to the genre, though the form continues to evolve and expand to incorporate new means of expression. First, historical novels have the bulk of their action set within one specified era, such as the Irish Potato Famine, or reflect the events of a defining cultural period, such as the American Revolutionary War. The plot of a historical novel generally occurs within this periodic framework, thus eliminating books that utilize history as a nostalgic remembrance of events. Instead, historical novels are set entirely within the context of the period, mostly forgoing any modern perspectives. This aspect of historical writing has proven to be problematic as many authors have been tempted to include their own opinions or relate present day impressions of past events. That said, there is little agreement about how far removed the writer's own lifespan must be from the specified era of the novel. For example, in the case of Laura Ingalls Wilder, her Little House series—which, although autobiographical in nature, is often included in surveys of historical novels as a whole—were published from her firsthand accounts of events within her own lifetime. Early critics argued for a definition of the genre that required at least one generation of removal between writer and subject material, which would automatically disqualify such autobiographical material as Wilder's texts. However, contemporary critics have begun to regard any material written about a period from over twenty years past as qualifying as historical fiction. Such critics have particularly argued for such a definition when it comes to qualifying historical works for juvenile and young adult readers, noting that even events that occurred in the past decade exist outside of a child's living memory and thus can be considered "historical."
When using historical events as a setting, many writers of historical fiction for children tend to choose eras of volatility and turmoil, such as wars or periods of great conflict. As a result, many classic adventure novels have been collectively—and some might argue incorrectly—labeled as historical novels, highlighting the second major thematic distinction of historical novels: history is used as a function of the plot instead of simply as a setting. One way to understand this subtle differentiation is by comparing Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), an adventure novel, with Kidnapped, which is regarded as one of the pinnacles of historical fiction for children. In Treasure Island, the historical setting of the eighteenth-century Caribbean has little bearing on the plot—the novel could conceivably be set in any era in which piracy flourished—whereas in Kidnapped, the time period is almost as integral a character as its protagonist David Balfour. The events of Kidnapped fundamentally rely upon the eighteenth-century Scottish Highlanders rebellion against British rule, blending real people and events with the fictional story of the orphaned David Balfour. As Bal-four struggles to understand why the Highlanders are rebelling, the character undergoes several crises of conscience over whether the Highlanders are fighting for a just cause. By presenting this material as an adventure story, similar in tone to the more fictional Treasure Island, Stevenson was able to construct a narrative that makes the intricacies of geo-political era much more accessible and understandable to young readers. While such elements have helped make historical fiction more popular with child readers, it has also helped make the genre emerge as tool for teaching history in elementary and middle school classrooms. Teachers have frequently used historical narratives to help make such difficult abstract concepts—such as war, slavery, and the Holocaust—more palatable and understandable to their students. Examples of such titles include Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain (1943), Jack Kuper's Child of the Holocaust (1967), Julius Lester's To Be a Slave (1969), and Doris Orgel's The Devil in Vienna (1978).
While much of history is filled with undeniable acts of tragedy or horror, the interpretation (or re-interpretation) of such events has led to some controversy within the historical fiction genre, surrounding mostly around the integration of modern sensibilities with historical fact. For example, during the Victorian era, there was a strong movement towards embellishing and enhancing the more legendary qualities of English history, particularly those involving such national icons as King Arthur or Robin Hood. Borne of a desire to "infuse the ideals" of an earlier culture into their contemporary literature, the Victorians were particularly inclined towards the romantic hyberbolization of chivalry. The United States has spawned its own equivalent national myths prone to broad romantic generalizations, such as the fabled heroes of the Alamo. One literary reaction to this "mythologizing" was the New Realism movement of the 1960s, which attempted to more accurately portray the often unpleasant social contexts of recent and ancient history. However, some critics have faulted this movement for trying to re-examine history through a more modern and "politically correct" perspective that ignores the social atmosphere of the original time period. Possibly the most prominent twentieth-century development in juvenile historical fiction has been the popularity and widespread use of the time-slip or time-travel story. Tracing its origins to such works as E. Nesbit's The Story of the Amulet (1906) and The House of Arden, the time-slip story features a historical narrative framed by a modern perspective, a technique achieved by having modern characters transported back in time—either through magical or scientific methods—to witness history first-hand. By utilizing this format, authors of juvenile historical fiction are able to both reflect historical fact while writing from a modern perspective. Using this form, books like Alison Uttley's A Traveller in Time (1939) and Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic (1988) are able to inject the author's own unapologetic sense of history, albeit through the potentially distorted lens of a child's understanding.
Today, historical novels are as diverse as the contemporary cultures they represent. Books covering less well-documented periods in American history are now commonplace in the publishing market. They document the roles of minorities and other such topics generally given a shorter thrift in standard history texts. With such diversification comes the possibility of broadening the appeal of history in general, which, as historian Helen Cam has reflected, can "awaken the incurious, especially the young, to interest in the past, widening the horizons of all and enticing a minority to serious study."
Laurie Halse Anderson
Fever, 1793 (juvenile fiction) 2000
Carol Ryrie Brink
Caddie Woodlawn: A Frontier Story (juvenile fiction) 1935
Baby Island (juvenile fiction) 1937
Spying on Miss Müller (juvenile fiction) 1995
S.O.S. Titanic (juvenile fiction) 1996
Castors Away! [illustrations by Victor Ambrus] (juvenile fiction) 1962
No Beat of Drum [illustrations by Victor Ambrus] (juvenile fiction) 1966
In Spite of All Terror [illustrations by Victor Ambrus] (juvenile fiction) 1968
Thomas [illustrations by Victor Ambrus] (juvenile fiction) 1969; published in the United States as Beyond the Weir Bridge
Tree of Freedom (juvenile fiction) 1949
Sook Nyul Choi
Year of Impossible Goodbyes (juvenile fiction) 1991
Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier
My Brother Sam Is Dead (juvenile fiction) 1974
Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Nigel [illustrations by Arthur Twidle] (novel) 1906
When the World's on Fire (juvenile fiction) 1972
Johnny Tremain: A Novel for Young and Old [illustrations by Lynd Ward] (juvenile fiction) 1943
The Slave Dancer [illustrations by Eros Keith] (juvenile fiction) 1973
One-Eyed Cat (juvenile fiction) 1984
Puck of Pook's Hill (juvenile fiction) 1906
Child of the Holocaust (juvenile fiction) 1967
To Be a Slave (juvenile fiction) 1969
This Strange New Feeling (juvenile short stories) 1982
The Story of the Amulet (juvenile fiction) 1906
The House of Arden: A Story for Children (juvenile fiction) 1908
The Island of the Blue Dolphins (juvenile fiction) 1960
Sing Down the Moon (juvenile fiction) 1970
The Devil in Vienna (young adult novel) 1978
Lyddie (juvenile fiction) 1991
Within the Capes (juvenile fiction) 1885
Otto of the Silver Hand (juvenile fiction) 1888
A Pocketful of Seeds [illustrations by Ben Stahl] (juvenile fiction) 1973
Sir Walter Scott
Ivanhoe: A Romance. 2 vols. (novel) 1819
Dear Mili: An Old Tale by Wilhelm Grimm [translated by Ralph Manheim] (picture book) 1988
Robert Louis Stevenson
Prince Otto: A Romance (novel) 1885
Kidnapped (novel) 1886
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses (novel) 1888
The Eagle of the Ninth [illustrated by C. Walter Hodges] (juvenile fiction) 1954
Outcast [illustrated by Richard Kennedy] (juvenile fiction) 1955
The Shield Ring [illustrated by C. Walter Hodges] (juvenile fiction) 1956
The Lantern Bearers [illustrated by Charles Keeping] (juvenile fiction) 1959
The Mark of the Horse Lord [illustrated by Charles Keeping] (juvenile fiction) 1965
A Traveller in Time (juvenile fiction) 1939
Jill Paton Walsh
The Dolphin Crossing (juvenile fiction) 1967
Fireweed (juvenile fiction) 1969
A Parcel of Patterns (juvenile fiction) 1983
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Little House in the Big Woods [illustrations by Helen Sewell] (juvenile fiction) 1932
Farmer Boy [illustrations by Helen Sewell] (juvenile fiction) 1933
Little House on the Prairie [illustrations by Helen Sewell] (juvenile fiction) 1935; revised edition, illustrations by Garth Williams, 1953
On the Banks of Plum Creek [illustrations by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle] (juvenile fiction) 1937
Dragonwings (picture book) 1975
The Devil's Arithmetic (young adult novel) 1988
The Little Duke; or, Richard the Fearless (juvenile fiction) 1854
The Daisy Chain; or, Aspirations. 2 vols. (juvenile fiction) 1856
The Dove in the Eagle's Nest. 2 vols. (juvenile fiction) 1866
Lillian H. Smith (essay date 1953)
SOURCE: Smith, Lillian H. "Historical Fiction." In The Unreluctant Years: A Critical Approach to Children's Literature, pp. 164-76. Chicago, Ill.: American Liberary Association, 1953.
[In the following essay, Smith presents a critical introduction to the genre of historical fiction and notes how different authors have utilized the format within the larger genre of children's literature.]
To every reading boy or girl a book of fiction is first of all an adventure tale: "Is it a story? Tell it to me" is a universal response. If the living of an adventure story can be a joyful experience to a child, it is an experience which can be deepened and broadened by the knowledge that long before he was born the world was full of eventful happenings, stirring, marvellous, portentous; a world which he can enter through the pages of a story book.
In historical fiction there is first of all the story the writer is telling. Then there is the fabric of history into which the story must be woven as warp into web. The texture of the book will be fine, coarse, even, or patched according to the skill of the writer in weaving the two into one. The result is a fusion of imagination, chronicle, and writing skill. In its finest form, the historical story brings to a child, through imaginative response, an experience of living in other times. It brings a sense of the significance and color of the past in a way that transcends history. That is to say, the facts of history are always interwoven with intangibles, with human thoughts and feelings, and with the impact of the period on the obscure lives of whom history has no record.
The writer of historical fiction has first of all a story to tell, which should adhere to all the general rules of good fiction. But since it is also, in intention, historical fiction, it is a reconstruction of life in the past, an attempt to recapture the atmosphere or flavor of another time or age. If we are to measure the success of the writer we must first consider in what way historical fiction is unique as a form of fiction and what special considerations should be taken into account in judging it.
The idea behind the writing of a historical story is not to present the facts of history in readable form, but in going beyond historical data to give a way of looking at the past. Yet the closer the story stays to the significance of historical facts the more valid is the experience the author is able to give us through the world which he creates out of his own feeling for, and understanding of, an age different from our own. In reading historical fiction we are brought to see that though human nature does not change, human experience is different in each age and never exactly repeated. To catch the essence of that experience through the characters who live in the story, to savor the particular significance and feeling of a past age, is possible only when a historical story is written out of a mind steeped in the past. Only when an author has become sufficiently saturated with a period to move freely in it with a full awareness of the conditions and issues inherent in it, and sees his characters with sympathy and understanding as the products of those conditions, does a historical narrative of first quality emerge.
When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Kidnapped he wrote a great adventure story that by common consent has a permanent place in literature. But since the world in which he sets forth the adventures of David Balfour is in the past, it is also a historical story. For this reason an analysis of Kidnapped, primarily a stirring narrative, should supply the clues to the discovery of those ingredients which make a good historical story. In that way we may discover also what to look for in appraising other historical narratives of a similar kind.
The theme of Kidnapped is Scotland itself, its moors and glens, its fog, and its rocky coast, all the characteristic and varied life that has shaped the temperament of the Scottish race. Because Stevenson's way of looking at Scotland is that of a writer who has steeped himself in its romantic history, it is only natural that his book should carry us back to an earlier period than his own, the period that followed the last defeat of the Jacobites.
The narrative relates the adventures of a famous Jacobite outlaw, Alan Breck Stewart, who is a kind of secret agent between the irreconcilable Highlanders at home and the émigrés abroad, forced into exile after the failure of the "cause." The plot is based on the celebrated Appin murder. The two chief characters, Alan Breck and David Balfour, are discovered near the scene of the crime and are pursued by the redcoats all the way from Mull to Edinburgh.
Skilfully Stevenson weaves into his plot the unhappy and impoverished state of the Highlands under the English oppressors. At the same time he makes it clear that it was not poverty and oppression alone which had broken the power of Scotland, but that clan feuds and rivalries played their part in dividing and disuniting the land.
In Alan Breck, Stevenson has drawn the personification of the Jacobite character. His bravado, his prickly pride, his fierce loyalty, and his ability to endure hardship for a cause he holds dear, all these highland traits are his. Yet he is much more than a type, he is himself—someone to know, someone we can know.
David Balfour on the other hand has the characteristics of the Lowland Scot; sound, rather prosaic, stubborn, yet fundamentally honest and true. "I am no blower and boaster like some I could name," he remarks when he finds himself inarticulate in comparison with Alan's eloquence. These Highland and Lowland traits are reflected in the subsidiary characters, the clansmen, the beggars, the preachers, and all the others who cross the path of Alan and David.
If ever the flavor of an age was caught, it is caught in Kidnapped. It is caught of course in the story itself, in its glimpse of the life at sea, the grimness of the slave trade, the insecure and adventurous lives lived in obscurity among the Scottish glens. But above all it is caught in the writing.
Considering the scope of the story, the telling is sparse and restrained. No unnecessary word or phrase delays the swift course of events or diminishes the drama. The strength of the writing is enhanced by the scrupulous selection of incident and detail; the dialogue is picturesque, using Scottish phrases of the period, which set the story in its age, with telling effect. Stevenson has a sure ear for inflection and there is a true Scottish rhythm and lilt to the speech of his characters; the speech of a race who easily burst into song or, like Alan, rejoice in a chance to take a turn at the "pipes."
Stevenson takes liberties with historical facts, but he defends himself for his rearrangement on the ground that "this is no furniture for the scholar's library" but is in intention an adventure story set in the past. At the same time he has so steeped himself in the records of the period that he goes on to say, "If you tried me on the point of Alan's guilt or innocence, I think I could defend the reading of the text." He knows his ground so well that he realizes (perhaps instinctively) where geography can be altered, or the passage of time compressed, and yet the truth, in all that matters to the period of which he writes, brings conviction to the reader.
Kidnapped reflects a mature mind, one that can simplify and clarify, and one that can resolve complicated politics and human relationships in an understandable and readable way. It is a story full of air and light and atmosphere in which his intention and his execution form a complete and realized unity.
If in Kidnapped, Stevenson has been successful in his attempt to reconstruct the life and to recapture the atmosphere of an age other than that of the writer, then to study his way of looking at the past provides some general principles to guide us in what to look for in the books of writers with an aim similar to Stevenson's. In other words it tells us what are the ingredients of a good historical story.
Another practiced writer of historical fiction, Sir Walter Scott, has given some helpful advice to those who attempt the writing of historical fiction. In brief, he believes that dignity should be preserved and grandiloquence avoided; that atmosphere should be attained without extreme use of archaic terms; that strength is necessary but that needless ruthlessness is to be deplored; that drama is essential but that melodrama should be avoided. He further states that there should be proportion without sacrifice of detail and that accuracy of background must not crowd out human interest. This last statement requires emphasis. It is so often the very thing which, in much tenuous and half-realized contemporary historical fiction for children, keeps a book from being alive.
These principles mentioned by Scott still hold, in the main, for books of historical fiction, and are worthy of attention. Although modern points of view have altered superficially, a reading of Ivanhoe or Quentin Durward, for example, convinces us that Scott has the root of the matter in his writing. As Saintsbury says, "we are indebted to him for the tradition of good form and clear style in English historical fiction."
In books of historical fiction for children there can be no question that adventure is the first requirement. The story must be concerned with action, and the closer the sequence of action, the more absorbing the story the book tells. Nor will children be completely satisfied if the action takes place only on the periphery of historical events. Story and history must be so joined and interwoven as to form inseparable parts of a single narrative.
The story itself is the foreground of the writer's picture of the past. As we have said, he follows the general principles of fiction in developing his plot and characters. But in choosing to set his story in the past, the writer also accepts the limitations which are imposed by the particular period chosen. Just what these limitations are has been clearly expressed by Helen Haines in What's in a Novel:
It is true that in its nature the historical novel is fiction, not history: a work of imagination, not a record of fact. It seeks to recreate, not to transcribe; and the novelist is free to choose any subject that interests him and to write about it from any point of view that he wishes to take. But it is also true that his concern is with history in fiction and that he is under certain obligations to historic fact. He may … transpose time or reshape minor events to fit into his plot scheme; but he may not falsify history's fundamental record.1
It is their inspired working within such self-imposed and respected limitations that make Stevenson and Scott masters of the art of writing historical fiction.
The great difference between a good historical story and a poor one, apart from the writing, lies in the difference between a writer who is steeped in the life of a period and finds there a story to tell, and a writer who, with a preconceived idea of a story, looks for a suitably picturesque period for its setting. In other words, the difference is that though both writers are inventing fiction, the first is in intention a historical story while the second is any adventure story set in the past. The first claims to be true to the life of the past. The second may be a good adventure story but it is not a historical story merely because the characters are clothed in hauberks or in surcoats of silk. Historical fiction must be a fusion of story and period if it is to enrich and enlarge our picture of the past to the extent that it becomes a part of our experience.
Historical stories vary in type. For instance, the writer may invent the plot, the characters, and the incidents, or he may take the actual plot from history and utilize historical characters. Often he may combine both these methods, using for the purposes of his story both invented and historical characters and adhering in varying degrees to an actual historical plot. While it is true that writers of historical fiction often find incidents in historical record which suggest a plot, these incidents are usually not complete as stories. The source material has first to be absorbed, selected, and then translated into a living picture, through the craft of fiction.
In his introduction to Men of Iron, Howard Pyle mentions a plot against the life of Henry the Fourth which suggested to him the story of the book. He did not use the plot as he found it, but wrote a variation of it which allowed him to draw a living picture of the particular phase of the time which interested him. On the other hand John Masefield takes the outline for Martin Hyde, the Duke's Messenger, directly from history. The mad adventure of the Duke of Monmouth's disastrous attempt to wrest the crown of England from James the Second provides Masefield with his plot. In twelve-year-old Martin Hyde he invents a fictional character who is caught by force of circumstances in the fortunes of Monmouth. Through the boy's eyes we see the spirit of violence arising in the minds of men seeking power. We see the ranks of the common people torn on the one hand by the excitement of war, and on the other by the strong ties of domestic affection and duty. In vivid, forceful language, Masefield follows the rebellion to its defeat at Sedgemoor and the resulting "Bloody Assizes." The rebellion is made a symbol of all war: its waste, terror, corruption, and heartache, a picture which lingers in the mind of the reader. He also makes us feel a sense of the necessity of accepting defeat without bitterness, of meeting life with a good heart, with energy and ambition tempered by experience.
Incidents from historical sources are not only used directly as subject matter for an entire plot. They are also frequently fitted indirectly into the background, giving an opportunity to integrate the fictional characters into the historical events. For example in Conan Doyle's Sir Nigel, it is interesting to consider his use of Froissart's incident of the two knights, one French, one English, who appear before Poitiers with the same device on their hauberks. Conan Doyle gives the dialogue of this incident practically as recorded by Froissart, yet alters it enough to dramatize the story. In the same way he turns to account Froissart's description of the capture of King John after the battle. Without losing any of the pithiness of Froissart, by an ingenious twist he brings Nigel into the center of the picture and relates his invented plot to the historical setting. This is excellent handling of source material.
Writers of historical fiction are often faced with the choice between a literal presentation of the facts of history, thereby possibly losing the atmosphere of the period, and a rearrangement and selection of events which will give more effectiveness to the story. Historical incidents and events can sometimes be telescoped or rearranged without upsetting the balance of the picture of an age. It is another thing altogether to distort history for the ends of fiction. It is a confession of poverty of imagination and of a superficial, slipshod attitude toward the past, to choose, for instance, a well known event such as the death of a king and, contrary to record, bring it about by purely invented means. Such tampering with facts indicates not only a lack of the historical point of view, but a tendency to step outside the bounds of reality and thereby falsify the history of the period.
Reading the novels of Scott and Dumas we are aware of their historical approach to a story they wish to tell, an approach through records of the times of which they write. Through their assimilation of these sources of knowledge they are able to recreate imaginatively all the color and savor of another time than their own.
Let us see to what extent Conan Doyle displays the historical mind and the creative imagination as he shows them in his story of Sir Nigel. He has chosen the period of the Hundred Years' War, particularly the period between Crécy and Poitiers. From this period he chooses as his historical characters Edward the Third, the Black Prince, Chandos and, as well, the flower of chivalry of England and France. In addition he creates fictional characters, particularly his hero, Nigel, whom he invests with the chivalric ideals of the time. Nigel is the perfect knight "sans peur et sans reproche." To him he gives a task that would have been a joy to any of the knights of King Arthur's Round Table. Nigel fulfills his task with courage according to the highest tradition of the chivalric code. He does his three deeds for the honor of his lady and is rewarded on the field of battle by those words dear to heroes of his age. "Rise up" said the smiling prince, and he smote with his sword upon his shoulder. "England has lost a brave squire, and has gained a gallant Knight. Nay, linger not, I pray! Rise up, Sir Nigel."
Through the deeds of his hero, Conan Doyle fulfills what we have found to be the first qualification of a historical novelist. He tells a good story. He makes his characters live, but he does not lose sight of the fact that he is writing a historical story. So, carefully, but without obvious effort, he weaves his hero's life and adventures into the historical background of the time.
The period of which he is writing foreshadows the downfall of feudalism. The code of chivalry is still in vogue but something new is arising in the world. England and France are to emerge from the Hundred Years' War as the two great nations of Western Europe. Chivalry is dying, nationalism is coming into being. This is the story that Conan Doyle is telling behind the story of Sir Nigel.
The new conception of nationalism can be seen in the person of Edward: "The tall stately man with the noble presence, the high forehead, the long handsome face, the dark brooding eyes." He is the soldier, the law-maker carving out a new and freer England, the personification of the new world which was being born. The barons were losing power before the might of kings. Nigel himself stands for the best of the old traditions, Edward for the best of the new thought.
This conflict behind the story that Conan Doyle tells is a powerful theme. Presented as fiction, strengthened and enriched by the added weight of history, the story makes clear the importance of the whole range of the issues of the period. All historical novels require such themes to give significance to the story they tell. Unless the writer evokes the forces which lie behind the historical events of the time, there is no true relation between the invented plot and the historical setting. Without this relationship a book has not the right to be judged a historical story.
Almost any period of history may be used as a subject for a historical story. Geoffrey Trease in Tales out of School says "there are no dull periods of history, there are only dull writers." But there are periods which, by the nature of their events or because of picturesque figures who walk through them, lend themselves more readily than others to historical fiction.
The Middle Ages is one of these colorful periods. Great issues of human freedom were at stake and new ideas imposed their accompanying events: the rise and fall of feudalism; the Crusades; the Hundred Years' War. For the writer's purpose, this period is fortunate in the contemporary source material available in literary form. Contemporary accounts such as Froissart and Malory provide that particular detail which gives exactitude and verisimilitude to a story. This, together with the wealth of books about this period especially written for children, make it a good field for examination.
While The Talisman and Sir Nigel, among other stories set in the Middle Ages, satisfy the strictest requirements of criticism, the books of such writers as Howard Pyle and Charlotte Yonge share the same qualities in a simpler way and to a lesser degree. These books have stood the test of time and are worth examining for the way in which they handle their chosen material and obtain their effects.
The Lances of Lynwood, by Charlotte Yonge, though simpler in conception has fundamentally the same theme as Sir Nigel: the foreshadowing of the down-fall of feudalism, the emergence of the nation state. Chivalry was still the outward code but underneath was the surging life of a rising political power. The scene of the story, as in Sir Nigel, opens in England, crosses the Channel to France where the Black Prince, as governor of the important province of Acquitaine, holds his medieval court at Bordeaux. He was not, however, left in undisturbed possession and with the breach of the treaty of Brétagny, the Black Prince found himself cornered and short of supplies. He was free to take a stand and won a resounding victory at Poitiers. At this point Sir Nigel ends.
But the Black Prince continued his court at Bordeaux. His followers took part in sporadic skirmishes and he finally became embroiled in the affairs of Spain. It is here that Miss Yonge's hero, Eustace, joined his fortunes with those of his prince and accompanied him to Spain. The prince's friends and advisers were against a campaign fought in so poor a cause. This caused the estrangement between Chandos and the prince related in The Lances of Lynwood. The story deals briefly with the campaign, with the victory of the Navarettes and the prince's return to Bordeaux. It tells too of the prince's declining powers as his health fails, his loss of nearly all he has won. As the story ends he returns to die in England.
To the boy or girl reading The Lances of Lynwood, the Black Prince, John de Chandos, and Bertrand du Guesclin are probably not as important characters as the fictional hero Eustace. Yet his fortunes and adventures are so intertwined with theirs that the result is a living picture which underlines for children the fact that these historic characters actually lived as persons in their own times. Their actual appearances in the story, though brief, are lively, and leave a strong feeling for the essential character of each. This is shown in Miss Yonge's account of the taking of Du Guesclin prisoner by Eustace, and of Eustace being dubbed a knight on the field of battle:
"You are the young Lynwood, if I remember right. Where is your brother?"
"Alas! my lord, here he lies, sorely hurt," said Eustace, only anxious to be rid of prisoner and Prince, and to return to Reginald, who by this time had, by the care of Gaston, been recalled to consciousness.
"Is it so? I grieve to hear it!" said Edward, with a face of deep concern, advancing to the wounded knight, bending over him, and taking his hand, "How fares it with you, my brave Reginald?"
"Poorly enough, my Lord," said the knight, faintly; "I would I could have taken King Henry—"
"Lament not for that," said the Prince, "but receive my thanks for the prize of scarcely less worth, which I owe to your arms."
"What mean you, my Lord? Not Sir Bertrand du Guesclin; I got nothing from him but my deathblow."
"How is this then?" said Edward; "it was from your young brother that I received him."
"Speak, Eustace!" said Sir Reginald, eagerly, and half raising himself; "Sir Bertrand your prisoner? Fairly and honourably? Is it possible?"
"Fairly and honourably, to that I testify," said Du Guesclin. "He knelt before you, and defended your pennon longer than I ever thought to see one of his years resist that curtalaxe of mine. The routier villains burst on us, and were closing upon me, when he turned back the weapon that was over my head, and summoned me to yield, which I did the more willingly that so gallant a youth should have such honour as may be acquired by my capture."
"He has it, noble Bertrand," said Edward. "Kneel down, young squire. Thy name is Eustace? In the name of God, St. Michael, and St. George, I dub thee knight. Be faithful, brave, and fortunate, as on this day. Arise, Sir Eustace Lynwood."
The writer, by such skilful and evocative pictures, sets the story in its period and links it to great events.
In Men of Iron Howard Pyle uses a different method. Through his reading and study he has absorbed medieval records and has made for himself a medieval world in his mind in which he is at home. He has not concerned himself so much with great events and great figures of history as with the ordinary experience of living in those times. This is the theme reflected in Men of Iron: a story almost without historical incident or characters which yet reveals a whole period through the experiences and adventures of its fictional characters. Howard Pyle gives an intimate picture of medieval boyhood through a vigorous and adventurous story whose events, never merely contrived, are implicit in the life of the age. We see clearly and understand the impulse that urged these medieval squires and knights to deeds of high personal courage.
Howard Pyle's background is always sound, his settings realistic and his stories entirely in keeping with the spirit of the age. He is less matter-of-fact than Charlotte Yonge. Men of Iron is a more romantic tale of "high and far-off" times than is Lances of Lynwood, for instance. It is a matter of individual choice which method is more effective.
An earlier, and younger, example of this difference in their way of "looking at the past" is found in comparing Howard Pyle's story of Otto of the Silver Hand with Charlotte Yonge's The Little Duke. Otto relies only slightly on historical events. Great historical figures are practically nonexistent in the story. The "Emperor," trying to control the robber barons of Haps-burg, is a vague figure in the background. Howard Pyle sets his story in the dark ages when the first dim light of "the new learning" is seen on the horizon of the European world, when the forces of the future are taking on an outline against the background of cruelty and destruction. This is the theme of Otto of the Silver Hand. Faithfully Pyle weaves his story into this great issue of the time. He pictures the subduing of the warring barons and the founding of the Haps-burg dynasty. He shows, also, how the better elements of the church cherished and preserved a love for the simple virtues and a love of learning at a time when nowhere else could they be found. All this he sets forth in simple (perhaps sometimes over-simplified) terms through the story of Otto, who is the symbol of the future. Unlike Miles Falworth, the adventurous hero of Men of Iron who wrests his feudal rights from his own and his father's enemy by force of arms, Otto's adventures are not of his own seeking, but are forced upon him by the cruel circumstances of the time in which he lives. Told in a simple, picturesque and, at times, poetic style, the book is an easily understood and memorable experience for the child who reads it.
On the other hand Charlotte Yonge's The Little Duke takes its plot directly from history, and historical events and characters form its background. When the story begins, the Norsemen have established themselves as powerful barons in the duchy of Normandy. At this early date they are still holding out against the forces which finally bring about the formation of the French nation. When the treacherous assassination of the Duke of Normandy places his small son, Richard, at the head of the Norse barons, their difficulties are increased by the necessity of defending the little duke's rights during his minority. It is true to fact that Richard when a child was taken as a hostage to the court of France; using the plot which historical records provide as a large sketch for her story, Charlotte Yonge fills in the human detail, the color of the age, and turns the whole incident into a picture and a story.
When considering any historical story written for children, whether about the Middle Ages or any age, it is important to keep in mind a measure—what a historical story can or should be. We can then see in what ways they live up to, and also how they fail to maintain the standard set up by the best historical fiction. It may be that a good story, competently told, will offset a sparse background as long as it does not betray its period. On the other hand a frequent cause for failure with young readers is the sacrifice of plot to period, with consequent loss of interest. The most common failure of all is the story in which the author contents himself with mere scene-painting; thinking by "prithees" and "I trows," by clothing characters in hauberks and chausses, by inserting historical incidents, to create a historical story. Nowhere in such books are the issues of the time, its peculiar problems, made clear. The author "works up" a period in order to set in it an unrelated story whose distance in time, he considers, lends it glamor.
One has only to compare such books with those of Scott, Conan Doyle, Stevenson and others of like quality to be aware of their defects. On the one hand there is the nice balance of history and fiction, the sense of period, the feeling for the issues that set the age apart; on the other hand a conventional story is projected against a shallowly conceived, picturesque background, described rather than brought to life, by a writer who has not understood the real significance of what he writes. The harm of such books is that the very mistiness and dim colors of the tapestry of history, in front of which the story runs its course, lend a sense of romance, of "far away and long ago," that disguises the emptiness of the content of the book.
The ultimate value of a historical story for children can be measured to some extent by the interest aroused in historical characters and events, and by the author's ability to give a unique feeling for a period. When we read about the Norman conquest or the Viking raids in Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, these far-off events take on color and vividness as if Kipling wrote from personal experience of the time. Such imaginative reality, gained through complete familiarity with source material, characterizes the historical story of genuine worth. "It has a root in actuality and so makes us listen."
1. Helen E. Haines, What's in a Novel (N.Y.: Columbia Univ. Pr., 1942), p. 114-15.
Butterfield, Herbert. The Historical Novel: An Essay. Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1924.
Repplier, Agnes. Old Wine and New (in Varia). Houghton, Mifflin, 1897.
Sheppard, Alfred Tresidder. The Art and Practice of Historical Fiction. H. Toulmin, 1930.
Sheila A. Egoff (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: Egoff, Sheila A. "Historical Fiction." In Thursday's Child: Trends and Patterns in Contemporary Children's Literature, pp. 159-92. Chicago, Ill.: American Library Association, 1981.
[In the following essay, Egoff explores historical fiction for juvenile readers, offering an analysis of the characteristics that define the genre as well as overviews of several significant works within the historical fiction canon.]
The man without a past is a fiction; even willful ignorance cannot erase our history. Only in eternal night will man be shadowless, and the past not follow the present into the future…. Knowledge of the past—of history—gives perspective to our world. Without that knowledge our loneliness would be harder to bear and sorrow would easily crush us.1
For most adults over fifty years of age, childhood reading is almost synonymous with historical romance. Stories of swashbuckling adventure, flamboyant heroes, and spirited heroines were the staple fare of generations of children who, probably because of their own confinement to home and hearth, succumbed completely to the enchantment of distant times and places and high adventure. And as with folklore in an earlier time, children shared their books with adults, both groups absorbed by works of such writers as Sir Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, and, later on, Jeffrey Farnol and Raphael Sabatini.
Modern-day children, by common consent, are not interested in the past. To them, even the tales and memories of their parents and grandparents seem like prehistory, and how much can distant places mean to someone for whom the airplane is a routine means of transportation? Moreover, there is an almost calculated discouragement of the reading of history when school curricula jumble up history and geography and lump them together under the unappealing term of "socials" or social science. The result of all this seems to be a depreciation of the past, an ignorance of geography, and an unconcern for people other than themselves. The lengths to which such narcissistic insularity may go can be seen in Joyce Maynard's Looking Back in which, at age eighteen, she chronicles her life and that of her friends when they were sixteen. The book is appropriately subtitled: "A Chronicle of Growing Old in the Sixties."
There are some hard data to support the general opinion that it is indeed the present that counts with today's children. Publishing statistics indicate that the number of contemporary-scene novels published each year far outnumber any other kind, particularly historical fiction. Moreover, those who write exclusively or mostly in this category—Rosemary Sutcliff, Leon Garfield, Barbara Willard, and Hester Burton—account to a large extent for a feeling of substance in the genre.
Having thus carefully noted factors unfavorable to the development of historical fiction, one then finds that, illogically enough, it continues to be written and even to flourish. Although the readership is in decline, its production relative to publishing in general, has increased, particularly since 1970. Moreover historical fiction has had the vitality to change so considerably in style and approach as to develop in effect new forms.
The revival of historical fiction is not easily explained. Undoubtedly the sheer strength of its traditional place in children's literature has something to do with it. It may be that its intrinsic interest is so powerful among writers of children's books that they go on writing it, publishers keep on publishing it, and adults keep buying it, even though the children themselves no longer care for it. Another possibility is the factor of nationality. The modern, established, prolific authors in this field are chiefly British—Rosemary Sutcliff, Hester Burton, Barbara Willard, and Leon Garfield—and it may be that British children enjoy reading about the past more than do their North American counterparts.
Perhaps the best explanation lies in the sheer power of talent. Whether by force of circumstance or simple coincidence, this group of writers and some others share a commitment to history and an excitement in expressing it. They have produced fiction that is every bit as convincing as the modern realistic novel, at the same time describing past societies with the knowledge and integrity of the scholar.
The new writers are not interested in historical romance, that is, a story in which sentiment takes precedence over historical sense and plot over historical events. History itself can almost be said to be their subject, with the actual events playing a dominant role in the lives of their characters. They have saved the genre, but they also have changed it.
The dimensions of this change may be seen by some examination of the road which historical fiction has traveled. The historical novel, whether for adults or children, appeared late in literature. It was sparked by the "Romantic Revival" of the nineteenth century and given form by Scott's Ivanhoe (1820) and The Talisman (1825), which had settings in the distant past as opposed to his "Waverly" novels which dealt with the contemporary life of the people of the Scottish Highlands. Historical fiction written especially for children came later. Marryat's The Children of the New Forest (1847) described the adventures of a family of children in the days of the Cavaliers and the Roundheads; Charlotte Yonge in The Little Duke (1854) and The Dove in the Eagle's Nest (1866) and Howard Pyle in Otto of the Silver Hand (1888) and Men of Iron (1891) looked back to medieval days.
These nineteenth-century novels set the guidelines for the historical novel. The period dealt with was to be "beyond the memory of those living." The novel was also to be "rendered historical by the introduction of dates, personages, or events to which identification can be readily given."2 Typically, then, Charlotte Yonge's The Little Duke introduces Richard of Normandy as a young boy and in Pyle's Otto of the Silver Hand we are given a picture of the devastating feuds of the German barons who are finally brought under control by Otto, the Holy Roman Emperor whom the child Otto meets at the end of the story.
But guidelines seldom can cover all cases and certainly not for all time. Thus some fiction has become "historical" although it was never designed as such. For example, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) or Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868) can now be read as novels which give us insights into the family and social life of past eras. Moreover, what is historical to an adult is not so to children. For them Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), the story of a Mississippi black family during the Depression, or Penelope Lively's Going Back (1975), with its World War II setting, are certainly outside of their memory. These books of the recent past, which of late have been appearing in fair numbers, are not concerned with momentous, significant, historical events, but depend on small details to recreate a feeling for a particular era—books about World War II, for example, usually are remote from military events.
In Francine Pascal's Hangin' Out with Cici (1977), the young protagonist suddenly realizes that she is out of her own time, back into 1944, by noticing the difference between the clothes she is wearing and Cici's clothes—full skirt, white socks, and loafers—by sensing that no one seems afraid of strangers, and by observing that a movie costs only seventeen cents, and that Woolworth's is really a "five and dime store." Although the book has an aura of fantasy—Victoria suffers a bump on the head—and, one presumes, dreams that she is in the past where her mother is her age and her friend—the selective details emphasizing the difference between 1977 and 1944 give the book some claim to be considered a historical novel.
The larger view of what is historical depends then ultimately on the reader or when the book is read. Since this larger view would in effect eventually subsume all writing, this chapter will concentrate on those novels that follow the traditional definition of historical fiction. Even in this narrower approach the historical novel poses many questions. What balance of history and fiction results in a fine historical novel? How has it changed? Should the writer of today impose modern concepts upon the past?
Any formula for definitive proportions of fiction and history seems elusive. The story is told of Charles Dickens that when he decided to write a novel based on the French Revolution he went to his friend Carlyle for help and was nonplussed when afterwards a cartload of books drew up at his door. We are not told what use Dickens made of the research material provided by the great historian of the French Revolution, but we do know that A Tale of Two Cities (1859) has never been considered an outstanding historical novel, even by the most ardent admirers of Dickens. Many of the novelists of the past were indeed historians with an almost passionate love of historical minutiae. This brings to mind Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) wherein the minutiae develop into pedantry; Bulwer-Lytton even felt constrained to explain in a footnote the difference in amounts of Roman money between the sestertii and the sestertia! Harrison Ainsworth in The Tower of London (1840) proved his knowledge of the tower to the point of boredom. Since neither The Last Days of Pompeii nor The Tower of London is hardly read nowadays, it is obvious that the gratuitous dispensing of information, however historically accurate, will not bring success to a writer.
Many earlier writers also leave the impression that they became enamored with a historical period and then fitted in characters to suit. For instance, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Black Arrow (1888), set in the turbulent era of the Wars of the Roses, features two young protagonists who seem borrowed from some Gothic novel. It is not Stevenson's portrayal of character but rather the romantic plot that holds the reader's interest. Such emphasis on fast-paced events was also characteristic of much later historical fiction for children, particularly of the works of Geoffrey Trease. In his Cue for Treason (1940) two young people are pursued across England, meet Shakespeare and act in his plays, and foil a plot against Queen Elizabeth I. Like The Black Arrow, it is replete with disguises, villainous rogues, and incredible coincidences.
A stronger historical background is given in the works of Cynthia Harnett who shows the value of rejecting extremes but still runs the risks that compromise inevitably brings. In fact she gives almost precisely equal shares to fact and fiction, as though the mixture were made by formula. In her The Wool-Pack (1951), for example, Nicholas and his friends unmask a group of Lombard merchants who are bent on ruining the English wool trade and injuring Nicholas's father in particular. Harnett does not presuppose some knowledge by the reader of the medieval wool trade. Instead, she writes in separate streams—one of history and one of fiction. The action is frequently stopped for instruction:
The wool trade, England's most important industry, was governed by three hundred leading wool merchants, known as the Fellowship of Merchants of the Wool Staple, and it was at Calais that they had their headquarters.
These numerous explanatory interruptions make the book more a social studies text than an integrated historical novel.
Harnett's method should not be taken to imply that a large admixture of history is necessarily inimical to success in historical fiction. Indeed, in the hands of a skillful writer, the very reverse may be true. That history with only a slight dose of fiction can be exciting is proved by Walter Hodges's The Namesake (1964). Here, the word "history" takes on its original meaning of "a story," for there is hardly any plot beyond the dramatic events of Alfred's reign as he fights against the Vikings to save Wessex. The narrator is an old man who recalls his boyhood days with Alfred and his personal struggle to overcome the disability of having only one leg. Aside from this fictional element, and of course the dialogue, The Namesake is a triumph of the fascination of history itself, and not just the romance of history.
A virtually perfect mesh of history and fiction can be found in the writing of Rosemary Sutcliff. She seems to work from no recipe for mixing fact and imagination and thus, like fantasy, which it also resembles in its magic qualities, her writing defies neat categorization. Still, what cannot be defined can be observed. Thus what one perceives is that Sutcliff begins with a very well stored mind and an affinity for a given period in the distant past that she sets forth as if it were something she herself had once experienced, richly remembers, and recounts—much as some ordinary person talks about the memories of childhood or a trip. Sutcliff easily, unobtrusively, and naturally seems able to supply just the right detail at just the right time to make both setting and plot utterly convincing. Her persuasion is so compelling that readers are imperceptibly led back into the past with such subtlety they feel they are living side by side with her characters.
A good example of Sutcliff's special skill is Outcast (1955). In this book her hero, Beric, experiences two civilizations—the primitive, "closed" tribal life of the small, dark people who live beyond the Roman Wall and the luxury and majesty of Rome with its class society, gladiatorial arenas, and galley ships. There are in Sutcliff's works no vague, untrustworthy generalizations but neither are there pedantic, pointless details. A case in point: Beric's time as a galley slave is far more briefly described than the similar passage in Lew Wallace's Ben Hur, but Sutcliff's description is at least as accurate historically and far more memorable.
With her first major novel, The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), Sutcliff brought a new dimension into historical fiction for children, indeed into children's literature. As she does with Beric, who is in search of his identity and who yearns for love and security, she gives all her characters universal, human problems while making them vital and recognizable in their own time. And with all this she also tells a great story.
This emphasis on character is not entirely new, of course. It is certainly evident as far back as Esther Forbes's Johnny Tremain (1943), wherein Johnny, although involved with Paul Revere, also has to come to terms with himself and, doing so, grows up in the process. But nowadays, thanks partly to Sutcliff's influence, such emphasis is the rule rather than the exception and the attention to character is greater than ever. Such recent writers as Hester Burton, Barbara Willard, and Katherine Paterson appear to begin with young people in crisis, ordinary young people who are caught in the net of history and whose lives are altered by its forces. Their protagonists face the rough edges of the world, its challenges, dangers, tasks, difficulties, and possibilities of real failure and severe loss. Hester Burton has perhaps expressed the feelings of most modern writers when she said, "As a novelist, I am primarily interested in one kind of story; it is the story of young people thrown into some terrible predicament or danger and scrambling out of it, unaided."3
Because of this approach, most modern writers do not feel the need to concoct a strong separate plot. The events themselves, the Battle of Trafalgar or the American Civil War, do not simply provide a stage for the characters but mold their lives. The historical events do not move to a climax but end with a formative period in the protagonists' lives. They have changed and matured and that is the point of the story. Such novels, then, have a looser construction than the older historical romances, history cannot be bent to manufacture a plot and the new writers are very good historians.
Hester Burton's novels exemplify the above approach with near precision. Castors Away (1962) zooms in on the year 1805 and its culminating event, the Battle of Trafalgar. The 28th Regiment of Foot is wrecked off the Suffolk coast and a young soldier is washed up on its shores. At first presumed dead, he is restored to life by the combined efforts of Dr. Henchman and his children in a surprising, but documented medical triumph. To the children's horror, the soldier is to be punished upon his recovery; he will receive 500 lashes for being drunk at the time of the shipwreck. Burton does not make this authenticated incident part of a strong plot. She uses it as a step in increasing the emotional sensitivity of her characters. The children are changed by both experiences; they have gained a new respect for life and so they are repelled by a society that would deliberately take away a life so recently won from death. When the oldest boy, Tom, has the opportunity to join a ship in Nelson's fleet, his father tries to explain to a distraught aunt why he is not too young to fight:
'Here in this beautiful home, Susan, protected and loved by us both, my children have seen the very worst that life has to offer us.'
'No. No, my dear. Man's inhumanity to man.
Senseless, heartless, cold-blooded cruelty. What more has Simon's naval engagement to teach Tom? Nothing. Nothing so bitter.'
Tom, initially caught up in the excitement of battle, soon perceives its harsh realities:
A shot roared through an open gun port and tore off the leg of a powder monkey waiting among his gun crew. The boy screamed. His blood was spattered all over the berth. Tom felt sick. He had never expected it would be like this.
Instead of dwelling on Nelson's glorious victory, Burton describes the stench of the wounded and dying leaving Nelson's ship, a picture of the suffering sailors that is matched only in Hardy's The Trumpet Major. Nell, the Henchman daughter, also suffers. She has the anguish of watching her brother go off to battle, not knowing when or if he would return. In addition, her Aunt Julia is set on stamping out any signs of unladylike behavior. Nell is frustrated by 'the indignity of being a girl.' She is miserable with nothing to look forward to for years and years 'and then it'll only be a husband who'll give me a bunch of keys to jangle round his house.' Her life takes a turn for the better when the intellectual M. Armand becomes her tutor and mentor and she meets her brother's friend, John Paston, a champion of 'Women's Rights.' The societal indoctrination of women as inferior to men is clearly shown in the nursemaid's stance: 'It's against the Bible,' and later on 'Our brains are smaller.'
For Burton background always has a direct relationship to her characters; it is more than a mere backdrop. Edmund Henchman does not only observe the state of medicine in the first years of the nineteenth century, he is to become a doctor. Like Sutcliff, Burton can also have child speak to child across the years as Nell in a realistically yet movingly described scene has her first experience of death.
It perhaps could be argued that Castors Away is too episodic a novel, with too many themes to make it compelling. But life itself is not one-stranded, and in its diversity within its period the story has a feeling of naturalness, especially when daily events are expressed in a conversational style and with a feeling for family life. As the Henchmans pack up to go to the seaside: 'What a scramble it always was!'
The great figures of the time do not appear in Burton's novels; they appear rarely, if at all, in most of the "new wave" historical fiction. The young people are not involved in high deeds in high places but with the daily social, religious, and political events that affect the lives of ordinary people, particularly the poor, the dispossessed, and the persecuted. Unlike the depiction of the young in many a modern realistic novel, Burton's protagonists are not whiners. They reach maturity by trying to help others as well as themselves. They have little time for their own inward considerations.
In Burton's No Beat of Drum (1966), mechanization comes to rural communities in England, but, in contrast to modern times, there is no state authority to feed those dispossessed of their jobs by the threshing machine and no labor union to fight their battles. The young girl Mary and the young farm laborers who take part in the protest are exiled to 'Demon's Land.' Burton makes it clear how terrible an injustice has been perpetrated, but even so her reasoned look at events never fails. In No Beat of Drum she shows that a mob, such as the farm laborers burning the ricks, even with right on its side, can become dangerously crazed. More important, however vividly Burton depicts the dreadful conditions of the past, she, as do Hardy and Conrad, affirms life's essential worth. She shows the nobler side of human nature, and in the end good always triumphs. So, in Thomas (1969), which portrays the persecution of the Puritans, we see the friendship and loyalty of the three young people surviving their religious and political differences. In No Beat of Drum, Mary and her Joe, after all their sufferings, are rewarded by love and prosperity in Australia.
Burton's happy endings are not merely the reassuring contrivances that figure in so much writing for children. If her characters win happiness, it is because they have earned it. Her girls particularly are strong, vibrant characters who act with courage and good sense. Nell (Castors Away), Margaret (Time of Trial), Lucy (Riders of the Storm), Mary (No Beat of Drum), Richenda (Thomas), and many more are not just people whom events involve. Even in the then severe bondage of being female, they resolve, they act, they achieve. The status of women is, of course, an evocative indicator of the past and Burton is always subtly working to make the reader understand that the past is not a strange and exotic period.
She also makes use of nature and landscape. With their timeless qualities, these provide a means of linking past and present, of making clear which aspects of life change and which do not. Here, for example, is Stephen in The Rebel, just after he has left his uncle's house in disgrace:
From this vantage-point, he watched the morning grow, bathing his native hills with an unpromised splendour. The November sunlight glowed in the tawny bracken farther down the slopes, glinted in every stream and runlet, and caught in every droplet hanging from every grass blade close at hand, so that each way he turned he was dazzled and enchanted by the million refractions of its rays. The artist in him that could not draw and the poet in him that was wordless were swept with joy. For a magic moment, he forgot the injustices of life.
Often in these stories we are made aware of the weather. The author seems to be saying, "Yes, they had weather in olden times too." Such a simple idea, but Burton senses that it may be occurring for the first time in the mind of the child reader. However, on a deeper level, such scenes express the continuity of the natural world in tandem with the human lives that inhabit it.
The result is that more than any other historical writer for children, Hester Burton's themes evoke parallels with modern times. They may not always be as prominent as that of freedom of press and speech in her Time of Trial; still, great issues are always in evidence and being great they have connotative value even for our own era. Thus To Ravensrigg (1977) begins with young Emily Heskett's first experience of slavery and her response is to help a young, runaway West Indian boy. Technical advances and their effects upon the laboring poor is the main theme of No Beat of Drum; religious persecution of a group provides the deep moral sense of Thomas. Because her protagonists are young, intelligent, and sensitive, Burton leaves her readers with some sense of hope on a personal level, but still most young readers will understand that many of the issues Burton raises are still unresolved today.
Paradoxically enough, this very modernity sometimes operates against Burton as a historical novelist. Although her historical sense is impeccable and her treatment of details is of unquestionable accuracy, she lacks the power of the old-fashioned historical novelist to "transport" readers, to carry them away into distant times and places.
The capacity to provide escape belongs in greater degree to Barbara Willard, who has not thereby demonstrated a greater skill but rather a different style and purpose. Willard largely achieves a rapport with the past by concentrating on one place and basically one family, although different branches of it, in different periods of time. Her Mantlemass novels are family sagas, "romans fleuves," and one sinks into each succeeding novel with a feeling of familiarity and comfort—very like picking up another Trollope novel. There will be no great surprises.
The place that raises such steadfast devotion is the manor house of Mantlemass and its surrounding forests of Sussex, where the various families struggle with their destinies from the time of the Plantagenets to Cromwell. The Mantlemass novels are filled with great historical events, but we only see them as they affect the families.
Thus there is only one recognizable historical figure, Richard III, who is shown on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth in A Sprig of Broom (1971). He has sent for his illegitimate son, Richard, who has no knowledge of his father. In the wrenching change from Plantagenet to Tudor rule, the boy Richard of Plantagenet descent becomes Dick Plashet the forester, and the secret is kept for generations, only occasionally suspected by some members of the family. Lilias in The Iron Lily (1973), set in the time of Mary Tudor, has a crooked shoulder, as of course did Richard III. So Richard III, without figuring directly in the action of more than one of the novels, somehow takes part in them all. It is a telling demonstration of how a skillful writer can effectively use history in fiction without being subservient to it.
Because so few of the Mantlemass people actually participate in the battles of the time and because the taking of sides is a dominant theme in only the last book, Harrow and Harvest (1974), the result is that the Mantlemass narratives portray a kind of buffer between day-to-day living and the great events of wars and kingdoms and catastrophe. It is history as the passage of time, history as ebb and flow that seems to be the main character in the series and even in each individual book.
The impact of specific great events is seen far more immediately in two American novels, My Brother Sam Is Dead (1974) by James Lincoln Collier with Christopher Collier (the Revolution) and Hew against the Grain (1977) by Betty Sue Cummings (the War between the States). Both books are closer to Hester Burton's concern with major social and ethical issues than to Barbara Willard's deliberate detachment from grand events. War—conflict as huge and convulsive—is the centerpiece in the Collier and Cummings novels and war affects every character, even those who would prefer to remain neutral and removed. Both My Brother Sam Is Dead and Hew against the Grain raise specific questions: Is war really necessary in resolving differences? Are the disruption and outright destruction of lives too high a price to pay for patriotism, no matter which side one is on? The questions are not resolved in any overt way that affects the outcome of the events themselves, rather they are the focus for the voicing of the feelings of ordinary people caught in and victimized by the snares of the war. Most seriously both books raise Erik Haugaard's concept of evil—it is not so much a question of evil as it is the evil that good can do.
The Meeker family in My Brother Sam Is Dead live in the Tory town of Redding, Connecticut, at the time of the Revolution. The Meekers wish to remain neutral but in a period of confused, conflicting loyalties this proves impossible. Sam, the oldest son does commit himself to the Revolutionary forces but is executed by his own side on false charges of cattle-stealing. In war, it is more important to make an example than to establish the truth. Sam's brother Tim recalls the events in his old age:
Free of British domination, the nation has prospered and I along with it. Perhaps on some other anniversary of the United States somebody will read this and see what the cost has been … even fifty years later, I keep thinking that there might have been another way, besides war, to achieve the same end.
The devastating side effects of the violence of war on one family is also the theme of Hew against the Grain. With the advent of the Civil War, the Hume family is split as is the state of Virginia where they live. There is no "good" side or "bad" side in such a situation and both groups commit acts of violence outside the range of battle. As in My Brother Sam Is Dead, there is a final act of outrage. The burning of the Hume home, the raiding of the stock, the rape of Matilda, are violations by the Union soldiers who have no actual reason for the raid beyond their need for supplies. What strength Matilda can muster comes from her grandfather:
"It's like the world is coming apart, Grandpa Hume. Tell me how to live," she begged.
"I tell you, honey, this is what life is—a building-up and then a dwindling. Sometimes the dwindling comes fast, like now with Jason's death and Sarah's leaving you. The thing to do is to get a hold on the dwindling and slow it down so you can bear it."
As this passage so clearly indicates, the most frequent message of modern historical fiction is that the individual has to find an inner strength; there is no outer help for the resolution of problems, even in the ending of war.
In the midst of these newer, more sensitive and complex novels the more traditional approach is still employed, but so rarely as to seem almost an anachronism. A good example is Anne Finlayson's Rebecca's War—i.e., the American Revolution—which, in spite of its recent date (1972) now seems to be old-fashioned historical fiction. Rebecca is a superchild, aged fourteen, who not only looks after her younger brother and sister but also copes with British officers billeted in her house, arranges the sale of smuggled brandy to feed American prisoners, and holds the secret of the gold cache on which the fate of the revolutionaries so much depends. The plot is also traditional in that Rebecca has dealings with Joseph Galloway, James Ogilvie, and just misses meeting General Howe, although she does abscond with his carriage and his driver. Rebecca is the larger-than-life heroine who is embroiled in events but not really touched by them.
What is compelling about Rebecca's War and what links it with the more modern works of the Colliers and Cummings is the attitude toward war. War is no longer the mere theatrical device it once was in historical fiction, a convenient raison d'être for depicting derring-do. The war that Rebecca sees retains many elements of romance, but it is also a harsh reality and Finlayson makes sure that the child reader does not ignore that second dimension.
The same viewpoint can be applied to many other events and aspects of history and in the case of conditions such as slavery and the treatment of native peoples, their authors' sense of social outrage can be fully as strong as in any anti-war novel. Paula Fox's The Slave Dancer (1973) illustrates how this rather new (for children's literature) viewpoint can transfuse and alter a very traditional story line.
What happens to a boy who has been "shanghaied" is a standard plot in children's fiction. In The Slave Dancer, however, the kidnapping of Jessie Boller is not accidental nor are his experiences merely adventurous. He is taken aboard an American slave ship in the year 1841 to be "the slave dancer,"—to play his flute while the African slaves are ordered to shuffle around the deck. They must be kept as healthy as possible for the auction block which Jessie knows about since one is near his home in New Orleans. But on the voyage:
I thought of my home. If ever I got back, I would not, I told myself silently, ever go to the slave market on St. Louis and Chartres Streets again.
Paula Fox's opportunity for sensationalism was great, but she restrained it in favor of an emotionalism, all the stronger for its understatement. A fourteen-year-old boy (who tells the story) would not have the language to express the horror he witnesses on board the ship as he sees the slaves starved, beaten, packed into a small space, and, finally, thrown overboard. The story is therefore told as a boy's simple chronicle of happenings, the meaning of which is inferred rather than expounded. In the ending, The Slave Dancer reaffirms the best in the human spirit as Jessie and the one surviving black boy, Ras, join forces and escape from the foundering ship.
Scott O'Dell's Sing Down the Moon (1970) works in the same vein. Here the historical component is the Long March of the Navaho Indians to prison at Fort Sumner in 1864. Like the blacks on board the ship in The Slave Dancer, the human spirit in the Indians is broken under shock and degrading treatment. But Bright Morning, who is surely one of the most sensitive and spirited heroines in modern children's literature, persuades her husband finally to escape and they return to their valley home. In spite of all the misery they have endured, Bright Morning wants no revenge:
I took my son from his carrying board and held him up so that he could see the lamb. He wanted to touch it, but with both hands he was grasping a toy which his father had given him, a willow spear tipped with stone. Tall Boy had made up a song about the Long Knives and how the spear would kill many of them. Every night he sang this song to his son.
I took the spear and dropped it in the grass and stepped upon it, hearing it snap beneath my foot.
Sing Down the Moon, concludes then, just as did the works by Burton, Collier, Cummings, and Fox, in a kind of emotional "defense"—sometimes fierce, sometimes gentle—of the human spirit in time of trial. Is it just a coincidence that these books are also linked by virtue of the fact that they are set in the nineteenth century? Furthermore, no event is changed or even modified by the intervention of the protagonists in these novels. Rather it is they themselves who have changed as they now look upon the world with wiser, more penetrating, and more sorrowful eyes.
This set of similarities seems to suggest that the traditional view of history as a series of great events diminishes as the setting nears our own time. So too, apparently, does the concern with plot and even character. The few writers who to date have chosen the era of the early twentieth century, as have K. M. Peyton in her Flambards trilogy (1967–69) and Marjorie Darke in A Question of Courage (1975), stress even more than Burton the effects of a static and com-partmentalized society upon the individual. This is accomplished at some cost. Peyton's and Darke's protagonists appear to be symbols of a drive for equality and democracy rather than young people with a personal view of events. Character, and therefore intensity, are subordinated to the social message.
Peyton's Flambards has some of the attributes of a Virginia Holt Gothic romance. A twelve-year-old wealthy orphan, Christina, is sent to live with her uncle and his two sons. It is planned that she marry the elder son and live in the country estate of Flambards, the atmosphere of which has "the unhappy place of a tomb." But this is 1908 and matters such as marriage and family are no longer subject to dictation. Flambards (1967) and particularly the sequels, The Edge of the Cloud (1969) and Flambards in Summer (1969) chart the changes in social structure and outlook brought about by technology and war. Two societies are in conflict—the fox-hunting, high society represented by the elder Flambards son Mark, and the newer, more classless society represented by the younger son William, whom Christina finally chooses:
on the aerodrome everyone was taken for granted if they were interested in the machines. There was no distinction of class or underdog.
—The Edge of the Cloud, p. 62
Emily, in Marjorie Darke's A Question of Courage (1975), also finds a new life, and presumably happiness, in a new social order, that embodied in the Women's Movement. Marjorie Darke gives a realistic picture of the lives of both the wealthy and the poor in the early 1900s, especially the latter in the sweated dressmaking trade. She notes the difference between the various women's groups at the time, the Suffragettes were deemed the extremists, and moves from charming vignettes of women's meetings, bicycle rides, and picnics to harrowing scenes of the harassment, prison life, and forced feeding to which members of the Women's Movement were subjected. The book ends with the coming of World War I and the cessation of the Movement for the time being.
Neither the Flambards trilogy nor A Question of Courage has the emotional impact of Rosemary Sutcliff's works or the individual books of historical fiction by Paula Fox and Scott O'Dell. The reason for this is only partly a matter of lesser skill in sheer style. Rather it is their attitude toward their subjects that accounts for the relative "flatness" of the novels of Peyton and Darke. They themselves seem not to have, nor do they require from their readers, an avid interest in a given period and what it represents in the way of symbolism and parallels.
Both Peyton and Darke do, however, offer good, straightforward, competently written narratives, with themes that are immediately recognizable as linked to the present. Being set so close to our own time—less than a step away, really—their novels have a sense of immediacy closely akin to that of the realistic or problem novel. They therefore appeal to many children who might not otherwise be attracted to historical fiction. Moreover, both are astute enough writers to give us young protagonists who are not victims of events beyond their control, but who with determination join the struggle for social change. Such books remind us in how great a degree human progress depends upon the individual and that human society is not totally antlike. If in their broad optimism they are infused with a sense of steady advance toward social betterment, they are not so naive as to suggest that such progress is inevitable or easy. Gains are not assured; they have been very hard won.
Of course, changing socioeconomic conditions in the recent past are not what everyone would deem as the stuff of an historical novel. Many writers still prefer to find their inspiration in the distant past and in a foreign land. Jill Paton Walsh's The Emperor's Winding Sheet (1974) illustrates the continuing appeal of remoteness. While the chief figure is the last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine, we see the novel's events through the eyes of a young English boy who is coopted into the emperor's service. He serves Constantine at first reluctantly, then with admiration, and finally with love, refusing his freedom and ministering to him at the end as his only servant. The use of a young protagonist as guide, observer, and commentator has almost disappeared as a literary device, but here it is used most successfully.
Another fine novelist who prefers the distant locale and a remote time is Katherine Paterson who makes feudal Japan her setting in The Sign of the Chrysanthemum (1973) and Of Nightingales That Weep (1974), and eighteenth-century Japan in The Master Puppeteer (1975). All three are somewhat brief as historical novels go, but Paterson, like the medieval Japanese painters of the long scrolls, finds room for the specific observations and convincing details which convey authenticity.
Of the three novels, The Master Puppeteer (1976) is the most childlike in that it shows that the boys will be boys even in the harsh discipline of the Bunraku puppet theater class and in a city where famine reigns and bands of marauders roam the streets. It is also worth noting that, although replete with marvelous lore of puppetry, the book retains a strong narrative quality. The plot, which concerns the search for Saburo, the Robin Hood helper of the poor, is handled with suspense and verve. Despite their far-away and long-ago settings, Paterson's novels are very much of the present in their concentration on the protagonists' growth to maturity.
In both The Sign of the Chrysanthemum and Of Nightingales That Weep the crises through which the protagonists must pass are devastating. Both novels deal with the Civil War between the Heike and the Genji, and both have a number of authentic historical figures. The Sign of the Chrysanthemum is almost a traditional Bildungsroman—the story of one boy searching for a dream, his name, his father, his identity. At age thirteen the novel's protagonist is called Muna, which means "no-name." But as the two clans are warring, so are the two parts of Muna's character—his desire for respect and a name at any price, and a desire for truth and a moral life. As the capital city Heiankyo erupts into civil war, Muna comes to terms with himself:
At one time it had been almost an obsession, the name that would replace "No Name" once and for all. But he had not thought of it now for a long time. It belonged to his daydream world of many months before, before Takanobu had reappeared and Kawaki had died. Before he had let go of his phantom of a father…. Before he knew that he himself could lie and steal and betray.
But the greatest character of all in the book is the city itself and its many levels of life—the subculture of thieves, beggars, renegades, and prostitutes; the stable, humble life of the artisans and merchants; the dazzling nobility and dignity of the court officials and samurai warriors—all of which form a cross-section of the life of the city and give a true feeling for the era.
In Nightingales That Weep there is a formal, stately, almost Arthurian tone to the scenes of the court. This formality is retained even in the battle scenes—which are described only through the eyes of the court women—and is applied with telling effect to the portrayal of the heroine. As a girl of feudal Japan, Takiko is, of course, very closely bound by the commandments of custom and ceremony, and Paterson is careful not to gloss that central fact in Takiko's life. Within those constraints, however, she is depicted in very much modern terms: she strives to live her life for herself and the great decision in her life, when she chooses to become the wife of an artisan, is a resolution of her own making. For both Muna and Takiko their conquests over their own nature have radically altered their lives.
These links with present-day attitudes, which are so desirable in establishing a rapport between narrative and reader, are obviously difficult to establish when the historical milieu is so clearly and specifically defined as to set it off sharply from our own. It is therefore not surprising that it is often those writers who, because they move farthest back in time, succeed best in relating their characters to the present. Perhaps the haze of the very distant past is what blurs the perception of period. Such writers as Stephen Rayson in The Crows of War (1975), Roderick L. Haig-Brown in The Whale People (1962), and Rosemary Sutcliff in much of her work appear to be establishing a strong link between those who preceded us in the distant past and ourselves, thereby almost suggesting that the farther back we go, the closer the bond. These writers imbue their works with a primitive quality that brings them very near the universal quality of myth.
Stephen Rayson's The Crows of War is just such a book. Set in 43 A.D., it describes the conflict between the Roman legions and the defending Celtic tribes as simultaneously a brutal physical battle and a profound psychological struggle of clashing cultures and minds. In a panorama of huge sweep we are able to see how such epic collisions affect the lives of ordinary people caught in historical events beyond their understanding or control.
At the hub of this wheel of destiny and history is Airmid, teenage daughter of a Celtic chieftain. When the Celts lose the battle, Airmid loses both her freedom and her eyesight. The novel continues in a brutally honest portrayal of her life as a blind woman wrestler at the mercy of sadistic soldiers. Then her tragedy takes on an epic dimension; she descends into madness as her mind is used as a symbolic battleground by two Celtic goddesses in their eternal struggle of "summer against winter, warmth pitted against the cold. Light and darkness, life, death." Nevertheless, the novel ends on a note of hope. Not only does Airmid's blindness give her access to prophetic vision, but also the two contending cultures begin to reach growing respect for one another.
The Crows of War is thus far Rayson's only attempt to handle themes of such magnitude and it is impos-sible to predict whether he can sustain work at this level of passion and grandeur. One writer who can indisputably do so is Rosemary Sutcliff. In her long career she has shown herself as consistently able to represent the strong emotions of primal times. She unleashes not only the dark sides of earlier civilizations, but the dark side of human life in most of her works. Her novels are filled with images of war, cruelty, blood, sacrifice, suffering, deformity, accompanied by an almost physical smell of fear.
Sutcliff is a "hot" novelist in strong contrast to the cooler, more cerebral, and lucid approach of a Hester Burton or a Barbara Willard. Like all modern writers she does not open her books with long descriptive passages to set the period but thrusts the reader immediately into the stir and terror of great, grim events. Thus The Shield Ring (1956) begins:
The thing happened with the appalling swiftness of a hawk swooping out of a quiet sky, on a day late in spring, when Frytha was not quite five.
She creates a brooding atmosphere in The Eagle of the Ninth which holds even when her style has a marching rhythm like that of the Roman legions she so loves to describe:
'I had never seen such a sight before,' he said. 'Like a shining serpent of men winding across the hills; a grey serpent, hackled with the scarlet cloaks and crests of the officers. There were queer tales about that Legion; men said that it was accursed, but it looked stronger than any curse, stronger and more deadly. And I remember how the Eagle flashed in the sun as it came by—a great golden Eagle with its wings arched back as I have seen them often swoop on a screaming hare among the heather.
Sutcliff's perennial theme is that of personal responsibility, particularly if the protagonist is in a position of leadership. Her characters frequently resemble Beowulf, the King of the Geats, facing the dragon alone in his last battle. Most of her major novels have this epic quality. In The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965) the young gladiator who is chosen to be a substitute for the blinded real king gradually comes to feel that he is the real chief and in the end dies voluntarily that the tribe may be saved. So does Lubrin in Sun Horse, Moon Horse (1977). In order to free his people, Lubrin of the Horse People agrees to carve a huge horse on what is now the Berkshire Downs so as to honor and placate Cradoc, the conquering chief. But the achievement of this artistic work will not be enough:
In that split moment of time, the unspoken, unthought thing between him and Cradoc came out of the dark, and he looked it in the face, and found that he had always known it. It was the last sealing of the bargain between them. It was his own death. His blood, his life to quicken the god-horse of his making; just as the Old People shed the life of a man into the furrows every seven years to quicken the seed-corn to harvest.
In such novels, the incidents are of Sutcliff's own contrivance but the sense of passion and sacrifice seem drawn from the most ancient myths.
Like the myths, Sutcliff's works are by no means monochromatic. Her works are filled with images of light as well as dark. Amidst the clang and clash of war, the horrors of a slave ship or arena, or in the picture of the dark people who live beyond the Roman Wall in Britain, she also imparts a sense of the necessity for and the profundity of a culture. Above all, even in depicting the most harrowing tragedies, she suggests that these may be the steps we've been taking on our slow, hard climb to real humanity. The ending of The Lantern Bearers (1959) is a summation of her philosophy:
'I sometimes think that we stand at sunset,' Eugenus said after a pause. 'It may be that the night will close over us in the end, but I believe that morning will come again. Morning always grows again out of the darkness, though maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down. We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.'
Not surprisingly, the importance of a culture is most movingly seen in those books like Sutcliff's Sun Horse, Moon Horse and Haig-Brown's The Whale People that depict a preliterate people. This may be because such peoples did live wholeheartedly by rigid standards and ritual observances. The Whale People are the Hotsath tribe of the west coast of Vancouver Island who hunt the whale from dugout canoes with weapons of wood and bone and horn. Atlin, a boy of the tribe and the son of its chief, receives both practical and spiritual training to prepare him to take his father's place as the whale chief. Upon his father's death he subjects himself to even more severe discipline in order to receive the spiritual insight—the appearance of his "tumanos" or particular spirit—that will confirm his leadership. In dealing with the ethos of a race, The Whale People has a simple strength, dignity, and even starkness that are akin to the great northern myths. But there is nothing stark about Haig-Brown's view of life. Like Sutcliff he sees his hero, purified by trial, leading his people to a better way of life.
Because the major writers of historical fiction deal with serious and profound themes, they very rarely indulge in the light touch. There is one outstanding exception, Leon Garfield, whose works serve to remind us that the comic side of life persists, even amid portentous events. His The Prisoners of September (1975) is based on a truly tragic incident in the French Revolution, the September massacre. It is also a story of friendship, that between Richard Mortimer, a young English aristocrat who goes off to Paris to join the Revolutionaries, and Lewis Boston, the son of a nouveau riche wine merchant who stumbles into the opposite side on a business trip to Paris.
The humor in this work appears chiefly in the doings of the friendly, rather bumbling Boston family who are almost puppyish in their efforts to please everyone. Young Lewis Boston has rescued a French emigré countess from a runaway team of horses and his father, dedicated to parties, gives one of his famous fêtes in the countess's honor. Lewis is head over heels in love with her but fears Richard as a rival. He prepares a surprise for his countess—an air balloon which circles the crowded room bearing the countess's coat of arms:
"Look, look, my queen!" breathed Lewis ecstatically. "I've put a moon in the sky for you! I've dressed it in your livery! Your moon, your sky! What more can love do?"
It was indeed the countess's moon, and would have been even more so if Mr. Boston hadn't seen fit to have painted round the lower half: A. Boston and Son. Importers of Fine Wines. But still, thought Lewis, it was an added tribute. Match that, if you can, Richard Mortimer!
The scene ends in an episode of near burlesque. The balloon catches fire and in turn sets the countess on fire. Lewis, devoted and brave but hopelessly clumsy, attempts to rescue her and tears her dress in the process, thereby revealing the mark of a thief on her breast. Out of place in a serious novel? Unbelievable? No, simply comic, as Leon Garfield does it.
The eighteenth century, which is Garfield's specialty, lends itself particularly well to his often larger-than-life approach. His novels revolve around swashbuckling highwaymen and captains; eccentric doctors, teachers, and lords; a gentle, mad girl, and a Lillith-like general's daughter. Through them move his young heroes on a journey from innocence to experience. Other than The Prisoners of September his novels are not, strictly speaking, historical fiction, since Jack Holborn (1964), Smith (1967), Black Jack (1968), The Sound of Coaches (1974) are completely fictional. The Drummer Boy (1970) does open with a battle scene (one of the most magnificent descriptions in children's literature), but we know neither where, when nor why the battle has taken place and it does not matter.
But Garfield's details are not fictional. When, at the beginning of Black Jack (1968) we read of the metal tube that the criminal inserted down his throat to prevent the suffocation of the hangman's noose, we know the scene to be accurate. When, in The Sound of Coaches (1974) we learn of the tradition of naming a coachman by the road on which he traveled (Mr. Dover, because of the Dover Road), its historicity can be accepted because Leon Garfield's name is on the title page. Whether he is describing an eighteenth-century asylum, Newgate Prison, or a sailing ship, the details are completely convincing.
They do much more than carry conviction, they create atmosphere and it is perhaps Garfield's ability to create atmosphere that has led many critics to reach for comparisons of his work with Dickens and Fielding. Atmosphere is of course indefinable, but it is easily sensed, especially when it is created with the remarkable swiftness and economy that Garfield displays. Here for example is the first paragraph of Smith (1967):
He was called Smith and was twelve years old. Which, in itself, was a marvel; for it seemed as if the smallpox, the consumption, brain-fever, gaol-fever and even the hangman's rope had given him a wide berth for fear of catching something. Or else they weren't quick enough.
Smith had a turn of speed that was remarkable, and a neatness in nipping down an alley or vanishing in a court that had to be seen to be believed. Not that it was often seen … the most his thousand victims ever got of him was the powerful whiff of his passing and a cold draught in their dexterously emptied pockets.
In these few lines we find ourselves rooted in the mean life of eighteenth-century London, in "the tumbledown mazes about fat St. Paul's." When Garfield's atmosphere moves into the macabre, which it does frequently, the spine actually tingles, the hair rises on the head, and one looks to see if the doors are firmly locked and the curtains drawn. He has pro-vided many unforgettable episodes, one of the most notable being the first chapter of Black Jack in which Tolly, an orphan, boy, is left alone in a locked, candle-lit room watching the hanged highwayman come back to life and forcing himself to participate in the resuscitation.
Although Garfield's plots are of the kind that keeps the reader turning the pages in the best tradition of storytelling, deeper themes do underly his work. He treats life as it comes—which is more often rough and uneven than smooth—and he is not afraid to describe plainly that which is ugly and grotesque. Usually however, Garfield is not so direct and plain in his treatment of evil, or of good. For to him the two are intermingled or disguised. Perhaps the most frequent and important choice his protagonists have to make is that between good and evil when neither is all that clear. Slowly, subtly, they must learn to unmask apparent good as evil or apparent evil as good. Thus in The Drummer Boy, the drummer boy's love for the General's daughter, Sophia, turns out to be destructive, whereas he finds real courage and humanity in the rascally Mr. Shaw, whom we meet first robbing the bodies of the dead on the battlefield.
At the same time, Garfield's overall optimistic view of life has given us some of the tenderest passages in children's literature. Black Jack presents a macabre plot of a hanged man revived, his kidnapping of Tolly, the orphan boy, and the hold-up of a coach from which an insane girl escapes. It is also the story of the moving relationship between Tolly and the defective girl, Belle. Belle has never seen the sea:
"Tell me about the sea," she begged….
"Water, Belle—as far as the eye can see …"
"What noise does it make?"
"It sighs and whispers and slaps and sometimes roars."
"What's under the sea, Tolly?"
"Green darkness—like a great forest. Strange flowers and weeds and fish and sunken ships and treasures."
It is probably the same delight in paradox that accounts for Garfield's sharp eye for the vulnerability even of villainy. Black Jack is at first presented as a terrible villain whose great bulk seems not to have a weak spot in it. But Tolly discovers:
"That was her—eh?" he muttered. "That was the lunatic?"
Of a sudden, Tolly suspected a strange thing. He suspected that this mighty ruffian, this vast, murdering felon who feared neither God nor the Devil nor even the hangman, was struck with dread by skinny, mad Belle!
Among the many other interesting features of Garfield's work, not the least noteworthy is his unusual willingness, for these days, at least, to depart from the conventional novel format. His "Apprentice Series" offers twelve (one for each month of the year) vignettes of something fewer than fifty pages each, and it is a very real treat to see how adeptly he makes the short narrative form work for him. The apprentices are young teenagers who are both literally and figuratively in the apprentice stages of their lives, involved in learning the secrets and powers of a craft. They are also all linked by a symbol, that of light, both physical light and the figurative light of enlightenment, and the young people themselves and those who become involved with them eventually "see the light." The progress of Garfield's apprentices is the reverse of Hogarth's "The Rake's Progress." His characters are not only searching for the truths their individual craft might yield, but they also are struggling toward maturity. In their "rites of passage" they are initiated into the Vanity Fair of the London street life with its colorful characters, painful truths, and sordid ironies. Eventually the apprentices win through to a revelation of the good and an unmasking of the tawdry.
On one level the stories are straightforward, exciting, and, at times, comic narratives, the apprentice rivalry in The Enemy (1978) being a particularly good example of the latter quality. There are as well other levels of meaning—highly symbolical, often allegorical—and these are sometimes elusive. Thus The Lamplighter's Funeral (1976) is radiant with imagery of light that balances and transcends the raucous, dangerous, brutally jostling and mean-spirited street life that lies at the core of the story. The central character, Pallcat, is an irritable, curmudgeonly lamplighter with a passionate belief in his work. In explaining his mission he says fervently, "Issa sacred dooty…. Issa Christian office to lighten our darkness."
The dour isolation of Pallcat's existence is broken by the chance entry into his life of an impoverished urchin called Possul. The boy saves Pallcat from disgrace in his brotherhood by carrying his funeral light after he had fallen drunk by the wayside. Possul is an enigmatic figure with his "weirdly transparent face,… angelic countenance and soft manners." Although he is a real child, he functions also as a wonderchild or Christ child, whose innocence and courage holds the light of conscience in the darkness of man's spiritual night. When Possul goes forth alone with his torch without Pallcat's guidance, he takes his customers to whom he is giving safe passage through the darkness on journeys of metaphysical dimension as his torchlight shines on the pain, misfortune, and degradation of society's outcasts:
Men crying in corners, dead children, thieves lit up in sudden, horrible terror…. Human beings everywhere abandoning themselves to a despair that the darkness should have hid, abruptly seen in their crude nakedness.
The motifs of light and dark, or friendship and love, not romantic love, but the divine love of compassion, forgiveness, and rebirth, are creatively varied and skillfully interwoven very much like the contrapuntal lines of an eighteenth-century fugue.
In The Enemy a natural, comic, boyish rivalry is the surface theme, but both "enemies" as in other books, come to acts of extraordinary generosity. Mirror, Mirror (1976) is replete with a wealth of imaginative, inventive metaphors in which the daughter of the master carver of mirror frames uses her mirrors to visit ghastly, ghoulish torments on the poor apprentice. But once again, there is Garfield's perennial wit and good humor to lighten and vary the tone. The result is a story that has a medieval flavor, an eighteenth-century equivalent of some of the wry, whimsical, and sentimental anecdotes of Chaucer or the amorous jests of Boccaccio.
In format the "Apprentice" books appear designed to attract young readers, age nine or ten. They are not only brief, they have large type, a spacious look, and are perfectly illustrated by either Anthony Maitland or Faith Jacques. The stories also have been issued in a combined one-volume edition, but lack the illustrations. The latter edition is probably intended for adults and if so, this publishing venture makes great good sense: Garfield is, for child or adult, a great storyteller.
The format of Garfield's "Apprentice" books has been adopted by Alan Garner in his "Quartet," a grouping of well-illustrated, "long-short stories." As the name suggests, the "Quartet" is composed of four linked narratives: The Stone Book (1976), Tom Fobble's Day (1977), Granny Reardun (1977), and The Aimer Gate (1978). Chronologically, the series begins with The Stone Book, and ends with Tom Fobble's Day—stories that are extraordinary miniatures which can be enjoyed in their directness and simplicity by younger children, but certainly their levels of metaphor will also touch the older child and adults. Garner's overall theme is the continuity of time and, like Garfield in the "Apprentices," he is fascinated by the skill of the artisan. However, unlike Garfield, he makes powerful use of the classical unities of time, place, and action. The events in each book take place in a single day; all four books are concerned with the same family, although in different generations.
The Stone Book moves in a series of small, symbolic acts, all of which are unfolded to Mary, the daughter of a stone mason in a small Victorian village. Mary's father gives her a vision of height and light as she rides the golden weathercock on top of the church he is building. Then comes the sense of depth and darkness in a cave with a prehistoric painting, "the most secret place she had ever seen." She is not alone there. All about her in that small place under the hill that led nowhere were the footprints of people who had been there before her. Mary's father, as they arrive home, says "once you've seen it, you're changed for the rest of your days." Mary has wanted to learn to read but her father makes her a "stone" book symbolic of the deeper and wider understanding of the natural world that can surpass the knowledge found in booklearning. "And Mary sat by the fire and read the stone book that had in it all the stories of the world and the flowers of the flood." Thus The Stone Book pursues the themes of initiation and growth of understanding: the older generation sharing its worldly and spiritual wisdom with the young; how meaning is conveyed through iconic elements of the natural world—iron, wood, or stone; the roots of love between family members; the sharing of common, small details as the family carries on its day-to-day life in their home and chosen craft or work.
Tom Fobble's Day—"Tom Fobbling" is the old childhood ritual of borrowing, lending, and claiming—employs the same themes in a very different setting, that of World War II. William's grandfather makes him a new sledge to replace the one that has been "Tom Fobbled" away from him. The grandfather makes that sledge from the iron and ash of his forge and the oak of the grandmother's loom, and he does all this on the day he dies. William takes his grandfather's horseshoe, one that symbolized his marriage, in a Tom-Fobbling ritual and enters a service as passionate and as fiercely mourning as Dylan Thomas's prayer-poem to his dying father, "Do Not Go Gentle into That Goodnight." William takes his sledge to the field where the children of the village do their sled-ding, a dangerous place scattered with shrapnel from the German night bombers and the British fighters, and the sledge was good:
The line did hold. Through hand and eye, block, forge and loom to the hill and all that he owned, he sledged sledged sledged for the black and glittering night and the sky flying on fire and the expectation of snow.
The four stories of the "Quartet" grow into one another, even though each is told in its own time and place. They are linked together not only by the fact that they deal with the same family over the years but also, as with Garfield, by the homely details of craft and artifacts that one generation inherits from another. Thus the pipe which Mary's father buried is found by William on the day of his grandfather's death.
Alan Garner's several parallels with Garfield should not be taken as too meaningful, for there is no question here of direct influences or any "school" of contemporary historical fiction. Nevertheless, comparisons between individual writers are inescapable, and so indeed is some overall description and judgment of current trends and features in historical fiction as contrasted with those of previous periods and other genres.
Such a general assessment may properly begin with an analysis of characterization as being the central feature of almost every form of prose fiction. Here historical fiction has always presented some special considerations and requirements. Seemingly children develop an awareness of an interest in history only after they become conscious of their own personal history, their own passage through themselves. It follows then that not only are the readers of historical fiction somewhat older than those for other genres but that the characters in historical fiction are older as well. This is not simply the usual matter of the reader preferring characters with whom he can closely identify; it is also that the characters must be old enough and mature enough to grasp, and hence impart, the nature of the often awesome events in which they find themselves.
For much the same reason adults play a far more important role in historical novels than they do in other types of children's fiction. In narratives with a present-day setting, for example, the adult characters are often shadowy, mere accessories so to speak, for the child protagonists. This criticism applies with particular force to the depiction of parents, who are often shown as stereotypes with no real individuality. In historical fiction, however, the adult characters are needed if the narrative is to portray with any credibility the central characters as taking an active, prominent role in the unfolding of the events, let alone affecting their outcome. After all, even the unsophisticated Henty had to let Wolfe, rather than his boy companion, capture Quebec! The result is that in most recent historical fiction there are relatively few child figures; they are more likely to be adolescents. In Barbara Willard's Harrow and Harvest, the only young child we encounter is a half-witted boy and his is a minor role. Rosemary Sutcliff's Song for a Dark Queen (1977) has a completely adult cast except for Queen Boducca's two daughters, who are symbols rather than characters.
All this suggests that the writing of historical fiction for younger children presents very large difficulties—which may explain the relatively few successes. In addition to the problem of creating believable young child characters, the writer has also to condense dramatic time. Since younger children cannot easily grasp the concept of developments occurring over a long period of time, authors must pack more drama into a shorter period. They thus represent the past in a kind of reversal of dimension in which a small detail can loom so very large and significant. As D. H. Lawrence put it, on imagining a prehistoric hummingbird, "We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of time."4 Writers generally use Lawrence's end-of-the-telescope technique to enlarge a moment of social history through the lives of young children. It is characteristic that many books of historical fiction for children are produced in a publisher's series with outstanding writers of the day such as the Hamish Hamilton "Antelope Books" and the Heinemann "Long Ago Books."
Almost all these novels of historical fiction are very brief. Although that classic example of historical fiction for younger children, Howard Pyle's Otto of the Silver Hand (1888), is almost 200 pages in length, those of today rarely reach half that. The difference, moreover, is not merely a matter of scope. Modern writers emulate Pyle's basic technique of emphasizing the child rather than events but they do so in a more sharply focused manner. When they have achieved success, it is because they have so well absorbed the material of their period that they can render it with the utmost economy—providing just enough of the right detail to make the historical setting colorful and evocative, while superimposing upon that setting the relevant activity of the child characters.
Rosemary Sutcliff, for example, is so much at home in ancient history that when she writes of the friendship between an Athenian boy and a Spartan boy at the Olympic Games in The Truce of the Games (1971), a brief book of fewer than 85 pages, her background details of the rivalry between the two city-states are given briefly and precisely, but the rivalry between the two boys, complicated by their friendship, takes center stage. Similarly, Leon Garfield, in his The Boy and the Monkey (1969), uses his usual, rapid, knowing strokes to describe some eighteenth-century London streets, a jail, and a courtroom with a marvelously touching and funny cast of eccentrics, including a most perspicacious monkey. And all within only 47 pages! It is to be noted that in tune with modern children's literature in general, even these small books have a serious tone, most resembling Gillian Avery's Ellen's Birthday (1971), which gives a vivid picture of the English country poor in the year 1852.
It is usually only in family stories of the past that the lighter touch can be perceived and these are few in number. Nina Bawden's The Peppermint Pig (1975) follows in the tradition of books such as Carol Brink's Caddie Woodlawn (1935) and Laura Ingalls Wilder's "The Little House" series in that it is social history rather than an account of great events. The appeal of all such books derives more from nostalgia than from romance. Like the families in these earlier books, Bawden's Greengrass family has its ups and downs, many of them amusing. It is an evocative, perceptive, good-humored picture of family life at the turn of the century that is somewhat reminiscent too of Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children, in which father comes home, his name cleared of having stolen from his employer.
Another family narrative that offers a rare and, on the whole, successful attempt at broad humor is John D. Fitzgerald's The Great Brain (1967) and its sequels. In these stories Fitzgerald has created a kind of minor Tom Sawyer. They are set in Adenville, "a typical Utah town" in 1896. The young heroes, especially Tom the "great brain," are inventive and tricky, with the corners not yet knocked off them. Fitzgerald's boy protagonists have funny yet plausible adventures matching the ebullient spirit that opened up the American West.
It should be noted that these humorous books invariably have a setting in the recent past. In this, their authors gain at least one large advantage; they lessen for themselves the problem of vocabulary. Vocabulary is a constant difficulty for writers of historical fiction, a difficulty which intensifies as the writer reaches further back into history. The solutions vary. Barbara Willard sails neatly between the Scylla of "prithee" and the Charybdis of "okay," by employing a heightened version of standard English, a sort of timeless noble language that is difficult to achieve and maintain. She does use some dialect and archaic words—"suent," "sponky," and "sworly" are examples—but introduces them so naturally and with so clear a meaning that only a coloration of the text is noticeable. Generally her style is as smooth and literate and simple as these opening lines of The Lark and The Laurel attest:
Cecily had been brought to Mantlemass at dusk. Already bitterly fatigued by the long ride from London, by the haste and surprise and fear of it all, she had clung to her father as if she were drowning and only he of all the world could save her. Her own misery, loud and ugly, clamoured in her ears and she could not stop it in spite of the distaste and anger she saw in her father's face.
Hester Burton, whose nineteenth-century characters seem almost as modern as those portrayed in contemporary-scene fiction, actually uses more dialect and archaic words than Barbara Willard, but she too makes the context clear. "Now don't you cruckle, lass," said Farmer Moore in Burton's Time of Trial, but we know that he is attempting to comfort Margaret as she is on her way to Ipswich Gaol to see her father. Stephen, on the road to Manchester in her Riders of the Storm, meets an old woman who says, "Is it clemmed thaw art?" He shook his head. "My sister put a pasty and bread and cheese in my pack!"
Garfield's mastery with eighteenth-century phraseology is most observable in his "Apprentice" series. The strong, spicy dialects and gutter language of the streets are complemented by the beauty and grace of his imagery. He always gives the feeling of a tale being told now, even when he gives his characters the voice of their own time and class; he makes clear an archaic word usually by means of a synonym:
Sure enough, next day Larkins came out in tetters all over his face; and Hobby rejoiced…. Although it was a well-known fact that Larkins often came out in tetters and black spots on the side of his nose and boils on the back of his neck, the coincidence this time was too great for Hobby not to feel that he had friends in dark places.
—The Enemy, p. 7
Of all major writers, Alan Garner yields least in the use of dialect:
"It's Stewart Allman," said William. "He took me sledge and wrecked it."
"And good riddance," said Grandad. "I never saw such a codge."
—Tom Fobble's Day, p. 41
Still, although the language is what gives Garner's books much of their feeling of authenticity, it may prove a stumbling block to many North American children.
Rosemary Sutcliff may be the greatest alchemist of all with period dialogue. Most of her books, being set in prehistoric times or in Roman Britain, are beyond the knowledge of recorded speech, but it is part of her magic that she can make the past so real without, as it were, the tools of the speech of the time. The Druid priest in Outcast speaks without archaic words and yet the mythic tone comes through:
Nonetheless, evil will come of it, evil and the wrath of the Gods, if you bring the thing among us! It is a Roman whelp, and what have we to do with such—we, the Free People beyond the frontier?
Dr. David Bain, an educational psychologist at the University of British Columbia, has noted that in spoken language a child tends to develop the future tense long before the past tense. Still, for most children when they are in grade three, there comes a point when they are able to identify with other people's times and with their own long-range future. Dr. Bain calls these early gropings for communicating with other times "transtemporal communication."5 The child, he maintains, is not a whole person until the link is made between past, present, and future.
There is good reason to believe that today's children have a marked tendency to concentrate upon the present, as may be evidenced by the popularity of the realistic novel in general and the "problem" novel in particular. The historical novel makes much greater demands on both the writer and the reader than does realistic fiction; quite aside from the sheer factual knowledge that must be mastered, there are severe problems of vocabulary, phraseology, characterization, and viewpoint.
Even so, some knowledge of the past, as Dr. Bain maintains, must be inculcated and the historical novel offers a time-proven and genuinely effective means of doing so. The validity and appeal of the genre persist, though inevitably its nature has altered very considerably from the times when Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii and Kingsley's Hereward the Wake were popular fare for children. Modern writers are concerned with the same themes as the writers of realistic fiction—growing up; facing difficulties and conflicts, whether large events such as war or the crises of everyday living; resolving such conflicts and deriving enrichment from them. Books of historical fiction have become in many ways problem novels, but in larger perspective. Human nature, modern historical fiction is saying, has changed very little. Everyone has to learn to pick up the pieces.
One may conclude that, in its several ways, historical fiction has changed more than any other genre. The romance and adventure have disappeared; no longer does a Douglas Fairbanks "hit the deck" of history with sword in hand. The new writers see their characters as "apprentices" in life, and the modesty of their station, even amidst high-level events, forbids the kind of glamorization of characters and events that was the trademark of earlier historical novels for children. Except for the works of Rosemary Sutcliff, most of the drama of past events has been muted into social history. Among other benefits derived from this rejection of romance, in addition to an increased historicity, has been the virtual divorce of this almost new form of the genre from the competition of TV historical romance, the comic books, and, especially, from the subgenre of "sword and sorcery," that odd combination of the primitive past and fantasy. Historical fiction for the young at least can no longer be deemed a literature of escape into the past, although this can still be found in much writing for adults.
But when historical romance was no longer considered palatable by writers its demise meant the death of the kind of stories that were described rather loosely as "high adventure," those marvelous fast-paced plots tinged with the exotic, such as Stevenson's Treasure Island or the works of Rider Haggard. The happy, carefree view of reading expressed so well by Emily Dickinson:
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away …
has all but disappeared in our critical society.
Also seemingly gone is plain, pedantic history rendered palatable by a sugarcoating of fiction. Since this is an approach to history spurned even by pedagogues, it will hardly be missed. It may be, though, that the disappearance of romance, rather than the pedantic, accounts for the fact that no historical novel of the recent past has attained wide, general readership. Scott O'Dell's The Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) might be considered here as the great candidate for historical popularity, but it falls more readily into the sphere of the desert-island survival story rather than into that of the historical novel in the strict sense. Since Rosemary Sutcliff has written over such a long period she has certainly acquired a following but not particularly for one title. One answer to this rather puzzling situation may be the older age of the reader that historical fiction calls for. It is generally younger children who take a book to their hearts and make it their own.
Today's writers of historical fiction face more difficult challenges than writers of science fiction. Although they do not have to create a new time and place, they have to breathe life into old ones, to recreate a living past. Also, in a scientific and technological age, science fiction writers can count on an in-built interest in their work and therefore an audience for it, if only a specialized one. But the writers of historical fiction face a decline in interest in history, as the lack of general history trade books for children attests. That the presentation of real events has become both difficult and complex can be shown by the series of articles in the New Yorker magazine in March 1979 on American history textbooks for children and young people. As in adult writing it seems that history can only be handled by a specialist writing on a special period, a Bruce Catton or a Barbara Tuchman.
If history itself has been rendered arid, this should make historical fiction all the more important in children's reading. The genre has always been and still is the best way to make history come alive and readers will find that writers of "the new wave" employ modern concepts and a modern treatment of them in their works. The portrayal of girls and women is only one example. Perhaps because many of the new writers are women, they give their female characters strong and positive personalities and roles even when they are not center stage. Writers today are not naive enough to attempt a "Berica the Britoness," but they do endeavor to portray their female protagonists as high-spirited, intelligent, and independent beings. If they don't have these attributes to begin with, like Cicely in Barbara Willard's The Lark and the Laurel, they acquire them. There is also some reason to suggest that there now is a more deliberate attempt to choose situations where women's roles are both important and natural as Marjorie Darke does in A Question of Courage, her book on the women's suffrage movement, and as Rosemary Sutcliff does in Song for a Dark Queen, her account of Boducca's magnificent and tragic stand against the Roman legions.
Historical fiction strives mightily for relevance and, as a consequence sometimes becomes too obvious in its messages. Its characteristic tone is too unvaryingly one of high seriousness and it can verge on the portentous. "Story values" too are often attenuated in favor of character and atmosphere. Yet all of these generalizations have relatively little significance because contemporary historical fiction is being written by a Sutcliff, a Burton, a Willard, and a Garfield and these outstanding talents are by definition beyond compartmentalization. The only really safe generalization is that as a genre historical fiction is very much alive and this may indeed be its Golden Age.
1. Erik Christian Haugaard, The Rider and His Horse (Boston: Houghton, 1968), p. [ix] (opening page of preface).
2. Alfred T. Sheppard, The Art and Practice of Historical Fiction (London: H. Toulmin, 1930), p. 3.
3. Margaret Meek, Aidan Warlow, and Griselda Barton, eds., The Cool Web: The Pattern of Children's Reading (London: Bodley Head, 1977), p. 161.
4. D. H. Lawrence, "Humming-bird," in his Complete Poems, 2 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1964), vol. 1, p. 372.
5. David Bain, "Transtemporal Communication," in Sheila A. Egoff, ed., One Ocean Touching: Papers of the First Pacific Rim Conference on Children's Literature (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Pr., 1979), p. 3.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women; or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Illus. by May Alcott. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1868. 341 pp.
Avery, Gillian. Ellen's Birthday. Illus. by Krystyna Turska. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1971. 88 pp.
Bawden, Nina. The Peppermint Pig. Illus. by Alexy Pendle. London: Gollancz, 1975. 160 pp.
Brink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn. Illus. by Kate Seredy. New York: Macmillan, 1935. 270 pp.
Burton, Hester. Castors Away! Illus. by Victor G. Ambrus. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1962. 222 pp.
――――――. No Beat of Drum. Illus. by Victor G. Ambrus. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1966. 185 pp.
――――――. The Rebel. Illus. by Victor G. Ambrus. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1971. 136 pp.
――――――. Riders of the Storm. Illus. by Victor G. Ambrus. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1972. 170 pp.
――――――. Thomas. Illus. by Victor G. Ambrus. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1969. 178 pp.
――――――. Time of Trial. Illus. by Victor G. Ambrus. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1963. 216 pp.
――――――. To Ravensrigg. Illus. by Victor G. Ambrus. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1976. 148 pp. New York: Crowell, 1977. 143 pp.
Collier, James Lincoln, and Collier, Christopher. My Brother Sam Is Dead. New York: Four Winds, 1974. 216 pp.
Cummings, Betty Sue. Hew against the Grain. New York: Atheneum, 1977. 174 pp.
Darke, Marjorie. A Question of Courage. Illus. by Janet Archer. Harmondsworth: Kestrel, 1975. 173 pp.
Finlayson, Anne. Rebecca's War. Illus. by Sherry Streeter. New York: Warne, 1972. 280 pp.
Fitzgerald, John D. The Great Brain. Illus. by Mercer Meyer. New York: Dial, 1967. 175 pp.
Forbes, Esther. Johnny Tremain. Illus. by Lynd Ward. Boston: Houghton, 1943. 256 pp.
Fox, Paula. The Slave Dancer. Illus. by Eros Keith. New York: Bradbury, 1973. 176 pp.
Garfield, Leon. Black Jack. Illus. by Antony Maitland. London: Longman Young Books, 1968. 192 pp.
――――――. The Boy and the Monkey. Illus. by Trevor Ridley. (Long Ago Books) London: Heinemann, 1976. 47 pp.
――――――. The Drummer Boy. Illus. by Antony Maitland. London: Longman Young Books, 1970. 154 pp.
――――――. The Enemy. Illus. by Faith Jacques. London: Heinemann, 1978. 47 pp.
――――――. Jack Holborn. Illus. by Antony Maitland. London: Constable, 1964. 199 pp.
――――――. The Lamplighter's Funeral. Illus. by Antony Maitland. London: Heinemann, 1976. 47 pp.
――――――. Mirror, Mirror. Illus. by Antony Maitland. London: Heinemann, 1976. 48 pp.
――――――. The Prisoners of September. Harmond-sworth: Kestrel, 1975. 280 pp.; New York: Viking, 1975. 279 pp.
――――――. Smith. Illus. by Antony Maitland. London: Constable, 1967. 218 pp.
――――――. The Sound of Coaches. Engravings by John Lawrence. Harmondsworth: Kestrel, 1974. 261 pp.
Garner, Alan. The Aimer Gate. Etchings by Michael Foreman. London: Collins, 1978. 79 pp.
――――――. Granny Reardun. Etchings by Michael Foreman. London: Collins, 1977. 58 pp.
――――――. The Stone Book. Etchings by Michael Foreman. London: Collins, 1976. 61 pp.
――――――. Tom Fobble's Day. Etchings by Michael Foreman. London: Collins, 1977. 72 pp.
Haig-Brown, Roderick L. The Whale People. Illus. by Mary Weiler. London: Collins, 1962. 184 pp.
Harnett, Cynthia. The Wool-Pack. Illus. by the author. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961. 238 pp.
Hodges, C. Walter. The Namesake: A Story of King Alfred. Illus. by the author. London: Bell, 1964. 197 pp.
Lively, Penelope. Going Back. London: Heinemann, 1975. 122 pp.
Marryat, Frederick. The Children of the New Forest. London: H. Hurst, 1847. 2 vols.
Nesbit, Edith. The Railway Children. Drawings by C. E. Brock. London: Wells Gardner & Co., 1906. 309 pp.
O'Dell, Scott. The Island of the Blue Dolphins. Boston: Houghton, 1960. 184 pp.
――――――. Sing Down the Moon. Boston: Houghton, 1970. 135 pp.
Pascal, Francine. Hangin' Out with Cici. New York: Viking, 1977. 152 pp.
Paterson, Katherine. The Master Puppeteer. Illus. by Haru Wells. New York: Crowell, 1975. 179 pp.
――――――. Of Nightingales That Weep. Illus. by Haru Wells. New York: Crowell, 1974. 170 pp.
――――――. The Sign of the Chrysanthemum. Illus. by Peter Landa. New York: Crowell, 1973. 132 pp.
Peyton, K. M. The Edge of the Cloud. Illus. by Victor G. Ambrus. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1969. 166 pp.
―――――――. Flambards. Illus. by Victor G. Ambrus. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1967. 193 pp.
―――――――. Flambards in Summer. Illus. by Victor G. Ambrus. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1969. 165 pp.
Pyle, Howard. Men of Iron. New York: Harper, 1891. 327 pp.
―――――――. Otto of the Silver Hand. New York: Scribner, 1888. 170 pp.
Rayson, Steven. The Crows of War: A Novel of Maiden Castle. London: Gollancz, 1974. 269 pp.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses. London: Cassell & Co., 1888. 324 pp.
Sutcliff, Rosemary. The Eagle of the Ninth. Illus. by C. Walter Hodges. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1954. 256 pp.
―――――――. The Lantern Bearers. Illus. by Charles Keeping. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1959. 248 pp.
―――――――. The Mark of the Horse Lord. Illus. by Charles Keeping. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1965, 245 pp.
―――――――. Outcast. Illus. by Richard Kennedy. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1955. 229 pp.
―――――――. The Shield Ring. Illus. by C. Walter Hodges. London: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1956. 217 pp.
―――――――. Song for a Dark Queen. London: Pelham Books, 1978. 176 pp.
―――――――. Sun Horse, Moon Horse. Decorations by Shirley Felts. London: Bodley Head, 1977. 112 pp.
―――――――. The Truce of the Games. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1971. 83 pp.
Taylor, Mildred. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. New York: Dial, 1976. 276 pp.
Trease, Geoffrey. Cue for Treason. Blackwell, 1940. 254 pp.
Walsh, Jill Paton. The Emperor's Winding Sheet. London: Macmillan, 1974. 240 pp.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. "The Little House on the Prairie" series. Harper, 1932–1943.
Willard, Barbara. The Iron Lily. Harmondsworth: Longman Young Books, 1973. 175 pp.
―――――――. Harrow and Harvest. Harmondsworth: Kestrel, 1974. 174 pp.
―――――――. The Lark and the Laurel. Drawings by Gareth Floyd. London: Longman Young Books, 1970. 170 pp.
―――――――. A Sprig of Broom. Decorations by Paul Shardlow. London: Longman Young Books, 1971. 185 pp.
Yonge, Charlotte. The Dove in the Eagle's Nest. London: Macmillan, 1866. 2 vols.
―――――――. The Little Duke, or, Richard the Fearless. London: J. W. Parker, 1854. 172 pp.
Joel Taxel (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: Taxel, Joel. "The American Revolution in Children's Books: Issues of Race and Class." In How Much Truth Do We Tell the Children?, edited by Betty Bacon, pp. 157-72. Minneapolis, Minn.: MEP Publications, 1988.
[In the following essay, Taxel observes how issues of race and class have been addressed in works of juvenile historical fiction set during the American Revolution, concluding that many of these texts misrepresent certain historical truths of the era.]
The American Revolution is taught in every U.S. school, and the colonists' struggle to attain "liberty and freedom" is impressed upon every child. Given the stress placed upon this aspect of U.S. history, it is instructive to see what other messages children get when they read about the Revolution.
This article examines the messages about race and class that appear in thirty-two children's novels about the Revolution. It should be noted at the outset that this piece looks only at the portrayal of Blacks, although the books' messages about Native Americans also merit examination. Also deserving of analysis but not covered in this piece is the portrayal of women in these books.
The sample consists of books recommended by selection tools (Wilson's Children's Catalog, Brodart's Elementary School Library Collection, etc.), which school and public librarians frequently consult before purchasing books. Thus, the sample contains the books which young readers are most likely to read on the subject. In addition, because the books were published over a seventy-seven year period (1899–1976), it is possible to trace attitudinal changes over those years. An understanding of how race and class are treated in this sample is important because of the subject matter—a revolution fought to advance human liberty and freedom. The fact that almost all of the authors exhibit race and class bias even as they repeat the impassioned, ideologically charged language used to justify the Revolution, points up some of the contradictory and still unresolved facets in our national legacy and our social agenda.
The racial stereotyping in the books under scrutiny (see list at end of article) is appalling. In fact, it is not until When the World's on Fire, published in 1973 and chronologically the twenty-eighth book in this thirty-two book sample, that one finds a Black character who is not a slave or servant (although there were in fact many free people) or who does not share some or all of the characteristics of the Sambo stereotype. Blacks are described as "bug-eyed," "apish," cowering, and superstitious with "flashing" smiles.1 While some authors display considerable paternalism toward Blacks (e.g., Perkins and Hawthorne), others seem to take active and conscious delight in derogating Black characters. One reads of "little monkey niggers" (Boyd, pp. 142-145, 176), "little black monkeys" and "little black imps" (Gray, pp. 106, 197), and "Sambo" (Hawthorne, p. 93).
One soon realizes how oblivious most writers have been to what has been termed the "central paradox of American history"—the fact that the Revolutionary movement for liberty and independence occurred at the very time slavery was being institutionalized in many colonies. Most writers failed to see the irony inherent in depicting white characters who are both slaveholders and champions of freedom, liberty, and independence. In Meggy MacIntosh, for example, Scottish-born Meggy must choose between Scottish Highlanders who remain loyal to King George and those "fighting for freedom and their homes" (p. 261). Meggy, of course, chooses those whose "battle cry is 'liberty or death.'" But she is never shown to consider the compatibility of these goals with the fact that "everybody had a nigger servant2 just for himself" (p. 72).
Rising Thunder offers a similar situation. A character ill-disposed to submit to "oppression and injustice" waxes eloquent on "the struggle for freedom" and "the right to be a man amid equals" (p. 5), yet he is himself a slaveholder.3 At one point the author appears ready to confront this contradiction when she notes that many important families were bankrupt due, in part, to the fact that many slaves "had run off to join the British, having been promised freedom as a reward." We then learn that these slaves found "freedom of a sort" when smallpox "swept the Blacks like a great scythe into their graves" (pp. 209-210). This point is discussed no further, and it would appear that divine retribution had been visited on these helpless souls for having had the audacity to covet the very thing their masters were fighting and dying to secure.
There are other instances where authors come face to face with this contradiction only to back down. In Silver for General Washington, twelve-year-old Gilbert Emmett returns to his home in occupied Philadelphia hoping to smuggle out the family silver in order to contribute it to the impoverished American army. He is greeted by Ezra, the faithful family slave, who has not only been steadfastly guarding the family house, but has also devised a scheme to remove the silver. Referring to a local innkeeper who will assist them, Ezra notes that he is an "honest man" who is "workin in secret against the pesky Britishers, jes like everybody else who wants to be free" (p. 178). Whether Ezra and his wife Martha are to remain slaves after this freedom is won and the entire question of the status and role of Blacks in the struggle are issues the author never addresses.
In Rebel Siege, Kinross McKenzie meets York, a Black slave, near an army encampment. Asked what it is like to be a slave, York replies that he is well fed, well treated, and grateful he doesn't have to go fight "no Tories, an' get shot like so many white gen'man Is seen ca'ied to this house. But," York wistfully concludes, "I guess it would be nice not to be owned" (p. 205). The sympathetic protagonist, however, never again inquires about York's thought and feelings. This scene suggests the author's discomfort with the issue, but it is by no means certain that he fully appreciates the irony of a slave fighting for whites' liberty. Consider the following statement made by Kin's father only one page before our first glimpse of slaves "toiling in the fields":
… Here the common man has been assessed at what he is worth, an' not at what some accident of birth seems to make him worth. This is an army o' common men, goin' forth to fight what they know is tyranny.
(p. 201, emphasis added)
Apparently, it did not occur to the author that race is also an "accident of birth" that should not be considered when assessing an individual's worth.
Battle Lanterns provides the most dramatic case in which the blessings of liberty are seen to apply only to whites. The double standard is made clear by Bill Barlow, the novel's hero, who fights with those who believe that "liberty is the only thing in the world worth fighting for to the death," yet he is able to accept "Negro slavery as a matter of fact" (pp. 10, 81). Bill and a group of slaves, including a Black man named Luke, are taken to a West Indian island where they are all enslaved. Despite protestations that he is "free and white" (p. 69) and can't be made a slave, Bill is forced to labor against his will. Thanks to Luke, Bill survives the ordeal and learns some painful truths about freedom and liberty. He and Luke make a miraculous escape and return to fight with Francis Marion's forces.
The remarkable thing about this episode is the way Luke ultimately attains his freedom. One might have supposed that Luke would have automatically been freed because of his actions, the ideals of the struggle and the function this island ordeal serves in the novel. Instead, there is a complicated, legalistic explanation concluding that Luke can be freed only because he has become Bill's property as a result of the fortunes of war. These legalisms are scrupulously observed by men who, at that very moment, had conveniently cast aside the legal authority of the Crown that had governed the colonies for well over a century.
This discussion becomes more readily comprehensible when seen in the context of the author's racial attitudes. Early in the novel, the author laments the fact that the conflict is between "men of one's own race" (p. 5). Later, Francis Marion speaks of "race suicide" and laments "Anglo-Saxons slaughtering each other when they should be standing together against the rest of the world" (p. 24). The author's racial attitudes become quite clear at the conclusion of the book when Luke explains why he has decided to return to Africa: "Dat de place for a black man. De lawd put black folkes in Africa an' white folkes some udder place like yo' plant rice in de water an' cohn on dry lan'. Yo' mix 'em an' yo git a crop ob trouble" (p. 258).
The first book in the sample to mention the paradox under discussion is Rebecca Caudill's Tree of Freedom, a 1949 book detailing the war's impact on a family settling in Kentucky in the spring of 1780. Stephanie Venable, the novel's protagonist, carries with her the seed of an apple tree, itself the fruit of a tree her Huguenot grandmother, Marguerite de Monchard, had brought from France. This "tree of freedom" symbolizes the continuity between the past and current struggles for freedom, since the Huguenots themselves had fled Europe "because they refused to forsake their religion and make slaves of their consciences." Much to Marguerite's dismay, many of the same "liberty loving" Huguenots "began enslaving others as soon as they found a refuge in [the] new world" (p. 87). The de Monchards, however, are so appalled by slavery that they use their entire fortune to buy and free as many slaves as they can. Their money and friends gone, and having made a dent on the institution of slavery "so little a body couldn't see it even with a spy glass trained on it" (p. 89), the de Monchards flee Charleston painfully aware of the bitter, costly fruit Marguerite's tree of freedom had borne.
Tree of Freedom is also the first book in the sample that contains an explicit denunciation of slavery and states the need to guard against making "any deal with slavery of any sort" (p. 142). Earlier books, as we have seen, not only avoid the issue, but treat treat Blacks so stereotypically that their exclusion from participation in the great issues of the day seems to be a logical outgrowth of their "obvious inferiority." Furthermore, they seem so contented with their place and appear to be so well treated that, given their limited potential, they really needn't ask for more!
The pejorative view of Blacks presented in these early books is consistent with both the societal attitudes of the periods in which they were written and the roles to which Blacks were consigned. Segregation was still in effect and overt discrimination received important ideological support from diverse sectors of society, including historians.4 For example, U. B. Phillip's view of the "peculiar institution" of slavery as a benign and benevolent institution designed to bring the blessings of civilization to an "inert and backward" people continued to hold sway, although his position was not unchallenged.5 The point here is that the books were consistent with and served to reinforce the blatantly racist ideology pervading U.S. society.
It is also interesting at this point to note that there was far more consciousness of the questions raised by a growing slave presence at the time of the Revolution than these authors would have us believe. The issue here is not simply one of damning authors who worked in a markedly different social and historical context. The important point is that at the time of the Revolution many whites and certainly most Blacks were highly conscious of the paradox posed by slavery and freedom and that the failure of so many of the books in the sample to even mention the issue indicates that these authors reflect their own perspective far more than historical reality.
In one of the landmark studies in the historiography of the Revolution, J. Franklin Jameson asked a series of questions which go to the heart of the issue under consideration:
How could men who were engaged in a great and inspiring struggle for liberty fail to perceive the inconsistency between their professions and endeavors in that contest and their actions with respect to their bondsmen? How could they fail to see the application of their doctrines respecting the rights of man to the black men who were held among them in bondage far more reprehensible than that to which they indignantly proclaimed themselves to have been subjected by the King of Great Britain?6
In answer, Jameson notes that the colonists did see the disparity between their rhetoric and their actions in regard to Blacks. Indeed, he points out that "there is no lack of evidence that, in the American world of that time, the analogy between freedom for whites and freedom for Blacks was seen."7 To illustrate this point, Jameson quotes from a letter by Patrick Henry, whose fiery words on behalf of freedom are among the best remembered of an era noted for its impassioned rhetoric:
Is it not amazing that at a time when the rights of humanity are defined and understood with precision, in a country above all fond of liberty, that in such an age and in such a country we find men professing a religion, the most humane, mild, gentle and generous, adopting a principle as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible and destructive of liberty?… Would anyone believe I am a master of slaves of my own purchase. I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not, I cannot justify it. However culpable my conduct, I will so far pay my devoir to virtue, as to own the excellence and rectitude of her precepts, and lament my want of conformity to them.
(Henry, quoted by Jameson, p. 22; emphasis added)
In fact, although Jefferson's attempt to include a passage denouncing slavery in the Declaration of Independence was defeated, there was significant support for abolition in the colonies. Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of books in this sample ignored this, making it seem as though the issue of freedom for Blacks and the questions it raised were never entertained either by the white majority or Blacks themselves. The latter point is especially important because these novels also leave the reader with the distinct impression that Blacks were unconcerned and did little to advance their own freedom.8 Such a belief has, in fact, provided important ideological support for the paternalistic white belief that Blacks are, and have been, incapable of thinking and fending for themselves; it constitutes an important component of the stereotype of the carefree, indolent Black.
If those writing prior to the publication of Tree of Freedom were part of a society dominated by the ideologies of white supremacy and Black inferiority, later authors wrote during an era when these ideas came under assault. This is especially true of the sixties and the seventies, when the civil rights movement dominated public consciousness. Given this, it is surprising how little influence the movement had on the books in the sample.
Of the books published after Tree of Freedom, those written by Beers, Cavanna, Fast, Fritz, Lawson, Savery, Snow, and Wibberly contain not a single Black character. Several books—Who Comes to King's Mountain?, My Brother Sam Is Dead and two titles by Finlayson—do contain minor Black characters fighting for the American cause, but the authors never give any indication of why they chose to do so given the whites' at best ambiguous attitude about slavery.
While more recent books are free of the vicious stereotyping characteristic of earlier titles, the absence of Black characters and the lack of discussion of the "Black issue" suggest that the authors were still unable or unwilling to deal with the contradictions posed by the Black presence. No longer able to simply dismiss Blacks because of their "inferiority," recent authors instead avoid the issue, either by eliminating Black characters altogether or by casting them in secondary roles. This dismissal of the Black issue can be explained, in large part, by the conception which the authors have of the Revolution, one which sees it as being almost exclusively concerned with the issue of independence from Britain. As I have demonstrated elsewhere,9 this focus on the issue of "home rule" fails to consider the internal aspects of the Revolution and the impact it had on the status of "outsider" groups such as Blacks, women, Native Americans, and lower-class whites.
The only book in the sample that demonstrates concern with such outsiders and confronts the myth of Black apathy is Sally Edwards' When the World's on Fire. This is also the only book with a Black protagonist. Edwards paints a poignant picture of the tragic situation so many Blacks confronted during the Revolution. Could they trust either the British or the Americans, both of whom understood the vital role Black soldiers could play and who, therefore, made promises they either couldn't or wouldn't keep? Recognizing this dilemma, the unforgettable Maum Kate angrily states that:
The Americans promise freedom, if only we will ride and fight with them in the swamps. The Americans babble about liberty—yet it is only their own liberty they dream of, not ours. And the British, the most civilized of men, promise freedom only to enslave the slaves. We lose either way.
Maum Kate's greatest rage is, however, voiced as she speaks of the Declaration of Independence:
What beautiful words the white men write—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Four men from Charleston signed that declaration. Yet their slaves are still slaves, serving at tables, toiling in the fields.
Although Maum Kate "does not blame all white people for slavery" (p. 102), there is little notice given to those whites who saw the tragedy and paradox posed by the Black dilemma and struggled to attain liberty and justice for all. Edwards' narrative is instead directed at showing Blacks engaged in bold and successful action on behalf of their own freedom. Again, it is the fiery Maum Kate who gets to the heart of the matter when she delivers the most decisive—in fact, the only—affirmation of Black humanity and strength to be found in all of these books:
We are too easily fooled by so much talk of liberty. Yet we have our own strength, our own spirit. And someday this spirit will shine so brightly the sun will seem a feeble candle.
Despite having something refreshingly "new" to say about the Revolution, When the World's on Fire was permitted to go out of print after only two printings, a fact that might lead one to infer that the novel was simply too iconoclastic, too "out of sync" with the commonly held conception of the Revolution to remain in print.
Later authors, who must have been aware of the paradox, chose to avoid the issue. Blacks, however, are not the only group shown to be excluded from the promises of the Revolution.11 This is also true of those who constituted the faceless mob or "rabble" that is often mentioned but rarely discussed in these novels.
Because authors rarely speak explicitly in terms of class, it is far more difficult to analyze the role played by social class in these novels than is the case with race. Thus, information about social class must be inferred from dress, manner of speech, overall living conditions, etc., rather than from direct attribution. Nevertheless, it is possible to arrive at some fairly explicit conclusions that reinforce the belief that cultural artifacts tend to reflect the dominant group's perspective.
Such a thesis is borne out most strikingly by the extent to which the novels' protagonists are drawn from the middle and especially the upper classes of society. Many of these upper-class champions of liberty are rarely shown to be sympathetic to those less fortunate than they, and they often disparage those below them on the social scale. Furthermore, those lower-class characters we do meet are often depicted as being uncouth, overly zealous and prone to violence! See, for example, the way Beers, Boyd, Crownfield, Collier and Collier, Finlayson, Ford and Fritz depict certain groups, including the "Liberty Boys."
The earlier books in the sample are especially dominated by characters who come from wealthy families owning large estates and slaves. Squire Meredith in Janice Meredith, for example, owns a 20,000-acre estate and is a man of great power and prominence in his community. Likewise, John Fraser in Drums is "above the common rank," holds several key positions in his community, owns several slaves, and wants his son to be a gentleman of learning as well as birth (p. 3). The Abbotts in Continental Dollar are a family of considerable means and have many "dependent servants," while the Priestlys in American Twins of the Revolution have a large estate with barns and "servants'" quarters one-half mile from the spacious family residence. Reba Stanhope in Freedom's Daughter lives among the "prosperous and influential class" in Philadelphia (p. 3), as do the Emmetts in Silver for General Washington, who have two slaves, a fashionable house and enough silver to make a dent in the mounting debt being incurred by the Continental army. The Jouetts in Rising Thunder own a prosperous tavern, race horses, and fields worked by slaves. Even the impoverished Johnny Tremain in Johnny Tremain is an heir to the considerable fortune of the Lyte family. Meggy MacIntosh in Meggy MacIntosh, though orphaned and without means of support, is from an upper-class family that was ruined when her father sided with Prince Charles in the Scottish Revolution. Despite her precarious position, Meggy owns jewelry and uses it to purchase an in-dentured servant. In a similar vein, Battle Lanterns' Bill Barlow, though penniless throughout the novel, searches and eventually finds a buried treasure bequeathed to him by his merchant father.
This pattern also holds for later books in the sample. If we exclude books set in the frontier settlements where class was less important, more ambiguous and difficult to define, we have only two protagonists—Harry Warrilow in Redcoat in Boston and Annie McGee in When the World's on Fire—who are from the poor, propertyless, dispossessed classes of society. Annie, the protagonist, is a slave, while Harry is a British soldier who enlisted in England after being orphaned and near starvation. Thus, there is not a single leading character in the sample who is an American-born, lower-class white. There are some secondary characters who fit this description; but, in contrast to the protagonists, they are often depicted as being shoddy, untrustworthy and, at times, even worse. Other characters, like the blacksmith Isaac Huntoon in Freedom's Daughter, are seen as good and well meaning if somewhat lacking in intelligence and judgment. When Sargeant Jasper, in Battle Lanterns, turns down a sword of honor and a commission in reward for his heroism, he is lauded as a "hero and a sensible man." Jasper had reasoned that he passed "well enough with the boys, but effen I had a c'mission I'd have to keep higher company" (pp. 32-33).
The crucial point here is that the leading characters—those readers invariably identify with—are drawn almost exclusively from the dominant classes. Furthermore, where lower-class characters are depicted, they are usually seen in a less than positive light if they are white and vilified if they are Black.
Interestingly, the few times when the issue of class is explicitly discussed, it is in a context designed to illustrate either the difference in American attitudes toward class or, more precisely, that class in the European sense of the term is not really relevant to life in the colonies. Differences between British and American attitudes toward class are rather clearly illustrated by Johnny Tremain's friendship with Lieutenant Strange of the British army. This friendship provides Johnny with puzzling encounters with British class consciousness. While the young officer is "proud and class-conscious enough when they met indoors," once they are both in the saddle for their riding lessons, "they were equals" (p. 201). Johnny becomes quite attached to the Lieutenant but is disturbed by the officer's attitudes: "Indoors he was rigidly a British soldier and a 'gentleman' and Johnny an inferior. This shifting about puzzled Johnny. It did not seem to puzzle the British officer at all" (p. 203).
Rebecca Ransome in Rebecca's War is similarly bewildered when Fitch, a servant, refuses to sit down and join her for a cup of tea because "it is not suitable that we should eat at the same table." Thinking that he means that such an action would constitute "consorting with the enemy," Rebecca is surprised to learn that Fitch's refusal actually stems from a conviction that it would be improper if she, "the young lady of the house," should share a table with a servant. "Rebecca, who had been eating at the same table with Ursula [an indentured servant] and her predecessors for fourteen years, couldn't make head or tail of that. The English did have some curious ideas about things" (p. 92).
The irrelevance of the European idea of inherited class position is suggested in several other books. Early in the Green Cockade, the author notes that Squire Stonebridge and his wife had "little financial wealth" but were "rich in imagination, health, and courage." In "Old England they would have been middle class by inheritance." However, in the forests of New England, "class was established by brain and muscle," and the Squire "looked up to no one" (p. 14). The subsequent discussion serves to point out that while the colonists considered themselves loyal subjects of the King, the tradition the King represented meant much less to them than it had to their ancestors. Indeed, central to the author's concept of the Revolution is the belief that men and women who "of their own initiative … fought and worked for their homes" should not be subject to the rule of those thousands of miles away. This discussion makes clear the importance that contrasting visions of society played in leading men like Squire Stonebridge to believe that "they could manage their affairs if, for some reason, all monarchs went out of business" (pp. 13-14). This position does, however, conflict with the Squire's later insistence that his wife ride a horse with a pillion, as "befitted one of her station" (p. 59).
The absence of a clearly defined hereditary class is also alluded to in Redcoat in Boston. On a "deserted patrol" outside of Boston, the British soldier Harry Warrilow overhears a lieutenant's comment that he'd seen nothing all day that could be called "a gentleman's seat." Harry mumbles to himself that "he'd not seen anything that could be called a hovel, either" (p. 65), a reference to the sharp contrast in the living conditions of English peasants and lords. This point is made even more strongly later in the novel when Harry considers "buying out" of the army and heading West. Once again, Harry contrasts conditions in the colonies to those in England:
England was full of men who had farmed all their lives and couldn't point to an acre of soil that belonged to them. But here, with all the wilderness to fill, even a Northampton sweep could search out a choice bit, build a cabin [and] clear some ground.
Despite a paucity of specific information provided about social class, it is clear that the books present the Revolution from the perspective of the dominant classes in colonial society. Although several books point out that colonial America provided unprecedented opportunity for personal advancement, they stop short of explicitly pointing out that this greater freedom was restricted to whites, and even then, not to all whites. And, of course, none mention that this "advancement" was achieved at the expense of Native peoples who were either killed or dispossessed.
The books also ignore the existence of growing unemployment and urban unrest among those classes who ultimately provided so much of the support for the colonial cause. Many books like Freedom's Daughter, Crystal Cornerstone, Early Thunder and Redcoat in Boston negatively portray the often violent actions of the urban "mobs" without placing these actions in any context. John Treegate's Musket is, in fact, the only book to provide an explanation for the mob's discontent and behavior (pp. 86, 183). There is, however, no major character from this group, so the discussion of their plight (e.g., persistent and rising unemployment in Boston) tends to form the background of this book rather than its substance. By always presenting an upper- and middle-class perspective, these books tend to imply a universality for these particular experiences, when, in fact, other groups had markedly different perceptions of and involvement with the issues.
In an essay that attempts to see the Revolution "from the bottom up," Jesse Lemisch notes that social scientists have persisted in drawing conclusions about entire societies "on the basis of examinations of the minority on the top." He points out that such an approach has "distorted our view and, sometimes, cut us off from past reality." Therefore, Lemisch notes, we tend to view "our earliest history … as a period of consensus and classlessness in part because our historians have chosen to see it that way."12 By focusing almost exclusively on the perspectives of those who dominated colonial America and by ignoring the life conditions and roles played by those both white and Black on the bottom of society in fermenting the Revolution, the books in the sample serve to reinforce the image of America as a classless society free of deeply rooted conflict. Furthermore, what conflict we do see is usually depicted as stemming from a lack of judgment and restraint on the part of those possessing an insufficient regard for the rights, feelings, and property of others.
While it is undoubtedly true that Revolutionary America promised freedom, it is also true that significant segments of society were excluded from this promise.13 Because the experiences of this significant segment are either derogated, minimized or eliminated altogether, these books tend to give a rather distorted and biased view of the Revolution—and of colonial society.
The books also present some ambiguous and contradictory messages. The most significant of these is the identification and legitimation of hierarchical relations in the formal structure of the novel, which is then denied at the level of content when the Revolution is explained as an historical event (i.e., as a struggle for freedom and liberty for all). The extent to which young readers become aware of this contradiction needs investigation beyond the scope of this paper. Nevertheless, it does seem likely that such a contradiction is seen by only the most mature readers, and the fact that the novels repeat the perspective of middle- to upper-class whites may lead readers to conclude that such experiences were far more common than they, in fact, were. The books may be said to contribute to the acceptance of what has been termed "the legend of equality of opportunity and the idea of [the U.S. as] a classless society."14 These myths provide crucial ideological support to a social system which can hardly be said to provide equal opportunities to all of its members.
The authors of these materials have consistently omitted—and often slandered—the points of view of social groups whose history, not coincidentally, has been marked by powerlessness and oppression. A basic claim made here is that the treatment of Blacks, women, and lower-class groups in curricular materials not only reflects this powerlessness but may also encourage ideologies and attitudes that provide important support to, and justification of, racism, sexism, and the inequitable distribution of social and economic power and resources. Clearly, writing, in-corporating and transmitting the history of all people must be seen as one of the great challenges confronting us today.
1. For a discussion of how Charles Waddell Chesnutt, a militant nineteenth-century Black author, dealt with the Sambo stereotype, see my article entitled "Charles Waddell Chesnutt's Sambo: Myth and Reality" in Negro American Literature Forum 9 (1975), 105-108.
2. "Servant" is a commonly used euphemism for slave in the books.
3. When Jack prepares to return to active duty, he remarks matter-of-factly to his father that he'll have little trouble managing without him as the "crops are doing fine and the niggers are all in good condition" (p. 186).
4. J. W. Blassingame, while noting efforts of young scholars in the 1960's to find a "usable Black past," referred to this movement as "a dramatic shift from the conspiracy of silence, vituperation and misrepresentation of historians bent on preserving white supremacy." See "The Afro-Americans: From Mythology to Reality" in The Reinterpretation of American History and Culture (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1973).
5. See, for example, H. Aptheker's American Negro Slave Revolts (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1943) and K. Stampp's The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (New York: Knopf, 1956).
6. J. F. Jameson, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1940), 21.
8. This is precisely the point made by Rifles for Washington when one of the characters is said to be "moved … to perpetual amusement" by the numbers and appearance of the slaves left alone at work in the fields. "The cage door's open," Andy says, "again and again" (p. 298). Andy's amusement stems from the fact that these slaves do not flee.
In Battle Lanterns, the hero, Bill Barlow, is reunited with the Black slave, Luke, on a remote section of the island where they are both held in bondage. Although Luke is older and physically stronger than Bill, he sees Bill's arrival as a sign from God. Luke, seemingly incapable of fending for himself, says "he gwane fotch us outen of Egyp' yet" (p. 187).
In The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1976), A. F. Young notes that of the approximately 500,000 Blacks in the colonies, "a very small minority took up arms for, or aided the patriot cause, a much larger group … aided the British and the largest number of all voted with their feet against either side, that is, they fled to freedom under whatever circumstances they could" (p. 452).
9. J. Taxel, The Depiction of the American Revolution in Children's Fiction: A Study in the Sociology of School Knowledge (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, 1980).
10. In the epilogue, the author notes that in the year 1783, the year of the final British defeat, English merchants received 1,700,000 pounds of sterling for the sale of American slaves. She also points out that despite promises of freedom made to Blacks by the Americans, "with few exceptions, the Patriot slaves were returned, voluntarily and otherwise, to their former masters" (pp. 123-124).
11. A similar case could be made for the way in which Native Americans and women are treated in the novels. See, for example, F. Jennings, "The Indian's Revolution" in A. Young, ed., The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1976) and J. H. Wilson, "The Illusion of Change: Women in the American Revolution" in the same work.
12. J. Lemisch, "The American Revolution Seen from the Bottom Up" in B. Bernstein, ed., Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History (New York: Vintage Books, 1969), 5.
13. Lemisch (see above), for example, notes that "increasingly colonial Boston was less a place of equality and opportunity, more a place of social stratification. Throughout American property qualifications excluded more and more people from voting until a Jacksonian Revolution was necessary to overthrow what had become a very limited middle-class 'democracy' indeed" (p. 8). Property qualifications to vote are not mentioned in any book in the sample.
14. R. Thursfeld, "Developing the Ability to Think" in the seventeenth NCSS Yearbook (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1947).
Books Examined in This Study
Allen, M. P. Battle Lanterns. Longmans, Green & Co., 1949.
Allen, M. P. Green Cockade. Longmans, Green & Co., 1942.
Altsheler, J. The Scouts of the Valley. Appleton-Century Crofts, 1911.
Beatty, J., and P. Beatty. Who Comes to King's Mountain? William Morrow & Co., 1975.
Beers, L. The Crystal Cornerstone. Harper & Row, 1953.
Boyd, J. Drums. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925.
Caudill, R. Tree of Freedom. Viking, 1949.
Cavanna, B. Ruffles and Drums. William Morrow & Co., 1975.
Collier, J. L., and C. Collier. My Brother Sam Is Dead. Scholastic Book Co., 1974.
Crownfield, G. Freedom's Daughter. E. P. Dutton, 1930.
Edmonds, W. D. Wilderness Clearing. Dodd, Mead & Co., 1944.
Edwards, S. When the World's on Fire. Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973.
Fast, H. April Morning. Bantam Books, 1961.
Finlayson, A. Rebecca's War. Frederick Warne & Co., 1972.
Finlayson, A. Redcoat in Boston. Frederick Warne & Co., 1971.
Forbes, E. Johnny Tremain. Dell, 1943.
Ford, P. L. Janice Meredith. Dodd, Mead & Co., 1899.
Fritz, J. Early Thunder. Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1967.
Gray, E. Meggy MacIntosh. Viking, 1930.
Hawthorne, H. Rising Thunder. Longmans, Green & Co., 1937.
Kjelgaard, J. Rebel Siege. Random House, 1943.
Knipe, E. B., and A. A. Knipe. A Continental Dollar. The Century Co., 1923.
Lawson, R. Mr. Revere and I. Dell, 1953.
Meadowcroft, E. Silver for General Washington. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1944.
Nolan, J. C. Treason at the Point. Julian Messner Inc., 1944.
Perkins, L. F. American Twins of the Revolution. Houghton Mifflin, 1926.
Savery, C. The Reb and the Redcoats. Longmans, Green & Co., 1961.
Singmaster, E. Rifles for Washington. Houghton Mifflin, 1938.
Skinner, C. L. Silent Scot, Frontier Scout. Macmillan, 1925.
Snow, R. Freelon Starbird. Houghton Mifflin, 1976.
Wibberly, L. Peter Treegate's Musket. Ariel Books, 1959.
Ursula F. Sherman (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: Sherman, Ursula F. "Why Would a Child Want to Read about That?: The Holocaust Period in Children's Literature." In How Much Truth Do We Tell the Children?, edited by Betty Bacon, pp. 173-83. Minneapolis, Minn.: MEP Publications, 1988.
[In the following essay, Sherman argues that authors attempting to write historical Holocaust literature for children must balance several key narrative elements, including presenting the tragedy accurately, conveying a sense of compassion for its victims, and remaining sensitive to the emotional needs of juvenile readers.]
To forget what we know would not be human. To remember (it) is to think of what being human means. The Holocaust was a measure of man's dimensions. One can think of the power of evil it demonstrated—and of those people who treated others as less than human, as bacteria. Or of the power of good—and of those people who held out a hand to others.
By nature, man is neither good nor evil. He has both possibilities. And the freedom to realize the one or the other…. Indifference is the greatest sin…. It can become as powerful as an action. Not to do something against evil is to participate in the evil.1
These words from the postscript of Milton Meltzer's Never to Forget: The Jews of the Holocaust, answer complex questions with a straightforward conclusion, give us an acceptable rationale for writing about this event for children. But using these words as guides, there is still a need to be more specific. What must be included in this literature to do the period justice? Compassion for the victims is but one part, and Auschwitz is not all there is. Readers need to be moved into the victims' shoes, for a brief time, but they must also learn that these people, children as well as adults, did not meekly go to their own destruction. The enormous difficulties and risks in opposing the Nazi system, and resistance itself, have to be understood. The Holocaust needs to be explained in historical and human terms, including the roots and persistence of anti-Semitism. Any discussion of the systematic plan to destroy the Jews of Europe must also honor the rescuers and inspire active compassion. (Samuel Oliner, director of the Altruistic Personality Project at California's Humboldt State University, estimates that there were perhaps 200,000 non-Jewish rescuers who risked their lives.)
The most difficult prospect for a children's writer struggling with this subject may well be the need to deal with the reality of evil. Children's literature, excepting folklore, rarely deals with this. Only recently has contemporary fiction mentioned the existence of "bad" adults, such as the rapist or the child abuser. Occasionally, in historical novels, evil people and deeds are described. But to bring such truths forward into this century, and see such deeds not as isolated events but as part of a systematic plan for human extermination, forces writers into the shame-faced admission that our world is not automatically good, and that grown-ups are not consistently decent and trustworthy.
In the United States, who reads this literature? Aside from those children whose families were involved in World War II, in addition to children of parents touched by the Holocaust itself, the questions raised by this event are of such universal impact that all young people can find in this literature meaning for their lives. The period, which many adults find difficult to discuss face to face with a child, can be described in a once-removed setting, a book. Issues of war and peace, the history preceding World War II, anti-Semitism and racism, courage, fear, survival against great odds, they are all here. In these books readers confront, in ways appropriate to their age, understanding and need, the ultimate decisions humans may be forced to make: to help another at personal risk, to flee, to take a stand, to oppose authority, to make decisions about life and death. This literature also becomes a celebration of the sturdiness of children, of their ability to survive and rebound, despite extraordinary adversity.
There are so many titles dealing with Holocaust themes, that only a few can be selected, as examples, from mainstream American publishers. A selective list of additional titles is appended.
In these books, intended mainly for personal reading rather than for education, it is possible to be honest, and not deal in generalities. In Milton Meltzer's Never to Forget, quoted earlier, the truth is revealed in quotations from letters, journal entries, eyewitness statements, reminiscences, news stories and similar material, with the editor's commentary to illuminate and clarify.
In Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, the most beloved and long-lived children's title to emerge from the period—and the best known book of history American children read—young people share Anne's life in the Secret Annex. They read it, year after year, with a kind of passion. They understand and empathize with Anne's adolescent growing pains, the difficulties of living in hiding, the tensions of sharing close quarters with sometimes unpleasant adults, the ongoing differences with parents. Because every reader knows Anne's fate while reading this personal journal, the impact is intensified. The emergence of Anne herself, this very likable, hopeful and typical teenager, gives this title its greatest strength.
Another nonfiction title, appealing to adults as well, is Joffo's Bag of Marbles, a French autobiographical work in translation, unfortunately out of print. Told by the younger of two brothers, ten and twelve, when they escaped from German-occupied France to the Southern Petainist half, it describes hair-breadth escapes and lucky accidents. The fact that the boys' father, at the age of seven, made a similar flight from Tsarist Russia to escape being caught by military recruiters, adds a shocking historical perspective. Although the tale is almost totally straight adventure, a gallop through a fearful time with the heroes' survival at the end, it also illustrates one particular aspect of the Nazis' systematic eradication of the Jews. It honors the risks taken by the rescuers, and points to the scarcity of survivors.
Maurice and Joseph have been in SS custody for three weeks, interrogated over and over, each one separately retelling the story they had agreed on before their arrest. Once more, they are in the interrogation room. Joseph explains:2
… They hadn't dropped our case at all, and it knocked me for a loop. They had a world war on their hands; they were retreating before the Russians and Americans; they were fighting at the four corners of the globe; and yet they could still use men and time to find out whether two kids were Jewish or not—and spend three weeks doing it.
A bit later, "the most stubborn, the most witty priest in the whole Alpes-Maritmes Province … the priest most bent on snatching Jews from the clutches of the Germans" rescues them with fake baptismal certificates.
Then Joffo continues: "more often than not, one's life hangs by a thread: but that year, for us, there wasn't even a thread—only the fact that we had been arrested on a Friday, that we had come to the Hotel Excelsior when the quota for the weekly train had already been filled, and there was time for the Germans, with their administrative obsession, to set up a file folder headed, Re: Joffo, Maurice and Joseph. Few were as lucky as we were."
A Pocketful of Seeds by Marilyn Sachs, a novel based on actual events, is another work dealing with the complexities of a child's survival in Petainist France, with much attention paid to the feelings and fears of Nicole Nieman, who grows from eight to thirteen in the story. She is alternately brash, loving, jealous, seeking friendships and wishing her most admired classmate would not call her a dirty Jew. (This Lucie, we learn later, is the daughter of Socialist Italian refugees.) Nicole's parents argue about flight to Switzerland—her father fears that they will be shot on the way. The reader knows the real dangers, and because she can't push the whole family across the Swiss border herself, she too is trapped. The reader follows Nicole the day she returns from school and finds an empty, ransacked apartment, with parents and little sister gone. Nicole rides her bicycle from one friend or acquaintance to the next, seeking shelter, and is finally taken in by Mlle. Legrand, her school principal, a Petain supporter. Some of Nicole's schoolmates say that the principal's gesture is due to the Germans' imminent defeat and possible charges of collaboration against her, and this adds another layer to the complexities of human motives.
Sachs deals with universal concerns in a moving passage. Nicole is offended by the laughter of a man whose children disappeared and tells her mother:3
"How can he laugh and go to the movies, when his wife died, and his children are lost? If we were lost you and Papa wouldn't laugh, and you wouldn't go to the movies. You'd look for us."
… "Listen Nicole, M. Bonnet is looking for his children, and he is grieving…. He is grieving but he has hope that he will find them again. He has lost a great deal, but if human beings can hold on to hope they can live through the worst of times!"
"But you and Papa would look for us. You wouldn't laugh."
"Papa and I would look for you as long as we had any strength left in our bodies, and we would hope for as long as we're alive that we would find you."
"And you wouldn't laugh."
"I think we would. People who don't laugh are dead."
This kind of thinking is more easily expressed in fiction than nonfiction, with the exception of Anne Frank's diary, perhaps, where Anne can be so very honest.
The sturdiness and practicality of Nicole's mother (she and the father sell sweaters in France's outdoor markets) is in marked contrast to the household of nine-year-old Anna and her twelve-year-old brother Max in Judith Kerr's When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Anna's father is a well-known writer and her mother an accomplished pianist, there is a resident cook and Heimpi, the maid and nurse. The father's writings force the family to flee to Switzerland, in a tense border crossing where the children for the first time cope without the resourceful and dependable Heimpi. They learn to become refugees. Mama learns to cook and to knit, and the family moves again, first to France, then to England. The affluence and security of Anna's early childhood changes to lean times, simple birthday presents, messages about the death of friends and Nazi violence, back home. Anna admits her preference for the more independent and exciting life she leads now, despite its deprivations.
But this is still peripheral. To be a refugee in England, to be caught by the Nazis in France, this is not yet life in the very center of the whirlwind. Can writers go there and still reach children?
Friedrich, a novel by Hans Peter Richter, was published in Germany in 1961 and in the United States in 1970. Set in a German town, the friendship between two boys, one the son of an unemployed worker and the grandson of a patriarchal anti-Semitic grandfather, the other the son of a Jewish postal employee, is destroyed as the Nazi system separates out the Jews. Herr Resch, the landlord who in 1929 wrecks a snowman built by the Jewish Friedrich and his mother, is an air-raid warden in 1942.4
A Sergeant says: "have you gone out of your mind? You can't send the boy out of a shelter in this raid?"
"Do you know who that is?… That's a Jew!"
"… Let the boy stay!" came from all sides.
"Who do you think you are?" Herr Resch screamed. "How dare you mix in my affairs? Who is air-raid warden here, you or I? You follow my orders, is that understood? Otherwise I'll report you."
… Mother cried against Father's shoulder.
"Do pull yourself together!" begged Father. "You'll endanger us all otherwise."
Friedrich is found dead outside the shelter, after the raid.
In very brief chapters and spare language, this novel describes the social and political conditions in Germany as perceived by Friedrich's friend. This title has its counterpart in Richter's other book about the same period, I Was There, where the events are seen through the eyes of a Hitler Youth. To read both books in sequence creates a particularly vivid portrait of time and place, as the political and social process which engendered dehumanization as a system is unfolded.
Another look at the Nazi universe, autobiographical this time, occurs in Ilse Koehn's Mischling, Second Degree, the survival story of Ilse. She has Socialist anti-Nazi parents, a gentle, educated middle class Jewish grandmother on her father's side, and a fierce peasant of a grandmother on her mother's. This grandmother, who has seen wars and bad times come and go (an adult reader senses that her genes remember the Thirty Years' War), is intent on growing, preserving, and scrounging enough food so that at least her immediate family—grandfather and Ilse and her mother—will survive. Ilse's parents divorce to insure Ilse's safety. The child, unaware that she is a quarter Jewish, participates in Nazi Youth activities (just don't become a leader, say her parents). With her class, she is evacuated to Czechoslovakia during the air raids and wonders why the Czechs don't like them. Later she returns to Berlin before the Russians arrive. Here again is a sturdy youngster, learning survival skills, with a devoted network of people to keep her safe, and a network of Nazis intent on destroying her. But there are limits to her rescuers' compassion. Although one of Ilse's young neighbors keeps saying that his Nazi father is going to kill the whole family before the Russians' arrival, no one reaches out to save the life of that child.
We can get still closer, nearer to the Concentration Camp universe.
We are in Warsaw with Joseph Ziemian's Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square. This is the true story of a group of Jewish boys and girls who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 and survive in Aryan Warsaw by begging, stealing, trading, and selling cigarettes, while ever hunting for safe places to spend the nights. The writer was in his twenties when he met the children, ranging from seven to fourteen years. His notes form the basis of the book. Although labeled young adult, this is essentially a story for adults about children. The German title is far more appealing: Just Don't Call Me Moshe, My Name Is Stasiek.
There are scenes where the children plead for shelter with offers of food or money, encounters with the ever-present blackmailers, and escalating and violent competition as the Polish children, equally hungry, threaten those suspected of being Jews. The tale moves like a documentary film, but the viewer never gets close because he is only permitted to observe. The most touching character is little Bolus, age seven, too Jewish-looking for his and the other children's safety (Ziemian and the Jewish Resistance try to find him shelter), who first appears in a huge fur coat dragging the ground. It is tied with string, and in a 1942 photograph all that can be seen of the child are two inches of face and the hands. Bolus makes his living singing in the streetcars with a five-year-old Polish girl. In this book, the photos translate the events into a searing truth. On the front cover appear five boys, looking both tough and vulnerable. On the inside there are pictures of most of the children, from 1942 Warsaw. But they are followed by later photographs: Bolus, in 1962, as an Israeli officer, handsome, tall, totally unlike the seven-year-old waif in the too-big fur coat. And photos of the others who survived, looking mature, capable, no longer victims. The pictures carry their own message.
Occasionally, a conversation dramatizes the situation, but only an adult has enough information to flesh out the words. Once, while some of the boys are singing in one courtyard for the coins that the tenants throw down to them, they meet two other boys, eleven and nine, singing in the adjacent yard.5
"We're alone," said Toothy. "Mum and Dad died in hospital from typhus and our sister was taken to Treblinka…. A Pole on Grochowska lets my brother sleep in his house and I climb over the railings into Skaryszewski Park and sleep between the chairs on the orchestra stand."
There are other titles about survival in Poland that may be more appealing to young but mature readers. Yuri Suhl's On the Other Side of the Gate, for in-stance, describes how a young Jewish couple first decide to have a baby, an act of foolhardy affirmation, and then smuggle it out of the Warsaw Ghetto. In Jack Kuper's Child of the Holocaust, blond nine-year-old Jankele becomes a Polish farm boy and survives the Nazi occupation, in constant danger from anti-Semitic Poles, blackmailers, and suspicious farmers.
The ultimate survival novel of that time and place is Suhl's Uncle Misha's Partisans, retelling actual events so unusual that at least two other writers have turned them into novels (Romain Gary's ironic European Education, first published in France in 1945, and Gertrude Samuels' documentary Mottele, both written for adult readers). Yuri Suhl has succeeded in portraying twelve-year-old Motele, who pretends to be a Ukrainian street musician after his parents and sister are murdered by the Germans. He not only becomes a Jewish partisan with the famed Uncle Misha's group, and a hero, but he also has adolescent dreams about love and growing up. After he joins the partisans, his violin gets him a job at a German Officers' Mess. He memorizes their insignia and keeps count for his reports, remembers and grieves for his dead sister as he plays his music, abhors his made-to-measure German uniform, pretends he doesn't understand German, and plays with the children of his Ukrainian landlady, a good woman whose husband has been deported to Germany as slave labor. The reader shares Motele/Mitek's life, thoughts, and feelings. The worst time comes when he rehearses the Nazi Party anthem, the Horst Wessel Lied, with the old German pianist, his civilian boss.6
They were alone in the large hall, he, the old man, and the life-size figure of Hitler staring down at them from the wall. It was the Führer's favorite song that the old man wanted him to play to perfection. Motele turned his back on that wall, as if blotting the Führer out of his range of vision would make it easier for him to go through the ordeal. But as he was nearing the dreaded stanza the fingers of his right hand stiffened, clutching rather than holding the bow, and he bore down so heavily on the word Judenblut that what came out of the instrument was a scratchy, jarring sound….
The old man stopped playing, shook his head disconsolately, then turned to Motele, and in a tone of uncontrolled anger said: "What the devil got into you, Mitek? You play complicated pieces by Brahms, Mozart, and Paderewski without a single false note and you bog down over a simple melody like the 'Horst Wessel'! And twice over the same phrase! What is it about this phrase that throws you?" He leaned forward to his sheet music and, locating the phrase, recited out loud, "Und wenn das Judenblut vom Messer spritzt/Sodann geht's nochmal so gut …' Do you know the meaning of those words, Mitek?"
Motele shook his head.
"I thought so!" said the pianist. "Here, let me translate them for you," and he began reading in Ukrainian: "When Jewish blood spurts from the knife then things go twice as well…. That's all there's to it, Mitek," he said, in the same casual tone he had read the translation. "Now let's take it all over again from the beginning."
During his last weeks with the officers, Motele smuggles explosives into an unused room, and finally blows up the whole house. As he races through the town amid blasts, he remembers his sister: "Basha! Basha! Can you hear it?" On his way to the forest in the partisans' wagon, he takes a last look at the burning Officers' House. "That's some candle you lit there," Yoshke said, pulling Motele close to him. "A yahrtzeit candle for our dead," one of the partisans added.
End of book. The young reader is permitted to hope that Motele survived the war, while in the adult titles he is killed in a later incident. And Suhl has captured the elation of a job well done, the high adventure and the enormous dangers, the satisfaction of revenge as well as the grief, and our hero is still a young boy with a child's feelings and dreams.
So many titles, and the reader has not yet entered an extermination camp. Although Moskin's I am Rosemarie describes Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the heroine sees it from the privileged position of a prisoner holding a Latin American passport, and her view is considerably filtered. Few mainstream publishers bring the full horror before young people's eyes. Meltzer's Never to Forget does it through eyewitness quotes. I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a well-known collection of art and poetry by the children of Camp Terezin, the Nazi "show camp," is a tribute to the dedicated teachers who enabled the children to express what was in their hearts. A very special book, it is most accessible to young readers through teachers.
Can there, should there be, a juvenile novel about the ultimate horror, degradation and destruction human beings were subjected to? A writer would have to have the literary talents of a Dante and the artistic genius of a Hieronymus Bosch to do justice to the subject. Chester Aaron, an American writer for chil-dren who helped liberate Buchenwald, attempts to picture the concentration camp reality in Gideon. Smuggling and trading scenes, similar to those in the Cigarette Sellers, are described, but as fiction. Fourteen-year-old Gideon participates in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and his subsequent actions and survival at Treblinka are determined by his father's words:7
The important thing, Gideon, is to survive. In any way, at any cost, survive. By surviving you can not only fight back, you can carry the story of what is happening in this ghetto. The world must know. You and others must tell. You are of no use to our people dead.
The Nazi system of extermination in the "killing" camps is described in full detail. The author uses eyewitness texts as sources. Gideon, who for thirty years hid his Jewish and camp survivor identity from his wife and children, finally writes this book to bear witness. Although it is a powerful telling, it seems to me that if a child is old enough, or interested enough, and needs to know, he or she should read eyewitness reports. To write a concentration camp novel, so that children, or young adults, may be able to read about those facts, seems a contradiction in terms, and nothing is gained by substituting an invention for the truth.
Fifteen titles have served as examples for this journey through the Holocaust times. At least as many more, equally powerful and worthwhile, have been published by American mainstream publishers. Young readers have vicariously been hunted and rescued, they've risked death to help another, known when to run and when to hide. They have learned that it can be proper to disobey orders. For over forty years, adult to adult, writers have struggled with the questions raised by this period. But these times also touched children. There may still exist a kind of old-fashioned shame about uncomfortable realities that makes adults say: not in front of the children! But this has not protected children from the real world. Adult secrecy may have shielded grown-ups from the naive and straightforward questions our young know how to pose, but in the long run our shameful secrets have become known even to children. The more our young know about why the Holocaust happened, and how it took place, the more they, as our future adults, will be prepared to deal with the trends in society that endanger our humanity.
1. Meltzer, Never to Forget: The Jews of the Holocaust, pp. 191, 192.
2. Joffo, A Bag of Marbles, pp. 215, 223, 225.
3. Sachs, A Pocketful of Seeds, p. 79.
4. Richter, Friedrich, pp. 135, 136.
5. Ziemian, The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square, p. 87.
6. Uncle Misha's Partisans, pp. 161-62, 211.
7. Gideon, p. 8.
Titles noted in the text
Aaron, Chester. Gideon. J. B. Lippincott, 1982.
Frank, Anne. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Doubleday, 1967.
Gary, Romain. A European Education. Simon & Schuster, 1960.
Joffo, Joseph. A Bag of Marbles. Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
Kerr, Judith. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Coward, McCann & Geoghan, 1972.
Koehn, Ilse. Mischling, Second Degree: My Childhood in Nazi Germany. Greenwillow, 1977.
Kuper, Jack. Child of the Holocaust. New American Library, 1967.
Meltzer, Milton. Never to Forget: The Jews of the Holocaust. Harper & Row, 1976.
Moskin, Marietta. I am Rosemarie. John Day, 1972.
Richter, Hans Peter. Friedrich. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970.
―――――――. I Was There. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1972.
Sachs, Marilyn. A Pocket Full of Seeds. Doubleday, 1973.
Samuels, Gertrude. Mottele: A Partisan Odyssey. New American Library, 1977.
Suhl, Yuri. On the Other Side of the Gate. Watts, 1975.
―――――――. Uncle Misha's Partisans. Four Winds Press, 1973.
Volavkova, Hana, ed. I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942–1944. Schocken, 1978.
Ziemian, Joseph. The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square. Lerner, 1975.
Linda Leonard Lamme, Be Astengo, Ruth McCoy Lowery, Diane Masla, Roseanne Russo, Debbie Savage, and Nancy Rankie Shelton (essay date July-August 2003)
SOURCE: Lamme, Linda Leonard, Be Astengo, Ruth McCoy Lowery, Diane Masla, Roseanne Russo, Debbie Savage, and Nancy Rankie Shelton. "African American History as Depicted in Recently Published Children's Books." Social Studies 93, no. 4 (July-August 2003): 164-69.
[In the following essay, Lamme and her associates provide an extended critical bibliography of recent works of African American historical fiction for children, noting that the diversity of the genre has grown exponentially over the past ten years.]
Exciting stories about African Americans in recently published historical fiction books for children concern Pea Island Life-Station, a private school for African American girls, a biracial slave, a black woman who homesteads for land in 1889, and an orphan who travels on his own to Flint, Michigan, during the Depression. Much of this history never appeared in the white history books that most teachers and future teachers read when they were in school. Davis (2001) noted that in the South any study of Reconstruction and segregation seemed to require acceptance of the belief in slavery as a dangerous mistake, Negro inferiority, and white supremacy. Many viewed slavery as an unfortunate but benign institution (Loewen 1995). The current national debate about slavery, including the discussion of reparations, recognizes slavery's centrality in American history.
Although textbook companies have improved their consideration of multiculturalism, that attention is often superficial, and "teachers must take responsibility for increasing attention to diversity" (Levstik and Barton 2001, 158). Today children can read stories about the history of African Americans and receive a more balanced view of America's past. We believe that certain stories make excellent vehicles to help teachers and future teachers upgrade their own education about African American history and help children learn about an aspect of their nation's history that in the past has been superficially taught. Such literature is important reading for both African American and non-African American children. Simms (1983) studied the responses of an African American child to books about "strong black girls" and claimed, "books have the power to promote favorable attitudes and foster positive behaviors on the part of their readers" (21).
Assembling the Book List
Having served on the "Adventuring with Books" committee of the National Council of Teachers of English, we read many recently published historical fiction books for children. We noticed that new books about African Americans were far more diverse than those available a few years ago and decided to share our enlarged view of African American history. Most of the books we cite in this article have child protagonists because children are interested in reading stories about other children and often build connections between their own lives and the lives of storybook characters (Rosenblatt 1995). Learning about history through the stories of children can be more interesting than just studying dates, events, and the stories of adults. According to Trelease (1995), it is the story that focuses our attention and is "the vehicle we use to make sense out of the world" (57). Stories give life to past experiences and help us remember them (Schank 1990).
The books are well written and entertaining because the authors carefully researched the topics and consulted original sources. For example, in Send One Angel Down, Schwartz (2000) consulted audio histories of slave songs to ensure that the content of the stories is historically accurate. Many of the books are by African American writers, some of whom combined personal family history with their research to produce culturally conscious books about little-known stories of American history. We recommend the books for use in elementary and middle school classrooms and libraries. The picture books are appropriate for children in kindergarten and above and even for middle school readers, and the novels are appropriate for use in fourth grade through middle school. The age of the main character in the story served as our guide for age appropriateness because children enjoy reading books about others their age.
Books Featuring African American History
Stories about the 1650–1870 Period
Historical stories about African Americans typically cover only the period immediately before the Civil War when the Underground Railroad was firmly established and freedom was getting closer. How refreshing it is, then, to relate the slave experience to a wider historical context, in both time and setting. The picture book Molly Bannaky (McGill 1999) begins in England in 1683. A seventeen-year-old English dairymaid named Molly Walsh is accused of stealing her Lordship's milk and escapes certain death because she can read. Molly's sentence requires her to work for seven years as an indentured servant in America. Following her years of servitude, Molly stakes claim to land—unheard of for a woman—and buys a strong slave named Bannaky to help her with the work. Although it is against the law, Molly and Bannaky fall in love and marry. Together they raise four daughters and build a successful farm. One of Mary's daughters marries an ex-slave and has a son, Benjamin Banneker, who grows up to become the famous African American astronomer and mathematician.
Most stories about slavery take place in the South. The experiences of slaves, once they had escaped and lived in the North, are not as well known. Slave catchers could capture escaped slaves and, for a sizeable bounty, return them to the plantation from which they had fled. The Second Escape of Arthur Cooper (Stowe 2000) tells the story of Arthur Cooper, who was born into slavery in Virginia in 1789. When he was nineteen, Arthur escaped and married Mary, a freeborn woman. He lived with her and their four children in a Quaker community on Nantucket Island. Ten-year-old Phoebe narrates what happens when slave catchers arrive in town to recapture Arthur.
Another story about nonslave African Americans in the northern states is The Education of Mary: A Little Miss of Color, 1832 (Rinaldi 2000). In 1832, Prudence Crandall runs a boarding school for girls from eminent white families in Canterbury. Connecticut. When thirteen-year-old Mary Harris, an African American girl, becomes Miss Crandall's servant, she attends classes "on the quiet." Mary is thrilled with the arrangement until her jealous sister, Sarah, asks Miss Crandall if she can attend the school as a paying student. Sarah's admission to the school provokes the anger of the local white people, but Miss Crandall closes the school to white girls and opens it solely to "misses of color" from middle class black families throughout the Northeast. The new school is scorned and attacked, soon becoming a political instrument rather than an educational institution. With this book, Rinaldi gives voice to the struggle of African Americans for equal education.
Until recently, there have been few slave stories written for children, probably because the institution of slavery was considered too harsh for young readers. Three new books offer a frank look at the reality of slavery. All three are well written, unsentimental stories that attest to the fortitude of slaves under the most cruel and inhumane, yet legal, form of enslavement. One is a picture book that was created from the paintings of slave times by contemporary artist Rod Brown. Julius Lester (1998) was so moved by the paintings that he wrote words to accompany them in From Slave Ship to Freedom Road. This book's depiction of slave life, including the humiliation of slave auctions, families being torn apart, and floggings, may seem harsh and might not be appropriate for younger children, yet it reveals the truth about that inhumane American institution from the slaves' perspective.
Two novels share stories of slave children who band together to participate in efforts to be free. Send One Angel Down (Schwartz 2000) relates the life story of Eliza, a daughter of a slave and the plantation's owner, from her cousin Abram's point of view. Eliza, with her blue eyes and fair skin, is a biracial child that the slave community shields from the cruelty of the master's children. Abram, who is six when Eliza is born, tells her (and the readers) what happens in the cotton fields and the breeding cabins and at the Saturday night "parties" attended only by slaves. He expresses his frustration about being enslaved: "Out in the fields. I felt just like the cotton. Trapped in a cage." And later, he says, "I was chained to that overseer…. He rode up and down the rows…. He was thirsty for blood from a slave's back." Yet, despite all the cruelty and hardship, there is the unending hope of freedom, often expressed in song. Using original documents and audio-histories as background, Schwartz vividly represented slave life. The book will appeal to older students thirsty for historical accuracy.
In Silent Thunder: A Civil War Story (Pinkney 1999), thirteen-year-old Roscoe and his eleven-year-old sister Summer weave together the stories of their lives as slaves on a Virginia plantation. Both siblings are somewhat privileged because of their heritage, which is not revealed until the end of the story. Roscoe is assigned to serve the slightly retarded son of the master and listens carefully as the tutor teaches his master to read, secretly becoming literate himself. Roscoe's learning is an unusual accomplishment for an enslaved child and, accordingly, he does not take it for granted. He shares his newfound knowledge with his sister, who desperately wants to learn how to read. Freedom is Roscoe's "silent thunder," something he sorely wants but cannot talk about for fear of losing his life. He becomes the news-bearer for his slave community, informing his friend Clem about the Emancipation Proclamation and the blacks fighting for the Union Army. Pinkney's research exposes the breeding, branding, and beating of slaves in this gripping story.
The Underground Railroad is a frequent topic of children's books, especially the facts of the remarkable life of Harriet Tubman. Stealing South: A Story of the Underground Railroad (Ayers 2001) is a fast-paced adventure story sure to grasp the attention of even the most reluctant readers as they read about the horrors of slave breeding and "soul dealing"—the selling of children to work on the cotton plantations of the Deep South. Will Spencer has been a driver for the Underground Railroad since he was twelve years old. Now, at sixteen, he is ready to set out on his own. He uses his last trip south to train his brother, Tom, to take his place. However, when they deliver their passenger, Noah, to the "next station," Noah has a request. He wants Will to steal his siblings from the farm where they are slaves. Will's strong opposition to slavery convinces him to make one more trip.
Taken together, these stories are action-packed adventures that accurately depict the horrors of slavery in a way that upper elementary and middle school students can comprehend. The stories provide a strong basis for understanding the history of a later time period that includes the injustices of segregation and the fight for equality for African American people. Without a firm foundation in the roots of injustice during slave times, children find comprehending racial prejudice and segregation difficult.
Stories about the 1870–1950 Period
Reconstruction is a little understood era in African American history. Most history books lack the information that it took some slaves years to learn that they were free and that their freedom was hard to grasp because slaves had little money or literacy skills with which to leave plantations and establish independent lives. One book describing that era is Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule (Robinet 1998), a Scott O'Dell award winner for historical fiction and a winner of a Notable Book in the Field of Social Studies award from the National Council for the Social Studies. Two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Gideon, an escaped slave, returns to the plantation to bring his twelve-year-old handicapped brother, Pascal, to freedom. They "adopt" a younger child, Nellie, and set off to claim forty acres of land, which for a short period was available to ex-slaves. An elderly man joins them as they endure raids by nightriders and constantly have to be on the lookout for violence even after they establish their small farm and begin to attend school. Just when things are going reasonably well, their land is confiscated and their school burned, forcing the "family" to move on in another search for farmland. Even though slavery had ended, Reconstruction, as portrayed in this book, was a harsh time for many African Americans,
More than anything, Virgie wants to go to the Quaker Freedom School with her five big brothers in the picture book, Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys (Howard 2000). In spite of her older brothers' attempts to dissuade her by telling her she's too young for the seven-mile walk and that she would surely cry for her mama during the weeklong stay at school, Papa decides that "all free people need learning," including little girls. So, when summer is over and the harvest is in, Virgie sets out with her brothers on the journey to the big red brick building filled with books. The author's grandfather and his siblings, who attended the Warner Institute in Jonesborough, Tennessee, were the inspiration for this story. Howard's notes provide numerous details about the education movement during the Reconstruction period that resulted from the Freedman's Bureau created by Congress.
In I Have Heard of a Land (Thomas 1998), the poetic text describes the hopes, dreams, and struggles of an African American woman who travels west to stake claim on free land in Oklahoma during the land rush in 1889. Using dark, earthy tones, Floyd Cooper illustrated the pioneer lifestyle, showing the characters living in sod huts, planting rows of crops, and building a log cabin. In the author's note, Thomas states that her own family journeyed west to claim land in Oklahoma in 1893. She also notes that at that time, Oklahoma was the only state where a single woman could own land in her own name. Cooper's ancestors also settled in Oklahoma during the land rush.
By the turn of the century, there were still few jobs that African Americans could secure that paid a living wage. Oppressive segregation laws made it legal to treat black people differently from white people. Farming and fishing were common jobs in the South. In Storm Warriors (Carbone 2001), Nathan, his dad, and his grandfather move to a vacant cabin on a coastal island, where his dad fishes. Although the storekeeper pays him half what the white fishermen get, Nathan's dad is still able to support his family. At the turn of the century, the treacherous coast on the Outer Banks of North Carolina was patrolled by surf men, who kept watch for shipwrecks, risking their own lives to rescue passengers and crewmembers. Originally the crews were integrated, but as time went on, the white surf men refused to serve with blacks; that resulted in segregated crews, with only one of the eighteen made up of African Americans. That crew served at the Pea Island Life-Saving Station. More than anything in the world, twelve-year-old Nathan wants to grow up and join those brave surf men. Despite his father's opposition, Nathan begins secretly learning about anatomy and life-saving techniques so that he will be prepared for a rescue. Because his mother, who died of diphtheria, had been a teacher, Nathan can read. He devours two medical books that he borrows from the bookshelf at the lighthouse. During a violent hurricane, Nathan gets his chance to find out if he is truly able to serve with the heroic surf men. The story reveals much about the segregation of the times and the limited opportunities offered to black men. It is also a thrilling account of a historic rescue by the Pea Island surf men.
The second route to jobs often involved a family's move north. In Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, the Great Migration North, McKissack (2000) describes one family's move, written as a fictitious diary of a black girl. Growing up in the South, young Nellie Lee Love is all too aware of the heavy emphasis placed on skin color. When told that she could "pass for white," Nellie Lee, like her grandmother, insists that people should just "color me dark." In 1919, when she is eleven years old, Nellie Lee's family moves north to Chicago. Like many African Americans before them, they hope to escape the racism of the rural South. But Nellie Lee and her family quickly learn that prejudice exists in various forms in a big city, too. The family triumphs over their circumstances as they learn the teachings of W. E. B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey. McKissack presents a positive portrayal of middle-class African American life after World War I.
Another northern story. Bud, Not Buddy (Curtis 1999), involves Bud, a ten-year-old orphan, who, in 1936, sets out to find the man he believes to be his father, a fact he has deduced only from a playbill in an old suitcase belonging to his recently deceased mother. Bud escapes from his abusive foster family and embarks on a long journey to Flint, Michigan, where Herman E. Calloway plays in a jazz band. Bud stands in food lines, meeting a wide assortment of people. One memorable night, an older black man finds Bud trudging alone on the highway and gives him a ride. During the trip, he tries to educate Bud about the dangers for a black boy walking alone on a road at night and mentions the Pullman strikes. Bud makes it to Michigan and reconnects with his family. Christopher Paul Curtis won the Newbery Medal for Bud, Not Buddy.
Amy Littlesugar writes about the musical theatrical history of African Americans in Tree of Hope (1999). The Harlem Renaissance ended as the Great Depression began and the Lafayette Theater closed. The actors were suddenly out of jobs. Florie and her father visit the Tree of Hope that stands outside the boarded up theater and dream of the day when her father can quit his job at the All Night Bakery and return to the stage. Playwright Orson Wells offers black actors the chance of a lifetime when he reopens the theater by staging a black version of a Shakespeare play, a move that is highly controversial within the African American community. Floyd Cooper's oil wash illustrations add deep emotion to the history of African Americans in theater.
Segregation plays a major role in The Bat Boy and His Violin, by Gavin Curtis (1998). Reginald's dad is the manager of the Dukes, the worst team in the Negro National League in 1948. His best players have gone over to play for white teams the way Jackie Robinson did the year before. His father coerces Reginald into being the bat boy for his team, even though Reginald would much rather practice violin. When Reginald fails at being a bat boy, his dad suggests that he play his violin for the team. The music stimulates the team to win, at least until the championship game, which takes place in another city where they are refused lodging in a segregated hotel. The dignity of this middle-class African American man stands in stark contrast to the rudeness of the hotel clerk. The book is a tribute to the Negro National League. E. B. Lewis used his son, Joshua, as a model for Reginald in the poignant watercolor illustrations.
The period from the gradual end of slavery through legalized segregation was a long and difficult time for many African Americans. White lawmakers continued to dehumanize African Americans, creating a virtual perpetuation of slave conditions, enforced by lawful and unlawful violence. The plight of families torn apart by the migration north and extreme conditions of poverty is made clear in these books. The yearning to find family members during Reconstruction, the banding together as a community to provide schooling for children, and the business opportunities for families form a chapter in American history that deserves serious attention. The horrors of that period gradually gave way, after much work on the political front, to the outlawing of segregation.
Books Related to the Period from 1950 to the Present
The long fight for equality for African Americans is not over yet. Children's books by authors who themselves lived through segregation, contain descriptions of the miseries and unfairness of segregation. Other books address resistance to desegregation. Even this more recent history is foreign to some children and young adults today.
In the summer of 1956, seven months into the bus boycott in Montgomery, twelve-year-old Alfa Merry-field has a problem. Because he is walking instead of riding the bus, he becomes the victim of bullies who steal his salary as he walks home from his job as a stocker in a grocery store. Alfa needs the money to help pay the rent on the two-room house he shares with his great-grandmother and older sister. Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues (Robinet 2000) is an absorbing piece of history fictionalized with a mysterious flavor. Who is stealing the rent money from its hiding place? How will Alfa make food deliveries to the white part of town and avoid the bullies? Robinet creates a gutsy, smart young man in the character of Alfa. His ability to sing "the Bus-Rider Blues" as he plans his survival strategies gives depth to the Rosa Parks story and to the history of segregation in America's South.
Amy Littlesugar interviewed three Freedom School teachers who participated in the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project and 600 other young volunteers, black and white, for her picture book, Freedom School, Yes! (2001). Nineteen-year-old Annie, the white teacher who comes to teach in Chicken Creek, stays with Jolie's family. The night Annie arrives, a brick that is scrawled with hate, "Freedom school teacher—go home or else," comes through the window. The next day the preacher, Reverend Wilkins, introduces Annie to the congregation, and that night, the church where school is to be held, is set on fire and burns down. Under Reverend Wilkins's leadership, the community pulls together and rebuilds the church. Meanwhile, the Freedom School meets outdoors, and the children learn all about famous African Americans. Floyd Cooper's illustrations depict the emotions, the fears, and the hopes of the entire community as they endure the hatred of extremists.
For many years, golf was a sport for whites only. The only role blacks could play on a golf course was as caddies. In Night Golf (Miller 1999), James, a young African American boy, finds a rusty golf club and practices his swing. His father tells him to forget playing golf because golf is a white man's sport. James persists and visits a local golf club where an experienced caddy takes him under his wing and, by the light of the moon, teaches him how to play the game. After many nights of practicing with no light, he perfects his stroke by feel. During his day job as a caddy, he studies the sport. One day, when he makes a comment under his breath, two white men challenge him to hit the ball better than they can. James meets the challenge and is allowed to play on the golf course restricted to white players. Miller writes about this little known aspect of golf's history in a most compelling manner, concluding the book with a brief chronology of African Americans in the sport of golf.
A grandmother tells her grandchild a story from her childhood in the segregated South in White Socks Only (Coleman 1999). A little African American girl, trying to obey a sign, takes off her black shoes and in her white socks steps up to a water fountain that says, "Whites Only." A white man roughly throws her to the ground. When African Americans see what has happened, they line up and one by one drink from the forbidden water fountain. Tyrone Geter's oil paintings perfectly capture the mood of the story and the feelings of the little girl as she loses her innocence and for the first time encounters overt racism. Through this story, readers can understand the need for group activism to right the wrongs of a larger society.
In a similar picture book, Momma, Where Are You From? (Bradby 2000), a little girl asks her mother where she is from. In response, the mother revisits her segregated, rural childhood, recalling a wringer machine for doing the laundry, a fisherman who sold his wares from the back of a wagon, and an iceman who shared treats of ice chips. She also recalls her older siblings traveling across town to attend school because they could not attend the local segregated school. The sweetness of being part of a big, extended family is where Momma, and of course, her daughter, are "from."
Crossracial friendships have always existed, in spite of segregation. In the North, those friendships were not unusual before desegregation, but in the South they were less common. The picture book, Freedom Summer (Wiles 2001), set during early desegregation in the South, describes the strong friendship between two young boys: John Henry, a black boy, and Joe, a white boy whose family employs John Henry's mother. Summertime play often includes swimming, although John Henry must swim in the creek instead of the whites-only pool used by Joe. When new laws mandate equal access to the pool facility, John Henry and Joe are excited. At last, they will be able to swim together in the pool! Not everyone in the town shares the boys' excitement. Joe and John Henry watch in horror as the residents fight desegregation by filling the pool with tar, making it unusable for everyone.
The author describes the impact of desegregation on people in the North in Beyond Mayfield (Nelson 1999). "Every place isn't Mayfield," a small, integrated town in the North in the 1950s, where the children, black and white, play baseball every day and are best friends. However, when the children attend the new school outside their neighborhood, race becomes an issue. Meg experiences bigotry when her substitute teacher accuses her of stealing a pencil because she is the only Negro in her fourth-grade class. Later in the story, Sam, an older white boy from the neighborhood, returns from the Navy as a hero and has become committed to stopping injustice. In an act that brings the issues of segregation to the forefront, he decides to join the Freedom Riders in Mississippi. Nelson reinforces the importance of going outside one's boundaries to make the world a better place.
The $66 Summer (Armistead 2000) is a similar story set in the South. As a white boy growing up in the South in the 1950s, thirteen-year-old George thinks he knows something about prejudice. But he is shocked when his own Daddy brags about the death of a black man, killed by one of Daddy's friends. It is with relief that George leaves his racist father to spend the summer working in his grandmother's store, reviving his friendship with two black children, Bennett and Esther. As the summer progresses, George becomes aware of the bigotry inherent in southern tradition by observing the social injustices constantly inflicted on his friends. This book is an excellent choice for fifth and sixth graders because it demonstrates that racism can be fought one friendship at a time.
Author Jacqueline Woodson (2001) grew up in the segregated South and brings her own life experiences to the picture book, The Other Side. Two girls, one white and one black, live on opposite sides of a fence in a rural southern town. Curious about one another, they watch each other with a strong desire to know more. One day, when Clover is feeling brave, she approaches Annie, who is staring through the slats in the fence. Both their mothers have told them not to venture to the other side, but they decide that sitting on the fence is a good compromise. Thus, their friendship begins. Although the exact date of the setting is ambiguous, saddle shoes, white gloves on Sunday, and strap-on roller skates place the story in the early days of desegregation, probably in the early 1960s.
The historical fiction about African American people in this era points out the bravery and persistence needed by African Americans to obtain the rights afforded only to white Americans. These books demonstrate how children are unbiased, when compared to their elders, and how often it takes everyone working together to precipitate change for minority populations. Oppression of African American people is not over, but these stories demonstrate well that when people work together and stand up for fairness, equality is achievable.
Armistead, J. 2000. The $66 Summer. Minneapolis, Minn.: Milkweed.
Ayers, K. 2001. Stealing South. A Story of the Underground Railroad. New York: Delacorte.
Bradby, M. 2000. Momma, Where Are You From? New York: Orchard.
Carbone, E. 2001. Storm Warriors. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Coleman, E. 1999. White Socks Only. Morton Grove, Ill.: Albert Whitman.
Curtis, C. P. 1999. Bud, Not Buddy. New York: Delacorte.
Curtis, G. 1998. The Bat Boy and His Violin. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Davis, D. B. 2001. The Enduring Legacy of the South's Civil War Victory. New York Times, 8/26/01, Section 4, pages 1, 6.
Howard, E. F. 2000. Virgie Goes to School with us Boys. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Lester, J. 1998. From Slave Ship to Freedom Road. New York: Dial.
Levstik, L, and K. Barton, 2001. Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle School. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.
Littlesugar, A. 1999. Tree of Hope. Ill. F. Cooper. New York: Philomel.
―――――――. 2001. Freedom School, Yes! New York: Philomel.
Loewen, J. W. 1995. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: New Press.
McGill, A. 1999. Molly Bannaky. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
McKissack, P. C. 2000. Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, the Great Migration North. New York: Scholastic.
Miller, W. 1999. Night Golf. New York: Lee and Low.
Nelson, V. M. 1999. Beyond Mayfield. New York: Putnam.
Pinkney, A. D. 1999. Silent Thunder: A Civil War Story. New York: Hyperion.
Rinaldi, A. 2000. The Education of Mary: A Little Miss of Color, 1832. New York: Hyperion.
Robinet, H. 1998. Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule. New York: Simon & Schuster.
―――――――. 2000. Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues. New York: Atheneum.
Rosenblatt, L. 1995. Literature as Exploration. 5th edition. New York: Modern Language Association of America.
Schank, R. C. 1990. Tell Me a Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory. New York: Scribners.
Schwartz, V. F. 2000. Send One Angel Down. New York: Holiday House.
Simms, R. 1983. "Strong Black Girls: A Ten-Year-Old Responds to Fiction about Afro-Americans." Journal of Research and Development in Education 16 (3): 21-28.
Stowe, C. M. 2000. The Second Escape of Arthur Cooper. New York: Marshall Cavendish.
Thomas, J. C. 1998. I Have Heard of a Land. New York: HarperCollins.
Trelease, J. 1995. The Read-Aloud Handbook. 4th edition. New York: Penguin.
Wiles, D. 2001. Freedom Summer. New York: Atheneum.
Woodson, J. 2001. The Other Side. New York: Putnam.
Janet Hickman (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Hickman, Janet. "Truth as Patchwork: Developing Female Characters in Historical Fiction." In Beauty, Brains, and Brawn: The Construction of Gender in Children's Literature, edited by Susan Lehr, pp. 92-8. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2001.
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Deborah Stevenson (essay date 2003)
SOURCE: Stevenson, Deborah. "Historical Friction: Shifting Ideas of Objective Reality in History and Fiction." In The Presence of the Past in Children's Literature, edited by Ann Lawson Lucas, pp. 23-30. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.
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M. Sarah Smedman (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: Smedman, M. Sarah. "Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain: Authentic History, Classic Fiction." In Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Volume One, edited by Perry M. Nodelman, pp. 83-95. West Lafayette, Ind.: Children's Literature Association, 1985.
[In the following essay, Smedman examines the enduring strengths of Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain as a work of juvenile historical fiction.]
Several springs ago, when I was teaching a self-contained seventh grade, I read Johnny Tremain aloud. We didn't study the book; we just read—in spare moments, on grim March days, on restless Friday afternoons. Johnny served to mollify, to motivate, to reward. To open the book was to engross the listless, the rambunctious, and all those in between. No other book I read to a class had so completely captivated every girl and boy. Eager to capitalize on success, the following September—and October and November—I suffered continual frustration at finding all copies of school and public libraries "out." At Christmas time, the then-eighth-grade class presented me with a copy of Johnny Tremain, with a note explaining that they had colluded in keeping all the library copies of the book circulating. They wanted me, they said, to read Johnny Tremain to every class I taught, but it was to be "their" copy that I read from.
Johnny Tremain is good children's literature, first, because young people read it and love it. As writers and critics are quick to point out, children will not promote what they do not like. They protect themselves from "boring" books urged on them by ardent and well-meaning, but often biased and ill-advised adults by simply laying those books aside. I love Johnny, myself, not just because it passed the acid test of my students' approbation, but also because as a child, I thrilled to the book, and have carried in my spiritual baggage ever since the long red dragon of Redcoats snapping its way out of Boston; the hollow drumroll tolling across the saltmarshes the execution of the orange-mopped, blue-smocked Pumpkin; and cock-of-the-walk Johnny ordering the Lapham household about; Johnny, all alone, weeping over his mother's grave; and, finally, Johnny, cleansed of disdain and defiance, offering his scarred hand to Dr. Warren.
None of which is to argue that Johnny Tremain is good literature because children like it, for youthful taste is too tolerant, thriving, as Peter Dickinson would say, as well on popcorn as plums (102). Esther Forbes' tale of Boston during the early days of the American Revolution is by critical standards a fine historical novel. It has been acclaimed as a plum for young and old, as accurate, exciting, witty, rich in color, "almost uncanny in its aliveness." The New York Times praised Forbes as "a novelist who wrote like a historian and a historian who wrote like a novelist," who proved with Johnny Tremain "her conviction that children can grasp mature writing much better than some writers and publishers believe" (13 August 1967, 80).
Adolescents love Johnny Tremain for its adventure and, primarily, because the hero, although very much a boy of his own time, is a person who resembles themselves, whose feelings they share, and whom they admire enough to want to emulate. The success of Johnny, as of all memorable fiction, derives primarily from the vitality of its protagonist and the authenticity of his development. When the story opens, fourteen-year-old Johnny, "so infernally smart with his hands—and his tongue" (3) autocratically rules the shop of his once-brilliant, now elderly and otherworldly master. Johnny has been forced by circumstances to assume the roles of both man of the house and master silversmith, roles which he is not mature enough to manage. His arrogance, which springs from youthful vigor and consciousness of his talent, has not yet been tempered with the humility requisite to recognition of other people's right to their place in the world. Derisive of the weaknesses and foibles of those not as quick and capable as he, Johnny has a classic case of hubris; he is full of himself and looks down on the rest of humanity. Projecting from personal recollection, I believe that human beings are never again so sure that they know all there is to know and, consequently, have a right to lord it over the rest of their world, as when they successfully complete the last grade in an upper elementary or junior high school. As W. H. Auden said of Carroll's Alice, Johnny—and readers who recognize themselves in him—"[do] not know, of course, that [their] sense of identity has been too easily won … and that [they are] soon going to lose it, first in the Sturm und Drang of adolescence …" (12).
Johnny's experiences during his next two years adumbrate the maturation of many young readers, for whom, however, the process is likely to be longer and less dramatic, if no less intense. Johnny's accident, deliberately caused by the resentment of the loutish Dove, "breaks the pride of his power," turns it to shame and "makes his earth as brass." Destruction and fall fracture his pride, as Mr. Lapham's reading from Holy Writ had warned (9). Deprived of his livelihood, as well as of his identity, Johnny has to make a new life for himself. The wisdom, which according to Proverbs 11:2 comes to the lowly, comes slowly and believably to Johnny. No longer fit to do the work he loves, yet too proud to perform jobs he considers beneath him, Johnny is befriended, never pitied, by Rab, who is already involved in the Patriots' cause. As Johnny comes to idolize the enigmatic older boy, he is drawn gradually into the heart of the Revolutionary movement, where his burned hand is, at least temporarily, no handicap and his quick-wittedness is an asset.
As Johnny renders significant service to the patriots, he is taken more into their confidence, understands their cause, and espouses their values. Simultaneously he becomes less self-centered, more concerned for his friends and for the general welfare of all people. Fickle when he is caught up in his new life, he forgets about the Laphams, though never quite about Cilla; he discovers and finds it less difficult to display his real feelings for her as Rab and Pumpkin pay her attention. Johnny's spirit expands as he grows happier, more confident of his own place in his new world. His tight-fisted self-concern relaxes. As he comes to know others as individuals rather than merely as satellites of himself, he begins to acquire sympathy for them: not only for the Whigs, but also for the British soldiers; for chameleons like that "pig-of-a-louse" Dove, Mrs. Lapham, and the suspect Dr. Church; even for the Tory Merchant Lyte. Thus, the indelible impression on the boy of James Otis' resounding idealism, that the Colonies will revolt so "that a man can stand up," is natural, inevitable, not momentary mesmerism by propagandistic cant. Johnny's selflessness is now credible, his independence and courage, always admirable, now truer because he has learned to doubt his own superiority:
Was the 'bold Johnny Tremain' really a coward at heart?
Had Rab ever felt as he did now? You could not guess by looking at him. If he had had any qualms, he would never mention them. Johnny decided to do the same, but Pumpkin's death badly unnerved him.
When, after Rab's death in the Battle of Lexington, Johnny lets Dr. Warren operate on his maimed hand, the act, though certainly not as world-shaking as the shot "heard round the world," is not one of braggadocio but of bravery, motivated by his esteem and affection for his friends and their ideals of "liberty and justice for all." It is an act toward which readers have seen Johnny groping and growing since his callow arrogance had crashed in his fall. Neither Johnny's character nor his personal quest for the silver cup and the secret it held about his identity are overpowered by the historical events of the era in which he lived; rather the boy grows to fit, not to conform to, social, political, and spiritual needs and ideals larger than himself.
The situations and trials Johnny lives through, what he is and becomes, are inextricably interwoven. Mrs. Lapham had predicted that the crippled, tempestuous, acid-tongued apprentice would end on the gallows, and "For a while it had been touch-and-go with [Johnny]. If pushed a little farther, he might have taken to crime—because that was what was expected of him." His meeting with Rab is pivotal, for Rab does more than offer him companionship and serviceable occupation. "Rab did not criticize him, but he had a way of asking him why he did certain things, which had a great influence on Johnny" (100). Johnny testifies to the truth of Thackeray's tenet: "Fortune, good or ill as I take it, does not change men and women," but it does "develop their characters" (173). "Ah, no man knows his strength or his weakness, till occasion proves them" (175).
Johnny Tremain is so real to adolescent readers that they have returned from Boston surprised not to find his mother's grave in the cemetery, disappointed to realize finally that the boy did not actually live, as did Paul Revere, Sam Adams, James Otis, Dr. Warren, and a host of other characters in the book. Not a professional historian, Forbes nonetheless knew and respected historical fact too well to invent non-verifiable thoughts, words, and feelings for actual persons, certainly not for a central character. Consequently, she chose to create a fictional character to live at the center of her novel, a technique theoreticians of the historical novel have advocated since Scott first popularized the genre in the early nineteenth-century.
Johnny, however, is not the kind of fictional character Scott successfully used at the center of so many of his historical fictions. Georg Lukacs' emphasis on Scott's shrewd choice of a passive, somewhat uncommitted hero who can serve as a device to conduct readers through both sides of the historical conflict dramatized in the novel is consistent with his Hegelian view of history as dialectical process. Though Johnny is partisan, Forbes is too thorough an historian to be as guilty of one-sidedness and oversimplification as some critics have charged. As Christopher Collier suggests, Johnny is indeed moved by a national patriotism based upon respect for "the principles of natural rights and social contract and of the men who died to protect them" (133). The events of the novel are seen almost entirely through Johnny's viewpoint. His character is convincing exactly because he does not know more than would any bright, responsive boy of the configuration of all points of view or the interpretation of the total pattern of events of his own times.
Working deftly through Johnny's point of view, however, Forbes, has evoked awareness of points of view other than his own, for example, that of the position and humaneness of the British. This she imparts in several ways: through the camaraderie between Johnny and Lieutenant Stranger, whom the boy almost worshiped for his skill, "though still it was only where horses were concerned they were equals. Indoors [Stranger] was rigidly a British officer and a 'gentleman' and Johnny an inferior. This shifting about puzzled Johnny. It did not seem to puzzle the British officer at all" (191); through the jolly Pumpkin, who, preferring the smell of manure to gunpowder "had wanted so little out of life. A farm. Cows," and who was to get "nothing more than a few feet by a few feet at the foot of Boston Common. That much Yankee land he'd hold to Judgement Day" (200); through Johnny's inability to think of Stranger, Sergeant Gale, Major Pitcairn as targets (170); through the medical officer's explicit address to Rab and Johnny: "You remember that we don't like being here in Boston any better than you like having us. I'd rather be with my wife and children in Bath. We're both in a tight spot. But if we keep our tempers and you keep your tempers, why, we can fix up things between us somehow. We're all one people, you know" (133). Johnny, too, remembers the common heritage of British and Americans, once James Otis has made him aware that "we hold up our torch—and do not forget it was lighted upon the fires of England …" (179, 234).
Points of view of Americans other than that of the Whig patriots are also sympathetically conveyed, though always as subsidiary. Forbes makes quite clear that economics played a major role in the War of Independence. As intrusive narrator, the author asks, "Weren't the Americans after all human beings? Wouldn't they care more for their pocketbooks than their principles?" (105). Johnny, of course, agrees with Otis, that revolution is "For something more important than the pocketbooks of our American citizens." However, the principal activator of the Sons of Liberty, Sam Adams, impatient with Otis, maintains that Americans will fight so that "England cannot take our money away by taxes" (178). The book graphically sketches the unemployment and economic paralysis of Boston. The cocky Johnny ridiculed Mrs. Lapham because she scorned "Book larning," which "scalded no pigs" (9) and manipulated her family for economic security; but the wiser youth realizes she "had never been the ogress he thought her a year ago…. Her bartering and bickering had then seemed small-minded to him; now he was enough older to realize how valiantly she had fought for those under her care" (147).
The humanity of other Tories, too, overrides their wrong-headed political stance. When Johnny hears the "Tory, who had been so brave—and foolish—as to follow the Sons of Liberty down a black alley … alone now … sobbing, not from pain but from humiliation," he is nauseated (116). Johnny's sympathy for the haughty Tory beauty Lavinia Lyte can be explained by the romantic passion he secretly feels for her from afar, but his compassion for her father, Merchant Lyte, so treacherous to the boy personally, is attributable only to commiseration resulting from mature understanding of the fragility of a man who depended upon health, wealth, and prestige for power over others. In the end, Johnny likes the Lytes' Whig servant, Mrs. Bessie, "all the better" because "she had been unable to see a considerate master, whom she had served for thirty years, a young woman whom she had taken care of since she was a baby, humiliated, tossed about, torn by a mob. Sam Adams might have respected her the less for this weakness. Johnny respected her the more" (160).
Thus, although Forbes' central fictional character is unquestionably partisan and indubitably embodies the author's own vision of the historical period which provides the setting and external conflict of her novel, she does dramatize the character's personal problems, internal struggles, and growth through the interaction of his personal and public lives. Further, she provides ample suggestion that Johnny's—and, therefore, that of the Whig patriots—is not the only view of the American War of Independence. In so doing, she reflects two fundamental concerns of the historical novel which imbue the quite sparse nineteenth and twentieth criticism of that genre. The first, as Rosemary Sutcliff phrases it: "History is People." The historical novel for the young, particularly, must deal with "people with whom children can identify through the fundamental sameness—like calling to like under the changing surfaces" (311). The second: the historical novel must be concerned with public action. In the words of G. R. Stange, "Whatever its particular subject, it is designed to illustrate necessary conditions between the individual life and the social order, to arrive at a coherent interpretation of a significant moment of the past" (xiv).
It is ramifications of these two criteria which seem to turn novelists to historical fiction. Those who write for children agree that the past offers material for what Hester Burton calls "robust, exciting" stories of "young people thrown into some terrible predicament or danger and scrambling out of it unaided" (301). In days gone by more was demanded from youngsters and, as Rosemary Sutcliff suggests, "a boy of fourteen or fifteen [could] play a man's part, which is unlikely in the modern world" (307). Forbes believed that American Revolutionary "times themselves furnished sufficient narrative excitement." In her Newbery Acceptance Speech, she said that she was "anxious to show young readers something of the excitement of human nature, never static, always changing, often unpredictable and endlessly fascinating" (252). She knew very early that she "wanted to give Johnny an obstacle" in the hurdling of which he would not have the "proper care and help" a boy in his predicament today would have. "Then there was little to help him except his own courage and determination" (251).
Despite the preceding advantages, and the additional ones of freedom to use situations that might be implausible in the present day and of an inherent distance between potentially over-whelming brutal reality and the reader's world, the historical novelist faces a problem the novelist of contemporary realism does not: thorough research of a time and place. The knowledge, once acquired, must simultaneously infuse the story with historical accuracy and be used selectively and imaginatively. The historical novelist must create a concrete world as authentic as the readers' own, and breathe life into believable, individualized characters, while never overpowering story or reader with extraneous trimmings. Forbes has explained that Johnny Tremain sprouted from her curiosity about the lives of apprentices, whose paths she crossed in research for her Pulitzer-Prize winning Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. Determinedly restraining her creative impulse because she was writing "straight" biography, she promised herself that later she "would write a story and make up anything [she] wanted as long as [she] kept it typical of the period. Then [she] would know not merely what was done but why and how people felt" (249).
The historical characters in Johnny Tremain are drawn with impeccable accuracy from the research steeping Paul Revere. The magnetic but obsessed James Otis who delivers the keynote speech in Johnny is depicted in Paul Revere as, in 1766, "still the popular idol of Boston, the bold champion of the rights of Englishmen," but as "an infernal nuisance" who had "never lost his magnetism nor [his] rough, masculine charm," "fitter for the madhouse than the house of representatives" (122). The skulking Dr. Church, whom no one in Johnny quite trusts, is described in the biography as a "witty, lively fellow" with the "best medical education of any man in Boston," and a flair for "writing Whig poetry"; "high-strung, bombastic, always hard up…. There was something queer about Doctor Church. Paul Revere felt it, and so did Joseph Warren" (120). Paul Revere himself is described as a master craftsman, with many "domestic virtues," yet probably "a hard husband for a fragile and ailing girl"; a man with "a good mind, quick and usable, but not a subtle mind" (81), quite suitable for Johnny's hero-worship and the role he plays both in the book and in American myth-history:
In contrast to the men with whom his name was later to be associated, [Paul Revere] seems to have gone ahead without great ponderings. James Otis' brilliant mind went crazy over questions of empire that never existed for Paul Revere. Paul endured none of the humiliations of repeated failure that mellowed Sam Adams, nor was he ridden with doubts and self-questionings that John Adams … was already suffering. John Hancock was proud, touchy, and given to all sorts of lying-downs and headaches, which suggest some psychic block. None of these ailments of the soul, at once so devasting and so educational, as far as we know touched Paul Revere.
Out of her abundance of knowledge of details of the period substantiating such generalizations, Forbes has judiciously selected essential traits to bring characters pointedly alive in her novel.
The inspiration for Johnny himself seems to have been Apollos Rivoire, Paul Revere's father, and Master Johnny Tileston, for eighty years "pupil, usher or master at North Writing School." The former, alone of his family, escaped from persecution of the Huegenots in France to apprenticeship to a goldsmith in Boston. The latter "had a deformed hand, drawn together like a bird's beak. With this loathsome hand, hard as a bone, he used to peck at his pupils, and yet he was one of the most loved men in Boston" (28). Details of the lives of Johnny and the other apprentices are rooted in diaries and other first-hand accounts of actual eighteenth-century Bostonian apprentices. In her Newbery speech, Forbes says that the story of a horse-boy, who, because he made friends with the British stable boys, was able to let Paul Revere know that the British intended to march out of Boston on April 18, 1775, was the "germ virus, nucleus from which" Johnny Tremain grew (251). At the Tea Party, Dove's stuffing tea into his breeches rather than into the sea is authenticated by the historical detail in Paul Revere that "Boston boys wore … leather breeches cut so full that such as followed sedentary trades could wear them turned about, hind-side before and not go through the seat too fast" (9). In Forbes' fiction as in fact, the "Tea Party was a great historic day for Boston apprentices. The leaders wished as much of the actual work as possible to be done by propertyless men" (250).
In "The Character of an Historical Novel," Hillaire Belloc attributes success in the genre to "a strange process of intuition, integrating from not many points of isolated knowledge, a whole combined scheme which is true and real" (24). It is Forbes' "fusion of scholarship and imagination" and attention to the eye-opening detail, as Carolyn Horovitz points out (137), which enables Johnny Tremain to pass Belloc's prime test of success in historical fiction": making conceivable its "inconceivable oddities," its "incomprehensibles" (21, 20).
Since Walter Scott, historical novelists have been interested not only in making the past live, but in the impingement of the past on the present and the de-gree to which history and character illumine each other. Esther Forbes is no exception. Writing Johnny Tremain during World War II, she was, of course, conscious of the Nazi threat to individual and national freedoms. She believed that not only the Americans' struggle for liberty from England, but also the humane British military rule of the Colonies, would incite young readers to think about events of their own day, issues still significant. Critics and novelists have consistently agreed that, as Stange says, "one of the qualities of the serious historical novel is its applicability to the author's own time; the novelist does not recreate the past so that we can escape into it, but so that we can use it to understand the life around us" (xviii). Hester Burton consciously chooses an event or theme in history for her novels because "it echoes something [she has] experienced in [her] own life" (301-2). Looking at the past as interpreted and placed in perspective by historians helps clear the fog surrounding the complex present and enables the novelist to explore one's own time. Recent critics, such as Christopher Collier and Joel Taxel, have objected to Johnny Tremain because Forbes' presentation of events in Boston in 1773–1775 corresponds entirely to the standard nineteenth-century Whig interpretation of the American Revolution as a spontaneous, universal uprising of colonial yeomanry to preserve traditional English liberties against regressive policies of a tyrannical king; as a crusade of simple, freedom-loving farmers to fulfill God's plan for social justice and equality. But such misreadings of Johnny Tremain seem over-simplifications, neglecting aesthetic principles in order to fit the novel into a schematized classification of various views of the Revolution.
Although it may never controvert the facts of history, no single novel, particularly not one for young people, can represent completely the whole of any period in history. An understanding of the whole comes, as Belloc remarked and we are all aware, when "all the books one reads coalesce" (Horowitz 148). Johnny Tremain reflects not only Forbes' scholarship, her comprehension of and delight in the period, but also her need to tell of that time and its personal significance to her. The interpretation of historical evidence, whether by historian or novelist, is, as Jill Paton Walsh points out, always "a construct of the mind" (23). When the collective imagination operates upon historical data, history merges with myth. Like that of Scott, Forbes' artistic aim in depicting an historical crisis seems to have been to portray human greatness, liberated in its ordinary as well as its important representatives. As Lukacs interprets Scott, authentic human greatness lies in "the quality of the inner life, the morality, heroism, capacity, sacrifice, steadfastness, etc. peculiar to a given age" (50). Johnny Tremain is evidence that Forbes would have agreed with Scott that such human greatness constitutes the very core of historical authenticity. The character Johnny, proud but ultimately tolerant of others' faults and points of view, flawed but at last courageous enough to take measures to compensate for his deficiencies, to heal his wounds, down-to-earth but sufficiently idealistic to believe that individual human freedom and dignity is worth fighting for, is symbolic of Revolutionary Boston as portrayed by Forbes. Johnny Tremain keeps alive the American myth that, in Leonard Wibberly's words, our Revolution established certain inalienable rights for people, which if preserved would protect mankind from tyranny in all the centuries ahead" (110). That ideal may be irreconcilable with conditions wrought by mankind in the past and in the present. Even if never achieved in the future, it is a worthy goal for humans to strive after.
According to T. S. Eliot, the distinguishing mark of a classic is its maturity: maturity of mind, maturity of manners, and maturity of language. Johnny Tremain is obviously the work of a mature mind. (Since Eliot begs the question by saying it takes a mature mind to recognize the work of another and that it is impossible to make the meaning apprehensible to an immature one, I am going to hide behind his words.) Certainly Forbes exhibits awareness of history of peoples other than her own. She does, as Eliot requires, "provide insight into what the conduct of [her] own people might be at its best" (54): through the ideals which sound the motif of the novel, though today, as always, we would hope that "a man can stand up" behind a plowshare rather than behind a gun; through her characters, notably James Otis, Johnny, Rab, and even Pumpkin, for undoubtedly we still agree with Forbes' characters that "men have got the right to risk their lives for things they think worth it" (237).
As a writer for young people, Forbes has not, of course, used language to its full potency. She has, however, used it economically, vividly, often brilliantly. Crisp descriptions quicken a sense of place and fuse place with narrative action in apt metaphors: on Boston Common, where Rab taught Johnny to ride were
acres upon acres of meadow and cow pasture, hard ground cleared for the drilling of militia. The sun and the wind swept through them. Trees were turned to scarlet, gold, beefy red: blueberry bushes to crimson. Through one patch a white cow was plodding, seemingly up to her belly in blood. The cold, wild air was like wine in the veins. And across the vast, blue sky, white clouds hurried before the wind like sheep before invisible wolves.
The tintinabulation of Boston's bells reverberates onomatopoetically, thematically, and ironically:
The town was whist and still, for it was Sunday. As Johnny lay upon his bed, the church bells began to call for afternoon service. They babbled softly as one old friend to another…. He had heard them clanging furiously for fire, crying fiercely to call out the Sons of Liberty. He had heard them toll for the dead, rejoice when some unpopular act had been repealed, and shudder with bronze rage at tyranny … but he had never loved them more than on Lord's Days when their golden clamor seemed to open the blue vaults of Heaven itself. You could almost see the angels bending down to earth—even to rowdy old Boston. 'Peace, peace,' the soft bells said. 'We are at peace …'
Forbes' technique of conveying strong feeling through description of exterior behavior typifies her preference for understatement, and serves to soften harsh reality, to avoid sentimentality, and to heighten genuine emotion. Her style creates a tension between subject matter and the language restraining it. When Rab is dying, all we are told about Johnny is that he "walked disconsolately about the chamber. He looked out the window. He picked up a pewter candlestick and examined the maker's mark." When Rab called him, "Johnny went to him, sat on the floor beside his chair and put his hands over Rab's thin ones." Johnny's inexpressible feelings echo through the simple, staccato sentences and the fragments in which he responds to Rab: "I'll take good care of it.' … 'Anything' … 'I'll go.'" (251)
So while Johnny Tremain is not a classic in Eliot's full sense of the term, it does display many of the qualities Eliot enumerates as essential characteristics. Both in its use of history per se and in its aesthetic dimension, the novel indicates the greatness, importance, and, I will wager, the permanence of its author in the field of historical fiction for children, particularly that of the American Revolution. Forbes has accomplished what Thackeray was desirous of doing, made history interesting and alive for her readers:
Why shall History go on kneeling to the end of time? I am for having her rise up off her knees, and take a natural posture: not to be forever performing cringes and congees like a court chamberlain, and shuffling backwards out of doors in the presence of the sovereign. In a word, I would have History familiar rather than heroic …
Johnny Tremain offers history familiar rather than heroic; and no other juvenile novel of revolutionary Boston, before or since, has been so widely read nor so well-beloved.
Auden, W. H. "Today's Wonder-World Needs Alice." Aspects of Alice. Ed. Robert Phillips. New York: Vanguard, 1971. 3-12.
Becker, M. L. Rev. of Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes. Weekly Book Review 21 Nov. 1943: 8.
Belloc, Hilaire. "The Character of an Historical Novel." One Thing and Another. London: Hollis, 1955. 18-25.
Buell, E. L. Rev. of Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes. New York Times 13 Nov. 1943: 44.
Burton, Hester. "The Writing of Historical Novels." Children's Literature: Views and Reviews. Ed. Virginia Haviland. Glenview: Scott, 1973. 299-304.
Collier, Christopher. "Johnny and Sam: Old and New Approaches to the American Revolution." Horn Book Magazine 52 (April 1976), 132-138.
Dickinson, Peter. "A Defense of Rubbish." Children's Literature: Views and Reviews. Ed. Virginia Haviland. Glenview: Scott, 1973. 101-103.
Eliot, T. S. "What Is a Classic?" On Poetry and Poets. New York: Farrar, 1961. 52-74.
"Esther Forbes, Pulitzer Winner for Revere Biography, Is Dead." New York Times 13 Aug. 1967: 80.
Forbes, Esther. "Acceptance Paper." Newbery Medal Books, 1922–1955. Ed. Bertha E. Mahoney and Elinor Whitney Field. Boston: Horn Book, 1955. 248-254.
Horovitz, Carolyn. "Dimensions in Time, A Critical View of Historical Fiction for Children." Horn Book Reflections. Ed. Elinor Whitney Field. Boston: Horn Book, 1969. 137-150.
Jordan, A. M. Rev. of Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes. Horn Book Magazine 19 (Nov. 1943): 413.
Lukacs, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. Boston: Beacon, 1963.
McElderry, M. K. Rev. of Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes. Christian Science Monitor 18 Nov. 1943: 10.
Paton Walsh, Jill. "History Is Fiction." Horn Book Magazine 48 (Feb. 1972): 17-23.
Rev. of Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes. Saturday Review of Literature 13 Nov. 1943: 44.
Stange, G. Robert. Introduction. The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. By William M. Thackeray. New York: Holt, 1962. ix-xxvi.
Sutcliff, Rosemary. "History Is People." Children's Literature: Views and Reviews. Ed. Virginia Haviland. Glenview: Scott, 1973. 305-312.
Taxel, Joel. "The American Revolution in Children's Fiction." Research in the Teaching of English 17 (February 1983), 61-83.
Thackeray, William M. The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. New York: Holt, 1962.
Whitney, P. A. Rev. of Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes. Book Week 28 Nov. 1943: 4.
Wibberly, Leonard. "The Treegate Series." Horn Book Reflections. Ed. Elinor Whitney Field. Boston: Horn Book, 1969. 110-113.
Susan Naramore Maher (essay date December 1992)
SOURCE: Maher, Susan Naramore. "Encountering Others: The Meeting of Cultures in Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins and Sing Down the Moon." Children's Literature in Education 23, no. 4 (December 1992): 215-27.
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Bosmajian, Hamida. "Doris Orgel's The Devil in Vienna: From Trope into History." Children's Literature 28 (2000): 112-31.
Discusses how Doris Orgel's personal history guides the plot and emotional core of the Nazi/Jewish relationships in her fictional World War II novel The Devil in Vienna.
―――――――. "Hidden Grief: Maurice Sendak's Dear Mili and the Limitations of Holocaust Picture Books." In Sparing the Child: Grief and the Unspeakable in Youth Literature about Nazism and the Holocaust, pp. 215-39. London, England: Routledge, 2002.
Relates how Maurice Sendak's revisionist illustrations in Dear Mili depict a new way to write about the Holocaust in picture books.
Bradford, Clare. "The End of Empire? Colonial and Post-colonial Journeys in Children's Books." Children's Literature 29 (2001): 196-218.
Examines how works set in post-colonial and colonial periods differ in their depictions of imperialism.
Burton, Hester. "The Writing of Historical Novels." In Children and Literature: Views and Reviews, edited by Virginia Haviland, pp. 299-304. Glenview, Ill.: Scott Foresman and Company, 1973.
Attempts to address the concerns of critics over how historical novelists approach their material.
Connolly, Paula T. "Narrative Tensions: Telling Slavery, Showing Violence." In The Presence of the Past in Children's Literature, edited by Ann Lawson Lucas, pp. 107-12. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.
Evaluates how violence and other difficult aspects of slavery are presented in picture books for children.
―――――――. "Still a Slave: Legal and Spiritual Freedom in Julius Lester's 'Where the Sun Lives.'" Children's Literature 26 (1998): 123-39.
Analyzes how Julius Lester utilizes the prose style of slave narratives to frame his short story "Where the Sun Lives."
Darigan, Daniel L., Michael O. Tunnell, and James S. Jacobs. "Defining Historical Fiction." In Children's Literature: Engaging Teachers and Children in Good Books, edited by Daniel L. Darigan, Michael O. Tunnell, and James S. Jacobs, pp. 268-87. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill Prentice Hall, 2002.
Offers a definition of historical fiction for children through its analysis of several different works in the genre.
Hall, Linda. "Aristocratic Houses and Radical Politics: Historical Fiction and the Time-Slip Story in E. Nesbit's The Story of Arden." Children's Literature in Education 29, no. 1 (March 1998): 51-8.
Explores the use of time travel as a means of writing historical fiction in E. Nesbit's The Story of Arden.
Hicks, Alun, and Dave Martin. "Teaching English and History through Historical Fiction." Children's Literature in Education 28, no. 2 (June 1997): 49-59.
Examines the relative appeal of historical fiction to children and its potential value in relating history to students.
James, David L. "Recent World-War-II Fiction: A Survey." Children's Literature in Education 8, no. 2 (June 1977): 71-9.
Provides a critical bibliography of several works of World War II-themed historical fiction.
Lake, Wendy. "A Question of Identity: Some Aspects of Historical Fiction for Children Set in Ireland." Children's Literature in Education 18, no. 1 (spring 1987): 13-19.
Presents an overview of historical fiction dealing exclusively with Irish history.
Miller, Miriam Youngerman. "'Thy Speech Is Strange and Uncouth': Language in the Children's Historical Novel of the Middle Ages." Children's Literature 23 (1995): 71-90.
Surveys the various approaches used to express language in historical works about the Middle Ages.
Short, Geoffrey. "Learning through Literature: Historical Fiction, Autobiography, and the Holocaust." Children's Literature in Education 28, no. 4 (December 1997): 179-90.
Relates how historical fiction about the Holocaust can be used to provide an introduction to difficult topics.
Sutcliff, Rosemary. "History Is People." In Children and Literature: Views and Reviews, edited by Virginia Haviland, pp. 305-12. Glenview, Ill.: Scott Foresman and Company, 1973.
Reflects on the inherent responsibilities of all writers of historical fiction for children.
Thaler, Danielle. "Fiction Versus History: History's Ghosts." In The Presence of the Past in Children's Literature, edited by Ann Lawson Lucas, pp. 3-11. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.
Outlines a standard for defining historical fiction that differentiates between three categories in the genre: "the impossible encounter," "the refused encounter," and "the encounter."