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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

ARRT Historical Fiction Genre Study

For the next 2 years, I am taking part in the ARRT Historical Fiction Genre Study.  Beginning this month, we will be meeting every other month, on the first Thursday of that month to discuss specific subgenres of historical fiction.  Around each meeting I will share my feelings about what I read.  As a group, ARRT always posts the genre study reading lists, and when the genre study is completed, a full report comes out.

Due to the blizzard, the first meeting was rescheduled to yesterday which conflicted with my BPL RA staff meeting.  But I still wanted to participate in the discussion, so I will report on what I read.  These thoughts were also shared with the group yesterday afternoon.

Per these instructions for our introductory meeting,  We were all asked to read, Gone with the Wind, and another author from this list:
I chose Michener for 2 reasons.  First, I have great memories of my father reading Michener's giant 800+ novels on the beach in the summertime. Second, as an ARRT Steering Committee member I felt it was my responsibility to read and report on the longest books in the group, just in case no one else read them.

Gone With the WindLet's start with my thoughts on Gone With the Wind.  This novel was a great choice for so many reasons.  It is an American classic; a novel with love and trauma, set during our American Civil War.  As historical fiction it has much to offer.  The Civil War is a popular historical fiction setting.  It is a surprisingly fast read, despite it's page length.  There is quite a bit of dialog and the suspense of what will happen to the main characters keeps the story moving.

However, I think the best thing about this epic story is its characters.  This is not a traditional story of love and loss as the movie leads you to believe.  Mitchell has written a complex tale about realistically flawed people.  I love how Scarlett and Rhett particularly have things that I love about them, and things that I loathe.  They feel real.

I also thinks Mitchell captures the southern point of view perfectly.  She recreates the feeling that their entire world is ending.  We Northerners, especially, forget how the Civil War brought what must have felt like an apacolypse to those living through it.  We may not agree with what they were fighting for, but this was the only life they knew and it was violently ripped away from them.  Right or wrong, that is traumatic.  Their extreme loss of everything they relied upon is well captured in the novel.

Great historical fiction captures its time and place well.  You really have to feel like you experiences the time portrayed in the novel for the book to work as historical fiction.  Gone with the Wind did just this.  I felt like I was living through the Civil War on the wrong side of the lines, with the real people, from the actual time it was happening.  Great historical fiction teaches the reader something about history while providing a compelling and engaging story.  Gone with the Wind successfully does just that.

Alaska. Michener, James A.Now Michener.  He is famous for his 800+ pages stories about a place.  In this case, I read Alaska.  Here is why people love Michener.  He takes a place and tells its story from the moment it was created.  In Alaska, this moment is 1 billion years ago.  He begins with how the terrain came to be how it is and then starts to tell the story of the people who inhabited that land from the first to those living in the book's present.

Michener takes real people from history and creates the others based on what the people would have been like.  This is his focus, the people real and imagined.  This is why readers have enjoyed his books for years.  He creates drama that is explicitly tied to the place he is focusing on.  It is in the characters and their stories of triumph and tragedy that move the story.

I like to say that a Michener historical fiction novel is really like 10 historical fiction novels rolled into one.  The reader gets a variety of times over which to see a single place.  In the book I read we see how Alaska is first settled, how it changed hands over time politically, how that effects the natives, and how it eventually becomes a part of the United States.  The length is less daunting because of the action, the characters, and the fact that when you are beginning to get bored with one time period, Michener moves into another, and new drama begins, with new characters.  However, while the characters are new the issues are continued.  It really is the best of both worlds.

Also, I cannot stress that despite the small print and the hefty page number, these are well paced books.  They read much faster than you would think.

One final RA note about Michener.  His books are great to give to someone going a vacation to the place her has written about, Alaska, Hawaii, The Caribbean, The South Pacific.  You get a good sense of  the place and the people who made it.  They make for a great vacation read as you travel to these locations, as long as you don't mind the book's size.  For the non-American Michener-esque experience, read Edward Rutherford.

That's my take on what I experienced for our first genre study meeting.  I am upset that I will miss the discussion.  I will continue to report on my experiences with the readings for this genre study every other month.  I will also give a brief summary of what the group discusses when I am able to attend the meetings.  Full notes are only available to members of ARRT, however.  Next up, in April, we will be doing Part1 of Traditional Historical Fiction, by time period, from Prehistoric to Victorian Times.

1 comment:

Kimberly said...

The ARRT discussion was, as always, a pleasure as there's nothing like Readers' Advisory staff talking about books! Like Becky, I also read Michener (Chesapeake) and was the only one who'd done so. The discussion is using the ARRTs current definition of "what is historical fiction" and it will be interesting to see if we re-define it. Michener, for example, was contemporary for the experiences he wrote about in South Pacific, but do our patrons consider it historical fiction now? (Personally, I don't, but like Becky, I'm not your average patron.) Can't wait to hear Becky's take on that!

By the way, I re-read Gone with the Wind for this meeting on my eReader. This was an anachronism that will cause me to think again about the newest formats for books.