Monday, May 15, 2023

Why I Write Historical Fiction: Guest Post by Kathryn Lasky

Kathryn Lasky: 

A picture is said to be worth a thousand words, and I would add a caveat to that. Actually a picture might be worth several thousand words. For it was a picture of my mother and her sister aboard the Statendam. The year was 1934. The midst of the depression. My mother Hortense Falender, a social worker in Indiana and her sister Mildred, a recent graduate of Wellesley college, were going on their first trip to Europe.  They were standing by the rail of the ocean liner in their trim slim mid-calf skirts, nipped in at the waist, jackets with shoulder pads, and jaunty berets. How they afforded this trip is a mystery, but apparently my mother on her salary as a social worker who had also paid for my aunt’s Wellesley tuition made it work.

This single picture for me says it all. Two daring young women, setting out on the brink of World War 2 for Europe. They would land in Oslo. They did not travel first class but were often invited up to first class to dine by some of the handsome men. One in particular was a Prince, heir to the King Oscar Sardine company. My Aunt MiIdy had an enormous crush on him. She was quite the flirt. But alas the romance was interrupted shortly before the end of the voyage when one of the men at the table made a hideous comment about Jews. “Those Nazis have the right idea.” The two sisters, who were Jewish, jumped up from the table and left and so did the Prince, or as my mother called him the Big Sardine. He was equally flabbergasted. 

Although my Aunt Mildy  and the Prince continued to write each other, she did not become a royal bride. But she did join the WAVES, the women’s naval reserve or Women’s Volunteer Service, when the war broke out. I have another photograph that I can see now from my desk of her on her wedding day to my Uncle Jack. They are both in uniform. She in her WAVE uniform. My uncle wore his Lieutenant’s uniform where a month later he would be in the Ardennes carrying a radio on his back in the Battle of the Bulge. Another relative of mine was under the command of General Patton in North Africa. Mind you this was all before I was born. But I was intrigued and was hooked on history. By the time I was in sixth grade I was plowing through WW2 novels. For me, it was a not simply a history lesson, but it brought the war closer; it gave texture to those times.

Today with the 24-hour new cycle, Facebook, and the internet, we are under constant bombardment. There is no real texture; at least not in the way that is palpable. They talk about the metaverse but that metaverse has no texture, no character. It is as manipulated as Disney Land. It’s plastic. It seems artificial and we as consumers have become numb, or perhaps anesthetized. We cannot absorb and consider and ruminate, but perhaps most important we cannot feel. Books make you feel. So, the dread and horror that my mother and aunt felt when the man made the terrible antisemitic remark at the dining table on the ship, that moment has haunted me. 

I recreated the moment in Light on Bone—different setting but the same year 1934. Georgia O’Keefe is sitting at a table with  Charles Lindbergh and his wife and a few others having cocktails at the Ghost Ranch. That part is true, and she did have drinks with him. The conversations goes along smoothly until Lindbergh announces that he has accepted an invitation from Herman Goring to visit Germany. Lindbergh is  terribly excited as he might actually meet Adolph Hitler. Then one person at the table asks Lindbergh if he thinks that France is so aggrieved by the last war that they might actually pick a fight with Germany after all France has suffered. Now I’ll read the paragraph that was directly written with my mother and aunt in mind. It is Georgia’s response to Lindberg’s reply at the table

“Well, sir.” Charles looked down at his plate. “I do fear that [war] it could come. Sooner or later. And I worry about the British and I worry about Roosevelt, and the Jews that he has surrounded himself with.” 
Georgia dropped her fork with a clatter on her plate. She simply did not know what to say. How had such talk become acceptable dinner conversation? He turned to her.
“Oh, I didn’t mean to alarm you, ma’am.”
“My husband is a Jew.”
“But he’s not a war agitator.”
“Of course, I know that! But you have just neatly reduced the complexity of the human race to three categories and stuffed them into one goddam sack.”
She stood, balled up her napkin, and threw it down.
This is of course fiction, historical fiction. But by this time Lindbergh’s antisemitism was just starting to be known. And I have to say that writing this scene was very cathartic. One of course has to be careful. I don’t write to get even. You can’t write to grind axes. That to me is bad historical fiction. You can’t write to settle grudges. You have to write to convey what you feel are eternal truths. These are not diatribes I am writing. They are scenes vividly re-imagined to fit seamlessly into a narrative.  

To me a metaphor comes to mind---sewing. I took sewing lessons once. I was lousy. Unlike Georgia O’Keeffe by the way who made many of her own clothes. But to me the biggest challenge in sewing was making a dart. Darts are a dressmakers punctuation mark. A technique for shaping garments by curving straight fabric to the body. I cannot make a dart in sewing to save my soul, but I have learned how to make them in literature. What I just read you was a Dart. I slipped it in there, or rather stitched it in to fit a moment in the narrative. But for me in particular (not to get too emotional about it) it was a piece of my own family’s history to fit a circumstance. My Mom and my Aunt Mildy got to have their say through the voice of Georgia O’Keeffe. 
This is why I love to write historical fiction—not simply to get back at the bad guys and even the score. But honestly to peer deeply into history, perhaps in somewhat the way that astronomers think about the stars. To quote Neil DeGrasse. “I think of space not as the final frontier but as thenext frontier. Not as something to be conquered but to be explored...Not only do we live among the stars, the stars live within us.


Kathryn Lasky
is the author of five mysteries and over one hundred books for children and young adults, including the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series, which has more than eight million copies in print, and was turned into a major motion picture, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. Her books have received numerous awards including a Newbery Honor, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and a Washington Post-Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award. She has twice won the National Jewish Book award. Her work has been translated into 19 languages worldwide. She is the author of six mysteries. Light is Bone is the latest. She lives with her husband in Cambridge, MA.


Kim Hays said...

It was a delight having dinner with you and your husband at Malice Domestic, Kathryn, and it's a pleasure to read this essay. I agree that we fiction writers are given a wonderful chance to slip what we believe are important truths about life and about the past into our books. Thanks for your thoughts about the importance of historical fiction.

Anonymous said...

I had lost track of Kathryn Lasky, many of whose books I have enjoyed, so now my list of books to get hold of has grown again! And this was a good reminder that my 10-year-old granddaughter would like her young people’s books.