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Friday, January 27, 2012

The Way Things Were. Maybe.

Historical fiction brings the past to life, using real places and real bits of history... along with healthy amounts of the the author's own imagination.  Authors use historical backdrops to help tell stories that could have happened, even if they didn't actually happen.  I've read several books of historical fiction lately.  I enjoyed them all, and wanted to share them with you:

The Red Necklace,
written by Sally Gardner, 2007...   
This book, for ages 12 and up, is set during the French Revolution of the late 1700's.  Fourteen-year-old Yann Margoza, a Gypsy boy and magician's assistant, witnesses the beginnings of the revolution in Paris -- borne from the ever-widening gap between the starving poor and the self-indulgent aristocracy.  Filled with magic, murder, and mystery, this story takes readers through several years of Yann's life and his encounters with the young, beautiful Sido, an insane marquis, and the evil Count Kalliovski.

My son Nick brought this book home from school earlier this week (a required novel for his Reading class).  I picked it up, read the book cover, and was instantly intrigued.  Nick let me borrow it, and I ended up reading it in two nights, eager to find out what happened to Yann and the other characters.  (I really wanted to keep on reading the first night, but my body insisted on getting some sleep!)  The book does conjure up some grisly images, but considering that it was set during a time when the guillotine was a common sight, that should not be a surprise.

Only Earth and Sky Last Forever,
written by Nathaniel Benchley, 1972...
This is the story of Dark Elk, a Cheyenne boy living near the Black Hills of South Dakota.  It describes his life on the plains, the girl he loves, the unfair treatment of the Native American people by the U.S. government, his relationship with Sioux leader Crazy Horse, and the events leading up to the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

My parents gave me this book in 6th grade, just a year after a family trip to the Black Hills (where we saw the Crazy Horse Memorial) and the site of "Custer's last stand" in Montana, where the Battle of the Little Bighorn took place.  I remember reading it and appreciating having seen those areas with my own eyes -- it helped to bring the story to life for me.  I decided to reread the book this week, and once again could vividly imagine the events taking place in those settings.

Counting on Grace,
written by Elizabeth Winthrop, 2007...
The year is 1910, and Grace is a 12-year-old French Canadian girl growing up in Vermont.   She and her friend Arthur, the best readers in their little school, are forced to give up their education in order to work as "doffers" in the cotton mill, a grim and dangerous place, helping their families make a living.  Their teacher, upset at losing them (and many others) from her class, encourages the pair to write a letter to the National Child Labor Committee, telling about all the underage children working in the mill.  In response to the letter, Lewis Hine is sent to photograph the children and the mill, to provide evidence of the mill owner's wrong-doing.

I found this middle-grade book on top of a library shelf, and Hine's photograph caught my eye.  When I was in 7th grade, I did a History Day project on child labor laws, and I used a copy of this same photo on my display board.  Winthrop's idea of making up a story about the little girl in the picture appealed to me, and I added the novel to the growing pile of books in my arms.  I was not disappointed by the story she came up with.  I really enjoyed Winthrop's bright, spirited main character, and would like to think that the real girl in the photo was much like Grace.

Small Acts of Amazing Courage,
written by Gloria Whelan, 2011...
It is 1918, and Rosalind, a 15-year-old and the daughter of a British Army major, has spent her whole life in India.  Now that her father has returned from war, he is furious to find that she prefers her Indian friends to British high society, and that she's been listening to Gandhi give speeches using non-violent resistance to seek freedom from British rule.  He sends Rosalind "home" to England, to live with two very different aunts.

I spotted a librarian's recommendation for this middle grade book taped to a shelf in the library, and after reading that, decided to check out the book.  Although I took a whole class on Gandhi in college, I was not that familiar with the history of British rule over India, and found the information in this book interesting.  I also got caught up in Rosalind's story -- her life in India, her harrowing voyage at sea, and all she discovers about her family in England.

The Book Thief,
written by Markus Zusak, 2005...
This book for older teens and adults is unusual from the very beginning -- it is narrated by Death.  Set in Germany during World War II, Death tells the story of Liesel, a young book thief who learns about the power of words from her loving foster father.  Her love of books ties Liesel to others, including her friend Rudy, the Jewish refugee Max, and the mayor's reclusive wife.

A friend recommended this book to me a year or so ago, and I am so grateful that she did.  This has become one of my all-time favorites; it is a beautiful, heart-breaking, and haunting tale.

Are you a fan of historical fiction, too?  If you've read any of the books above, what did you think of them?  I'd love to hear your thoughts, as well as any recommendations you may have for other stories set in the past!

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