When I was a kid, I spent most of my time in the nineteenth century. It all started with the Little House books. My grandmother read them to me, and they became my very first chapter books that I could read all by myself. From there, it was just a hop, skip and jump to Little Women, All-of-a-Kind Family, A Little Princess, and The Railway Children. But I fell hard, really hard, for Anne Shirley. This was in the late 1980s, when all of the books were being reissued. Every time I went to the bookstore, I got to buy a new L. M. Montgomery book.
Yet, there were so many things in those books that I just didn’t understand. What was consumption and cholera? Why were puffed-sleeves such a big deal? What did the dresses look like? And what did the food taste like? Why was Sara Crewe in India? When the Anne Treasury was published in the early 1990s, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Here, almost all of my burning questions were answered!
By the time I got to college, I was convinced that I was going to be an English major and one day write like Lucy Maud did. Then, I got an internship at the Dallas Historical Society, going through their archives and writing educational curriculum. It took me almost another year to admit that I was really a historian, which surprised me at the time. Perhaps it shouldn’t have–I had already spent most of my childhood in the past.
As I began to dive into the study of history, I began to make all sorts of random connections between the history I was studying and the books I had loved as a child. The most startling was during my History of Death in America class. (yes, I took a death class. It was awesome!). We were reading Living in the Shadow of Death, about the 19th century experience of being a patient with consumption, or as we know it today, tuberculosis. And I started thinking about Ruby Gillis. A lot. For one of my mini-papers for the class, I wrote about Ruby’s experience, written when there were many more treatment options available, and how it took the classic literary portrayal of the disease and twisted it ever so slightly. Eventually, this initial connection turned into a conference paper on the changes in how LMM portrayed consumption. More importantly, it resulted in my first trip to Prince Edward Island. Eventually, my paper was published in The Intimate Life of L. M. Montgomery, which was a whole other kind of thrill.
As I was working on the revisions to that paper, I realized that my paper didn’t exactly fit into normal categories–it wasn’t literary analysis, and it wasn’t a history paper. It was a bit of both.
In my current job as a museum educator, I’m pulling children’s literature in whenever and wherever I can. When I redesigned our summer camp program, the most popular new camp was “Pages from the Past.” Each day, we featured crafts and activities from a different classic children’s book, all set within the time period of the museum. Little Women, Little House, Betsy-Tacy, All-of-a-Kind Family and Anne. It was so much fun! Using books that kids or adults are familiar with is a wonderful way to make connections with history.
So this very long introduction leads up to where I was just over a month ago–sitting in a conference room at the Betsy-Tacy convention in Mankato, Minnesota. I was listening to a presentation on the Syrian community in Mankato, something Maud wrote extensively about in her books. One of the speaker’s sources, a history book, used Maud Hart Lovelace’s fictional stories as a source. But then again, Lovelace isn’t purely fictional.
The following thought flew through my head: everything I really need to know about history, I learned through children’s literature.
I realize this isn’t entirely true and there are all sorts of of caveats and exceptions and those things that historians love to do to make sure no one thinks we’re making a gross generalization.
But there’s one key thing that all of the books that I loved so much have in common: they are either semi-autobiographical or they were written as contemporary and, over time, have become historical fiction. Either way, they’re an important source in learning about history. A source that most historians have ignored. To me, they should be considered in much the way memoirs or oral history are considered–perhaps not true in every detail, but more true than not. Even better, they give a voice to a group that are frequently left out in historical studies: chidren.
In talking to friends, most of whom would never consider them historians, they admit that they’ve learned all kinds of history from reading children’s literature. Key incidents in a book become reference points for history. But what are we learning? And what’s the rest of the story?
That’s where this blog comes in: it’s a chance to explore the history in the books we love. Perhaps dig a bit deeper into those stories we grew up with.
I’ve got a running list of topics and books to explore. I do not plan on exploring contemporary historical fiction, though there are certainly some fine things being written today about the past. Instead, I want to take a closer look at those books that are semi-autobiographical or have survived long enough to become historical fiction.
So dear readers, what are some books you’d like to talk about? Tidbits of history from them that have somehow lodged in your brain? Let me know–I’m looking forward to the conversation!