Story first, history second

Perhaps I was a wee bit prejudiced as I started reading.  Friends that I trusted had very mixed reviews, but I didn’t quite believe them.  After all, the book had won the 2011 Newbery award.  And it was set in 1936, flashing back to 1917 and 1918.  Quite possibly one of my favorite time periods.  I should have loved Moon Over Manifest, but generally speaking, the friends were right.  I became annoyed within the first 50 pages, and downright upset not long after.  And I continue to be puzzled as to how this book rose to the top of children’s fiction in 2011.

Moon Over ManifestFor those not familiar with the book, it’s the story of a 12 year old girl, sent to a small town in Kansas in 1936.  During her summer there, she uncovers the town’s past, with frequent shifts in narrative to 1917 and 1918.    Abilene is a lovely little girl, but she doesn’t have as strong a voice as many other narrators in similar books.  But this wasn’t what bothered me.  What bothered me was the history.

I’ve talked before about the historical fiction trap that so many modern writers fall into: that habit of trying to pull as many historical threads into a story as possible.  You know, to teach children about the past.  It very, very rarely works, and usually annoys folks that have any knowledge about the period in question (The Hope Chest springs to mind).  But very, very rarely does a book inspire me to scurry over to google to check facts in the middle of a chapter.  Here’s the sentence that did that: “Alcohol was against the law then as much as it was in 1917, but folks could usually get a bottle of the stuff here or there.”  Now, I had just finished Ken Burns’ new documentary, Prohibition, and I was pretty sure that the 18th Amendment wasn’t passed until 1920, but FDR had repealed it in 1933.  Some quick checking revealed that Kansas didn’t repeal until 1948.  Plus, prohibition laws got started in Kansas in the 1880s, and the “Bone Dry Act” passed in 1917.  In going back through the book before starting this post, I did see a mention of the Bone Dry Act that I had forgotten about that occurred earlier in the book than the above sentence.  Technically, everything Vanderpool wrote is perfectly correct.  But it clashed with everything in my fairly well-educated historical head, and I just couldn’t get over it.  And I don’t recall anything being said that might have explained that Kansas was different from other states.  And the prohibition thread is a pretty important one for the story.  We’re not talking about a minor, nit-picky detail.

So what does it matter?  After all, the target market for this book isn’t public historians in their 30s.  It’s kids that have probably never heard of prohibition.  They’re not going to be confused by the timeline the way that I was.  I guess my annoyance happens on a couple of different levels.  First, this confusion could very easily have been solved.  Abilene had traveled throughout the country and was new to Kansas.  Couldn’t she have made a comment or asked a question about Shady and his still?  A brief explanation, and the story continues.  Problem solved!  And yet, not even the author’s note (which is quite possibly one of the weirdest author notes ever) mentions the fact that Kansas was one of the last states to repeal prohibition.  I just don’t know how that wasn’t mentioned somewhere. 

But my real issue is this: generally speaking, we as a society are not very well educated about the past.  Whenever I ponder historical accuracy issues in films or books, I tend to look at the big picture.  If the big ideas–the things that people will actually remember a few months after they’ve read the book or seen the movie–are correct, I’m okay.  If people won’t be completely confused if they look something up later, I’m okay.  But I don’t think that tenet holds true for this book.  I must have looked up Kansas liquor laws three or four times while I read this book.  Kind of interrupts the narrative flow, don’t you think?  And can you imagine trying to teach this book?

My other issue with this book is that it seems to have taken every big historical headline from 1917/1918 and made sure the issue happens in that tiny town.  The immigration stuff totally made sense, and I was happy to the stuff about the relationship between the town and its people.  (It made me think of Thurber, TX, a very similiar town).  But throwing in the KKK?  Technically, the KKK did revive itself in 1915, but it wasn’t a huge thing again until after WWI–the whole soldiers coming back and wanting a better life thing caused a bit of strife.  And I don’t think this small incident did anything to move the story along.

And of course, there’s WWI drama, a brief visit from Woodrow Wilson, war deaths, and the big 1918 flu epidemic is foreshadowed for almost the whole book and then barely discussed.  It’s just all a very strange mish-mash of history.

Honestly, I think this would have been a stronger, tighter book if the flashback portions of the book were set in the 1920s.  Yes, much of the WWI stuff would be left out, but the flow of the narrative would have worked better.  And timeline issues would have been solved. 

The best historical fiction are the works that put the story first and history second.  And yes, I’m saying this as a historian.  But I’m saying this as a historian that wants people to like history and get wrapped up in it, and books like this just won’t do it.  The narrative is the important thing, and the history behind it just deepens the story.  In this book–and there’s nothing I’ve found either in the author’s note or on her website to contradict this–she found some cool tidbits about the past and then built a story around it.  And it just doesn’t work for me at all.

3 thoughts on “Story first, history second

  1. I love what you have to say here about historical fiction. And may I add this lovely definition from the Author’s Note to The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic, a novel by Allan Wolf? “When it comes to historical fiction, history is the birdcage; fiction is the bird.”

  2. I had a bit of the same reaction to Wally Lamb’s Wishin’ and Hopin’, an otherwise amusing book about the early 1960s…Lamb tossed in every reference to 1960s pop culture he could.

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