Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Girl in Disguise

Girl in Disguise by Greer MacAllister is a novel about the first female Pinkerton agent, Kate Warne, whose real life is almost stranger than fiction. I first discovered Kate in a Netflix show called the Pinkerton’s. I did the proper library assistant thing and researched her. Not only was she  the first female Pinkerton detective she also lead the women’s detective bureau part of the agency. Not much is known about her before she become a Pinkerton agent, leaving both historians and novelist alike to wonder who Kate Warne was.

Greer MacAllister breathes life into her own version of Kate’s history before she becomes a Pinkerton agent. The novel sucked me into the story and Kate’s world from the first chapter. It  begins in 1856 and continues through the Civil War but ends soon after the Civil War. Greer gives her own spin to a few of Kate’s actual cases as a Pinkerton, including cases that may or may not have been real. One of the most nerve racking and nail biting parts of the book  is her working to get Lincoln to Washington without him being killed before being sworn in as President. This is based on Kate’s most famous case as a Pinkerton.

It’s hard to put Girl in Disguise into a genre category even though the library had it classified as general fiction. To me it is a bit of biographical fiction and historical fiction with a bit of mystery thrown in. Fans of historical fiction, mystery, biographical fiction, detective fiction will enjoy this book. Kate Warne proves that sometimes life can be more mysterious than fiction.

Formats Available: Book, eBook

Reviewed by CarissaMain Library

Classic Adaptations: Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Liu Bei hears Zhuge Liang's plans for dividing the state, but contending for power.

“Should you wish to take the overlordship, you will yield the Heaven’s favor to Cao Cao in the north, and you will relinquish the Earth’s advantage to Sun Quan in the south. You, General, will hold the Human’s heart and complete the trinity.”

Remember, folks, it’s not spoilers if it happened almost two thousand years ago. In this episode of Classic Adaptations, we explore the work that represents the richest mother lode of adaptations I’ve found yet: the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three KingdomsThere’s a lot of ground to cover here, so I’ll be moving pretty fast, but this is still a really long post.

Note: Chinese names have the form – Familyname Givenname – so that the first name is the family someone belongs to, and the second is their personal name. People who share a family name are, at least in theory, related by blood (or adoption) on their father’s side. There is also the courtesy name also called style, or zi, which was used when it would be impolite to use the given name.

Example: Zhao Yun, styled Zilong.

Is this confusing? Yes, but only for a little while, until you get used to it. The real headache is that some translations use different romanization schemes than others…

 

The History

The Three Kingdoms period followed on the collapse of the (Latter) Han Dynasty, and officially lasted from 220 to 280. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is historical fiction, itself an adaptation of folklore, in turn adapted from well-known history. We’re in for quadruple or even quintuple adaptations, with this classic!

History writing in Han Dynasty China (as in nearly all Chinese states) wasn’t a hobby for the educated, as it was in contemporaneous Rome, it was the foundation of any new regime. Official histories collected the previous dynasty’s paperwork, and stitched these records into a narrative, generally calculated to make the first Emperors of any government look as good as possible, and the last ones as bad and incompetent as possible, to justify not only the current regime, but also the structure of dynastic succession itself.

As to that succession, the one, overarching principle is that of the Mandate of Heaven. Unlike in Europe, where Kings and Emperors were considered God’s regents on Earth, if a previous Emperor had done a bad enough job to provoke natural disasters or uprisings that undermined the stability of the state, then he could be replaced. Anyone who successfully unseated the previous Emperor and united the other Chinese states became the next Emperor, preferably in a formal ceremony, in which the previous Emperor handed over power (and the Mandate of Heaven) to the new Emperor, establishing a new dynasty. A central concern, therefore, is from whom, and on what grounds, a dynasty claims succession of the Mandate of Heaven.

This political bias leads to some fascinating interactions, when this model for history is adapted to fiction. In an official history, someone loses the Mandate of Heaven because he’s incompetent and a bad guy, and the new ruler is, by default, a good guy, because that’s politically expedient for everybody. In fiction, someone’s a bad guy, because it makes a better story that way. Writing a Chinese historical fiction novel could get you into trouble, if you craft a villain out of the wrong person. In this context, it’s not touchiness to read an allegory for contemporary politics into historical narrative, it’s just common sense.

If you want to read more about the history behind this novel, and its many, many spin-offs, there’s actually a fan website that covers many of them, and provides timelines, and a who’s who section, including fan translations of the biographies in the Records of the Three Kingdoms – the official history of the era, written when the Jin Dynasty came to power.

 

The Classic

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

By Luo Guanzhong

Romance of the Three Kingdoms cover image

I own this book. It’s about 800 pages long. See that “Volume I”? You better believe there’s a second volume, just as fat as the first. The introduction is a single page that boils down to “if you have this book you know why you’re here.” I love that.

In all seriousness, though, this is a loooo-oooooo-oooonnng book, up there with Les MisérablesMost translations weigh in at around 2000 pages. Given that the plot spans a century, it goes by FAST, though. Characters can be introduced and killed off within a single paragraph. This isn’t a novel about a close study of individual psychologies, it’s about the grand sweep of history. No time for navel-gazing here. Or romance. If there’s a marriage, it’s about politics, or maybe it’s an assassination plot or honey trap. That’s not to say that the main characters aren’t well developed. It’s just that there’s a couple dozen of them. In a small miracle of storytelling economy, the author lets the actions of these characters speak for themselves, and leaves the rest to the reader’s inference.

Since Luo Guanzhong‘s 15th Century audience for the novel would have been very familiar with this history, he doesn’t change the major events, but rather paints the characters in a heroic or villainous light, to conform to his own era’s biases as to who was the most fit to rule, and often at odds with the official histories, which in turn, were biased in their own way. Five centuries have passed since the novel was written, and we, as readers from a different time, and half a world away, have our own filters to deal with. The choices the author makes, to adapt this history to his own time, and then the reader’s interpretations layered on top of it, mean that a story told primarily through actions develops complex and ambiguous outcomes in the reading – and this is where it gets really interesting.

EXAMPLE: Sun Jian

Qing Dynasty edition illustration of Sun Jian

Qing Dynasty illustration of Sun Jian with the Imperial Seal. Whether he even finds it – and what happens next – depends on the adaptation.

Sun Jian’s character, although not as obviously as some of the others, has been tinkered with by the authors of the novel. He did, apparently, fight a bunch of pirates when he was a teen (!!!). He did, according to his official biography, eventually become a general under Yuan Shu for the Han Dynasty against the tyrant, Dong Zhuo. His biography in the Records of the Three Kingdoms says nothing about the Imperial Seal. In the novel, however, one of his followers finds the seal in a ruined well, and gives it to Sun Jian, who lies to Yuan Shu about finding it (showing how power-hungry Yuan Shu is, and also how Sun Jian harbors ambitions of his own). The novel doesn’t mention that he restored the looted tombs in Luoyang, and also credits his killing of enemy officer Hua Xiong to another character (Guan Yu, incidentally, who got a massive heroism upgrade due to being literally ascended to godhood in the course of intervening centuries, as we will see).

Subtly, fiction molds real, complicated people into emotionally resonant roles in a story.

When the actions that define a character have gained, lost, or changed meaning across time and cultures, however, the real test of a story is how well it can weather such an unanticipated and cataclysmic journey. Romance of the Three Kingdoms succeeds spectacularly, telling a universal and deeply compelling tale, including heroic weeping into sleeves, baby tossing, and the odd incident of virtuous cannibalism.

 

The OTHER Adaptations

It’s hard to overstate just how significant Romance of the Three Kingdoms is in terms of how far it’s permeated the culture of China, and the East Asian cultural sphere in general. If you’ve so much as eaten in an American Chinese restaurant, I can just about guarantee you that you’ve seen a representation of at least one of the characters of the novel. Specifically, Guan Yu, who rocketed to the heights of apotheosis via a heroic treatment in the novel, several excellent Chinese opera suites, and Imperial patronage. The following are just a few of the many, many adaptations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and each one is definitely worth a look, on its own, with unique perspectives, and takes on each character (who, by and large, were real, historical, living people).

  • Chinese Operas (Too many to count!)
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1994 TV series)
  • The Ravages of Time (2001 manhua – Chinese comic book – series)
  • Three Kingdoms 2010 (2010 TV series)
  • Red Cliff (2008 motion picture)
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms (video game series)
  • Dynasty Warrior(video game series)

 

Postscript:

Temporary Guan Gong shrine at the Umbrella Movement barricade.

By David290 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Above is a picture of the improvised Guan Yu temple at a roadblock during the Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong in 2014. Although often called a God of War, as if he were an analogue of Ares or Athena, Lord Guan is rather a god of brotherhood in a united cause, and self-improvement by reading literature. Really, there’s no better choice of patron deity for a (mostly) student protest movement.

Highlights of the above picture: under the oranges on the altar, hand-drawn angry chibi-style Lord Guan with an umbrella; to the right of that, a poster with the character model of Guan Yu from the Japanese video game Dynasty Warriors 5! In this image, we have history from the 3rd Century mutating into a novel which spawns a video game series centuries later in a different country, which ricochets back for religious and political use.

God of literacy in a library blog For The Win!

Guan Yu reading

By Fred Hsu on en.wikipedia (Photo taken and uploaded by user) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee

There are numerous means by which history can be recorded: oral history, paintings, poems, monuments, and, of course, the written word. While they all have their particular advantages and strengths, I find the written word most powerful, especially when put forth in the form of fiction. Experiencing history through the narrative of fictional characters personalizes history and brings it to the level of the individual. In reducing history to mere facts and figures, much is lost, and the novel is capable of preventing such a reduction.

pianoteacherThe Piano Teacher, written by Janice Y. K. Lee, is just such a novel. Set in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong and alternating between the years 1941/1942 and 1951/1952, the reader is provided prose of the highest caliber with which Ms. Lee effectively recreates pre- and post-WWII Hong Kong, a city teeming with drama of every sort and serving as a nexus between East and West. It is within this setting that the story’s complex characters navigate romances, intrigues, and the general trials and tribulations of life. Of course, romance can manifest itself in many ways, and in demonstration of this point, take, for example, the following dialogue from the novel and between two lovers:

A few weeks later, she asked, “Why me?”
“Why anyone?” he answered. “Why is anyone with anyone?”
Desire, proximity, habit, chance. All these went through her mind, but she didn’t say a word.
“I don’t like to love,” he said. “You should be forewarned. I don’t believe in it. And you shouldn’t either.”

Wow. Now that is pure romance, no?

Of course, once Hong Kong is conquered by the Imperial Japanese Army in December of 1941, romance of any sort takes on quite different trappings. The forty-four month occupation of Hong Kong by the Japanese was quite horrendous, and the reader is not spared the gory details. With such trying and overwhelmingly bleak conditions and with death constantly at hand, the true natures of the characters emerge.

Ms. Lee, by means of her skilled writing, transports the reader to Hong Kong of the 1940s and 1950s introducing a cast of characters who face many difficult challenges and choices, which by itself is very engaging. However and in addition to this, what I found especially interesting were the details of life on the island of Hong Kong before, during and after the war, a segment of history about which I knew very little, something that this novel has, to a certain extent, rectified.

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

This historical fiction novel by Kenneth Oppel takes place in Canada in the late 1880’s.  The country is young and exploring its boundaries.  The last spike has been driven into two great railway systems, creating a coast to coast system.  Now travelers can journey across the country at record speeds but no train exists that is big enough or strong enough to make the full trip until The Boundless arrives.

boundless

The Boundless was a dream of railway manager Mr. Vanhorn.  It pulls over seven miles of train cars including a circus, a gym, a pool, three classes of passengers cars, and much more.  Sadly, it also pulls Mr. Vanhorn’s funeral car as he did not live long enough to see his dream built.  Surrounded by a current of electricity, Mr. Vanhorn’s car will travel the rails forever as part of the Boundless.  But there are many people who would like to get their hands on the treasure that travels along inside the funeral car next to Vanhorn’s body.

Only two people know where the key is to unlock the funeral car, the guard hired to protect it, and James Everett.  Once a poor employee of Mr. Vanhorn, James saved Mr. Vanhorn’s life three years previous and, in gratitude, James was left everything Mr. Vanhorn owned.  James alone knows what and how to get in that car- knowledge that soon endangers his son, William.

William is shy and unsure of himself but full of excitement to be traveling on The Boundless’ maiden trek across the country with his father.  That is until he witnesses the murder of the funeral car guard and quickly becomes the prey himself.  Will, stuck an unplanned adventure, he must out run and outsmart those trying to use him to get to the riches inside the train car.

No one is who they seem and even those trying to help Will stay safe and the speeding train has ulterior motives.  Can anyone be trusted?  Is everyone using him to get inside the funeral car?

The Boundless tells a wonderful story of a young boy trying to find faith in himself and discover who he truly is.  This is a grand adventure full of mysterious creatures and strange magical happenings that no reader should miss.

There is also a book trailer which you can view by clicking here.

Formats Available: Book, eBook, Audiobook

Reviewed by Lindsay, Southwest Branch

Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall

“My daddy says that when you do somethin’ to distract you from your worstest fears, it’s like whistlin’ past the graveyard. You know, making a racket to keep the scaredness and the ghosts away. He says that’s how we get by sometimes.” – Starla

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Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall is one of those books that changes your heart and gives you a view of America’s south in 1963 through the eyes of a child. The story begins with a child and follows her throughout a life altering journey. Starla is a feisty nine-year old, who states her mind and continually challenges authority. She is being raised by her grandmother and father because her mother has gone to Nashville to become a famous singer. Her grandmother rules with a strict hand and Starla fights back against her rule every chance she is given. Starla quickly decides to flee town to escape her grandmother and to reunite with her mother because she believes that her mother is the only one who loves her. We eventually find out her mother’s true character later on in the story.

Starla is found on the roadside by a black woman that is currently caring for a white baby that she has taken from a church’s front step. Eula and Starla continue on a journey towards Nashville that is briefly halted by Eula’s abusive husband, however they eventually make it to Nashville to find Starla’s mother. This adventure brings Starla face to face with race relations, abuse, and murder.

This book is unique because writers normally do not decide to depict the tension in the American South at that time through the eyes of a child. The only faults that can be found in this book are some of the side stories that the writer introduces. For example, the story of the white baby that Eula has stolen seems to just fizzle out at the end. Overall this book is well written and a page turner to the end. Some readers may even identify with Starla because they also grew up at this time in the South.  For those of us that weren’t alive during those times, this book gives an authentic view of the race relations of the South at that time.

Formats available: Book, Large Print

Reviewed by Sara, Okolona Branch

 

Road Trip Essentials: Audiobooks

Summer is the season of family vacations and this means often long road trips accompanied by restless travelers of all ages. Regardless of your reading preference or road trip companions, the absolute best way to pass the time on a long road trip is by listening to an audiobook. Sharing an engaging story with your vacation companions can stave off the repetition of, “are we there yet?” and turn even the most reluctant reader into backseat book critic.

Below you’ll find a few of my favorites from a variety of genres and talented narrators. In most cases I have a personal preference for authors as narrators, but some very talented voice actors are noted below. Most genres listed feature children’s (C), teen (T), and adult (A) titles. Although the adult titles may not be appropriate for children/teens, adults should not restrict themselves to only adult titles. A well-executed audiobook, although geared toward a younger audience, can easily be enjoyed by all ages. No matter the variety of personal tastes filling your vehicle there is an audiobook (or two, or three) that will meet your needs.

Science Fiction/Fantasy

The graveyard book

Realistic/Historical Fiction

Code name Verity

Mystery

The Secret of the Old Clock

Memoir/Biography/Non-Fiction

The ultimate David Sedaris box set

Format: Audiobook

Reviewed by Magen, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch 

The Allied Invasion of Normandy and the Liberation of Paris

allthelightdoerr

This year was the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy and liberation of Paris. Writers have been busy marking the occasion!  Many readers have heard of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the story of a convergence of two lives on either side of the conflict: a Parisian girl and a German youth with a gift for electronics.   His beautifully written tale has earned spots on numerous best of lists for 2014.

whenpariswentdark

The only thing that can make a great piece of historical fiction better is a highly readable work of non-fiction to go with it.  To that end, I invite you to try When Paris Went Dark: the City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 by Ronald Rosbottom.   He tells the story of the city’s occupation from a variety of perspectives: from its people (German commanders to Parisian street vendors) to its high schools (one in particular was a breeding ground for Resistance fighters—I’d watch that teen drama series) and apartments (the labyrinth of interweaving corridors and doorways of Parisian housing played a major role in hiding those at risk).  Rosbottom explores the effects of the Occupation on the French psyche as a nation ponders what it did to resist and if that was enough.

resistance

If Doerr and Rosbottom’s books sound appealing, I also encourage you to read Agnes Humbert’s wartime journal Résistance: A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France (1946), the story of her years in the French Resistance and as a prisoner in a forced labor camp in Germany.  A curator at the Musée de L’Homme, Humbert was among the first group of organized opponents of the Occupation.  We share her sadness and fear as her beloved city is occupied, its museums violated and its citizens arrested. But like the heroine of a favorite work of fiction, she never loses her spirit. Determined to make her internment productive for the Resistance, she sabotages the parachutes she is forced to make for the German war effort, all the time recognizing the irony of being forced to make artificial silk, a new technology that her mother had invested in before the war.

Despite her circumstances, Humbert keeps her sense of humor and refuses to surrender her humanity.  At one point during her years in slave labor, she ponders what Descartes would think of the factory’s rayon-making machines and the thoughts one has as one is at them.   After her liberation she spends her time helping the American army bring Nazis to justice and coordinating efforts to feed and house residents of the village that enslaved her.  Humbert’s journal reads like an adventure story and I found myself cheering for its inspirational heroine throughout.

Formats Available: Book (Regular Print and Large Type), Audiobook (CD), eBook

Reviewed by Valerie, Iroquois Branch

 

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

pariswife

Most people are familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s works of fiction, but many don’t know much about the man behind the stories. Hemingway was married a total of four times throughout his life.  According to many biographies, his first wife, Hadley, was the only one that he truly loved.  The Paris Wife tells Ernest and Hadley’s story from beginning to end in first person from Hadley’s point of view.

Mclain weaves her story from researching biographies, letters, and personal accounts of Hemingway’s life.  She recounts tales from the couple’s move to Paris, France in the 1920s during the era of the Left Bank artists.  The reader gets Hadley’s perspective of many of the famous artists and writers of the era including Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The reader also gets a glance of one of Hemingway’s favorite pastimes at the bullfights in Pamplona, Spain which goes on to be a back drop of one of his first novels.

The romance between Hadley and Ernest gradually begins to fade as Ernest gains popularity for many of his short stories and novels.  Hadley struggles with her self-esteem seem to grow even larger, and Ernest’s sudden interest of a new woman in his life that eventually becomes his mistress.  Hadley eventually decides to give Ernest a divorce that allows him to marry his mistress.  However by many accounts, this was one of Ernest’s greatest regrets in life.

Mclain weaves a beautiful fictitious picture of the marriage of Ernest and Hadley, including many true stories from their time together.  While the characters can be confusing sometimes due to so many nicknames, the story still flows effortlessly.

This title is available as a book discussion kit.

Formats Available:  Book (both Large Type and Regular Type), eBook, Audiobook (CD), Book Discussion Kit 

Reviewed by Sara, Okolona Branch