Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Good writing and historical accuracy

I've just come across an article called Writing Backwards, about writers, especially for young people, writing "historical" works with a "modern" point of view. The author has some good points: she feels that writers who write for young people(or anybody else) about historical times, should keep in mind the "mindset" of those times. Of course one should. I have no questions about that. Unfortunately, she also criticizes some modern examples of historical novels for young people that violate this rule about "mindset". Again, she makes some good points here. For example, in her critique of a well-known novel called Sarah, Plain and Tall, which is set in the 1870's or 1880's Midwest in some farming community, she says the author glides over how hard everybody had to work. I haven't read that book, so I can't comment directly. But on the other hand, all authors have to make choices, and apparently she does describe some work, though the author of Sarah, Plain and Tall, doesn't describe it in the way the reviewer would have liked: e.g., as "toil". She also goes into some detail about how this same author has Sarah helping with the roofing of a house while the father of the children bakes something. Well, this is odd, all right: if Sarah was there, she would have been doing the baking. And(up to a point, at least), she is right about Sarah "living in" with the father and the children. But as I understand this book, that was what she was there for. She also has more negative things to say about the book: Sarah traveling alone from Maine to the Midwest(tsk, tsk, women in the 1880's would never have done such a thing! It would have ruined their reputations!). It might have ruined Sarah's reputation in Maine, but the Midwest? On a farm? Some years back, I was talking to a librarian who told me that Iowa, yes, Iowa, was the Wild West back then(that's where Jesse James started out).

The reviewer makes things worse, in my opinion, by then comparing Sarah, Plain and Tall(and a number of other YA "historical" books) to classics like Anna Karenina and Little Women. But she forgets that Anna Karenina and Little Women were written as "contemporary" novels in their time. They only became "classics" later. And jeez, for heaven's sake! Tolstoy was actually critical of the society he described in Anna Karenina. True, Anna did "flout convention" in her time, and paid for it, according to Tolstoy, but that, too, was a criticism. Louisa May Alcott was less obviously "critical", but even she wrote sympathetically of women trying to make their way, more or less "unconventionally". What reader who has read Little Women, does not, at some point, identify with "unconventional" Jo? Which is exactly, I think, what Louisa May Alcott meant us to do.

Apparently Ms. McLeod, the reviewer of these books, both modern and "classic", has the idea that a novelist writing about a historical period must portray whatever historical period they are writing about, as a "mirror image" of that period. Yet she seems to forget that these writers are writing novels, not history. And she also seems to forget that while there were "mindsets" that were different from our own in any given historical period(for example, people in the Middle Ages didn't marry for "love" as they do now, but for "lineage" or "property" reasons, and their families generally controlled who they ended up with), this does not mean that everybody just blindly went along with the dominant mindset of the time. Furthermore, writers like to write about possible "exceptions", not the "ordinary" people who accepted the "mindset". Nor does she seem to understand that there were probably as many individual "mindsets" in any given historical period, as there were people living in that period. Some were more conformist than others, but they were individuals, not an undifferentiated mass. Ms. McLeod"s ideas exalt "historical accuracy", but she seems to have a pretty snobbish attitude toward those writers who "violate" what she considers to be sufficiently accurate about their writing. As ai said, historical accuracy is necessary if you're going to write about a historical period. But please, if a reader wants that much accuracy in their reading, perhaps they should turn to a history of whatever period they're reading about, not novels.
Anne G

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