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Historical Fiction: Getting Lost in Yesterday’s Story

By Melina Lynne • September 21, 2015

A world where fact meets fantasy in any age, historical fiction covers books where the plot takes place in the past. Usually a deliberate and defined past that creates a tension based between the pull of historical accuracy and a really good story.

Where can you find a mystifying circus, intrigues of the Tudor court, stories of Nazi Germany, and the rough landscape of the Civil War? My bookshelves! For those who have not dipped their toes into the ocean that is the historical fiction genre, you are really missing out. For me, it has often become the ultimate escape; bringing me to another time, and giving me a glimpse of what history was like for those living it. It shows me all of the exciting aspects of history that seemed to fall a bit flat in class, and makes the people of those times seem more alive. Now, I know that every detail is not always 100% accurate in these books, and I don't expect it to be. However, it still gives me that small window with which to look back and try on a corset or two, explore the unsettled lands of the US, travel with the circus, and feel a greater sense of compassion for those who have lived with and through times of war.

Just imagine what it was like for the people of Great Britain, as their culture changed so rapidly through the centuries with each new monarch. Books like The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett), The Sunne in Splendour (Sharon Kay Penman), The First Princess of Wales (Karen Harper), and The Other Boleyn Girl (Philippa Gregory) show us how everyone from the beggars on the street corners to the counts and countesses of the court, had to change their opinions and allegiances on a regular basis just to survive. And love? How did that exist? Could it exist for those born with title and privilege? And what role did religion play back then?

The United States may have a shorter history than other nations, but it still packs a punch. Take for instance Sara Donati’s Wilderness series, which gives us what can only be described as an epic and detailed look back at the beginnings of US. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, also paints a very vivid picture of the Civil War, and what the landscape both physically and culturally looked like back then. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen gives us another great snapshot at a tradition that, in some ways, seems lost to us in today’s entertainment-infused world: the circus. Providing jobs during the Great Depression and a safe haven for those who had nowhere else to go, the circus traveled the country offering distraction during a time that needed it the most.

War provides one of the largest backdrops for historical fiction novels, particularly World War II. Books like The Book Thief (Markus Zusak) and Atonement (Ian McEwan) offer different perspectives and stories of what it was like to live through a devastating war. It didn’t matter what side you were on, what age you were, or what role you played, World War II impacted everyone who lived through it; and sometimes we get so lost in the facts that we forget the individual stories that kept on being written.

Historical fiction covers all cultures, so I take it as a great opportunity to learn about traditions I know nothing about. For example, when I picked up Memoirs of a Geisha I did not know what to expect, but the story I found was so hauntingly beautiful that I could not put it down! I was intrigued by the Japanese tradition of the Geisha, and found myself lost in the world of a young girl growing up in it.

Each book is a different world with a different story; an opportunity to both get lost and learn something new. With the 15% off Literature and Fiction sale going on right now, it is a great time to pick up a used book, and get lost in yesterday’s story; European, American, Asian – it’s all out there, just waiting for us to join in.

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