Why History Should be Taught Through Historical Novels

Schools do a poor job of getting kids interested in history for this one simple reason. How can you relate to a historical period without seeing it through the eyes of the people who lived it–explore their hopes, their dreams, their hardships and triumphs.? How can you grasp something that radically changed a person’s entire world when the world we live in, (specifically in America) is so settled, so easy and calm and for the most part, just? I’ve said before, Americans are spoiled. Unless you actually go looking for it, how do you become interested in history in the first place. Most often, people don’t develop an interest,  and that’s a shame.

I hated history in school, but about six  years ago I read my first historical novel which changed everything. When I started to research my own novel, The Sun Palace  set in sixth century Ireland, I hadn’t wanted to add fantasy but  but it naturally popped in through my research. I had no idea that fantasy actually began in Ireland and through Irish folklore.

Another place that excited my love of history was the real house of William Henry Seward in Auburn, New York. where I learned that Seward, Secretary of State to Abrahan Lincoln was also attacked the night of Lincoln’s assassination which lead me to read everything I could on Seward including Manhunt by James Swanson. Manhunt is not fiction but what some call, creative historical nonfiction but it reads like fiction, another point worth noting. Seward was also instrumental in expanding the railroads to the West, creating Catholic Schools for children of Irish emigrants and he was one of the driving forces behind Lincoln. during the Civil War. All I learned of Seward in school (or all I retained) was that Seward bought  Alaska.

Recently, I’ve started reading the Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon. While I don’t look up every tiny detail of her facts I do believe most of them are accurate and she’s a fantastic writer. These novels begin in eighteenth century Scotland, and the characters travel to France, England, Jamaica and end up in per-revolutionary America.  As I became  vested in her characters, I learned about the Battle of Culloden and the Jacobite Rising which was not only a turning point in Scottish history but lead a fair number of Scots to emigrate to the American South. I learned per-revolution history which kindled the flame of Colonial America. and the War of Regulation and the Hillsborough Riots which ironically, was never mentioned in History class as a real catalyst leading up to the American Revolution.

When coming upon a historical fact I’m not familiar with, I Google it or look up in one of my many books on history which is what I’ve done to learn about  the Hillsborough Riots  and the Regulators, that crept into the novel, The Fiery Cross.  So from Scottish history, I’ve jumped into American history.

A good friend of mine, Mirella Patzer wrote ‘The Blighted Troth’ and Orphan of the Olive Tree which is set in thirteenth century Siena. It lead me to learn about the power of the church at that time,  blood oaths, and ancient superstitions as well as the beauty of the country itself. Its also a good-read with romance, betrayal, and families torn apart when one greedy vengeful woman gives away one of her own twin daughters out jealousy.

I can’t help but wonder how many young people, still in school, would benefit from reading historical fiction where the characters take center stage. My granddaughter is reading the American girl series of books which does an excellent job of showing the time period through one little girl’s eyes.

History is exciting, vibrant and alive if you live it through the eyes of a character which is what historical fiction is all about. We can read the facts in a textbook about high infant mortality,  brutal beatings by one conquering country over another, injustice, famine, horrible conditions of every day life and despair but how can we really experience it or appreciate the hardship unless we talk or see the real people who lived through it? How can we appreciate what we have now? . A good historical writer can fill that gap and without even knowing it, without even making a deliberate effort, historical facts will attach   themselves like flies in a web.



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