It is almost amazing, the overwhelming feeling of disgust that infiltrates a high school classroom whenever the subject is history. A kind of primitive competition to find the few kids who actually enjoy the class and bribe them for photocopies of notes and exam answers suffocates like a humid day. Add to the humiliation the impending doom of an essay test from a teacher who expects everyone to care enough about ex-presidents and military leaders to memorize precise battle plans and dramatic mistakes and it makes perfect sense that an entire junior class will quake at the thought of United States History. Even in college, notes fade to slight scribbles and heads fall, an hour and fifteen minutes of British monarchies and Roman empires barely distinguishable from any other opportunity for sleep. Yet history is tightly embedded in almost every other course in a liberal arts education, courses that students are honestly excited to attend. Literature that is merely a reflection of cultural movements, psychology that looks to some of the most famous individuals as its most important case studies. One cannot read Virgil's Aeneid without knowing something about Augustus and the fall of Troy. And searching the years of George Washington's childhood for hints at a future Revolutionary hero requires as much knowledge of history as it does psychology. So why is history such a dreaded subject? Why is it seen as a necessary evil instead of as a positive experience? The problem is that history dehumanizes.
[...] Historical novels connect the reader to the past, and pave a road to understanding that many traditional text books ignore. There is a reason that historical fiction is separated from ordinary fiction. The differentiation has nothing to do with the quality of the work; historical fiction can be as equally fulfilling as any piece of classical literature. It is listed under a separate genre due to the extensive nonfiction contained within the stories. Therefore, historical fiction is a valid tool toward studying history. [...]
[...] Often times, a textbook is not going to offer chapters of back story on the locations of certain pivotal moments in history, and if it does, it will rarely weave the historical figure into that background. It may insert a bit of information on the economy, or the construction of a church, but only historical novels will put the man in the church and describe that construction through his eyes. Much like the use of the Welsh narrators in Falls the Shadow, historical novels rely on influences outside of the main story line, outside of the main focal point, to paint the best possible picture of the world at that time. [...]
[...] In many ways, Shakespeare had his hands tied; he only had so much freedom to tell the truth. But the reasons behind his lies and inaccuracies are a historical framework of their own, and in studying some works of historical fiction, these secondary histories are more interesting than the original intentions of the pieces. Most modern textbooks are so blatantly objective that there is nothing to learn beyond the facts within, and more ancient texts such as the Anglica Historia are discredited to the level of fiction by the contemporary world anyway. [...]
[...] History provides the situations and the decisions made by these individuals under pressure, but it creates a deeper understanding to see these individuals act outside of these famous events. Readers know that Simon de Mortfort married into the British royalty through Eleanor, two kind-hearted souls joined in the name of love. But to see this love personified, to read Sharon Kay Penman's take on how they met, how they arranged future meetings, how they flirted and attracted and slowly fell in love is to realize exactly what kind of man Simon de Mortfort is. [...]
[...] To make a good story, historical fiction calls upon secondary characters never important enough for the history textbooks; family members accidentally forgotten, mistresses purposefully forgotten, and all manner of barely remembered in-between. It is a risky yet provocative approach to tell the story of the English king and his French brother-in-law from the perspective of Welsh royalty. This distance, while still providing the main history, also presents an underlying history often omitted from an English history class. However, the necessary creativity of historical fiction is also its most critical downfall. [...]
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