Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story*

One of the reasons we can learn so much from the fiction we read is arguably that well-written fiction tells the stories of individual people. For many readers, it’s more interesting to read others’ stories than it is to read a discussion of facts, dates, and so on. Setting a story against the backdrop of a major event can teach readers a lot; keeping the focus of that story on the individuals teaches readers even more.

For instance, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is set at the end of World War I, and the years thereafter. As the series begins, Maisie is in domestic service. Her employer sees both her intelligence and her interest in learning, and arranges for her to be educated. When war breaks out, Maisie serves as a field nurse. Later, she becomes a private investigator with a particular sense of psychology. Through Maisie’s experiences, and those of the other characters in the novels, we see the devastation that the war wrought. We also see the impact of the war on the home front, as well as some of the challenges society faced after the war (wounded veterans, evolving roles for women, etc.). Since the stories’ emphasis is the characters, the reader is invited to get to know them, and take an interest in them. So the major events in the novels are more meaningful.

The same is true of Sulari Gentill’s series featuring Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair. This series begins in 1931 and continues (so far) through the years just before World War II. During those years, the world saw the rise of ultra-nationalism and fascism, among other sociopolitical forces that led to World War II. There was also, of course, the worldwide Great Depression. Through the eyes of Rowly and his friends, we see how these events shaped people’s lives. That approach to telling the stories invites the reader to learn a lot about the times and the events that shaped them. It’s all more interesting because we follow the individual characters and the crime fiction plots.

Fans of C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series will know that Shardlake is a 16th Century English lawyer. It’s a time of great uncertainty, with major changes (such as the Reformation) going on. It can be a very dangerous time, too, especially at the court of King Henry VIII. The stories are told from Shardlake’s point of view, so readers get a sense of what daily life at the time was like. Rather than a long description of events and major historical figures, Sansom tells individual stories, and places them against the backdrop of the times. This allows the reader the opportunity to learn a great deal about the era, and at the same time enjoy the mystery plots themselves. The major happenings of the times are brought down to the human level, if I can put it that way.

Stephen Legault’s The Third Riel Conspiracy takes place in the Western Canada of 1885. At this time, a group of Métis, and an associated group of indigenous people, are involved in a revolt against the Canadian government. They believe the government is not respecting their rights or protecting their land. Within this context, we meet Durant Wallace of the Northwest Mounted Police (today, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). He gets involved in the investigation when a Métis fighter named Terrence La Biche is arrested for murdering Reuben Wake, whose body is found in a Canadian encampment. As the story moves on, we learn about the backgrounds of some of the individuals, and we see how they were impacted by the times and the major events (including the rebellion itself). We see them from the perspectives of the characters involved, and we get a sense of what it was like to live at that time and in that place.

You’ll notice that so far, I’ve mentioned historical novels and series. But more contemporary novels can also teach much about events, movements, and so on. For instance, James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown takes place in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which struck in 2005. In the novel, Burke’s protagonist, Dave Robicheaux, goes in search of a friend who was last seen helping a group of people get onto a boat to escape the building where they’ve been trapped. When the boat turns up later in the hands of looters, it becomes clear that Robicheaux’s friend has probably been killed. As Robicheaux works to get answers, we see how the hurricane devastated thousands of lives, caused an immense amount of damage, and left scars that are still present. The story is all the more powerful for being focused on the individual people in the story. Their tales of survival, and Burke’s description of the storm’s impact, are arguably more powerful than a simple narration of events might be.

There’s also Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers. In it, Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne is assigned to do a story on the South African Springboks’ 1981 rugby tour of New Zealand. Often simply called The Tour, it caused a wave of protests, since South Africa was at the time under the laws of apartheid. The New Zealand government allowed the tour to go ahead, and there was open conflict between police and protestors. The Tour has been the subject of many stories, and Thorne thinks it’s been done enough. But that’s her assignment, so she tries to find a new angle on the events. She does so when she learns of a murder that took place during the rugby visit. Two Kiwis dressed as lambs attended some of the matches, dancing and entertaining the crowds. One night, one of them was murdered. As Thorne looks into that murder, and interviews people who were there at the time of the protests, we learn what happened through the eyes of the people who lived through it. It’s a very human approach to telling about a major event, and it teaches the reader a lot because of that.

And that’s the thing about telling people’s individual stories. It’s a very effective approach to writing about major events, movements, historical figures, and more. These are only a few examples. I’ll bet you can think of far more than I ever could.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Lin-Manual Miranda.  


10 thoughts on “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story*

  1. First I want to thank you for reminding me of Stephen Legault, a Canadian author. I had forgotten about him and I will be looking for some of his books.

    And I need to follow up on reading more of the Matthew Shardlake series, and Sulari Gentill’s series. I have some of those on my TBR piles.

    I enjoy historical fiction for the reasons you point out her, I like to learn about other times and places.

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    1. Legault is talented, Tracy. I hope you’ll enjoy his work when/if you get to it. And both the Sansom and the Gentill series are terrific, with strong plots, well-developed characters, and a good sense of time and place. In my opinion, they’re well worth the read as you have the time. I’m with you, too, on why reading historical fiction can be such a treat; one’s always learning something, especially the story is well-written, so that the reader is drawn in.

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    1. So do I, Marina Sofia! And I’m so glad to hear you’re enjoying the Shardlake story. He’s such an interesting character, and Sansom does, I think, a fine job of evoking time and place without overdoing it.

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  2. Margot: I appreciate your inclusion of Stephen Legault’s book about the Riel Rebellion which occurred about 120 km from Melfort. The best part of the book was its exploration of the history of the time. The author did not change history for his plot. I prefer books that work the story around the actual history rather than taking creative liberties with the facts.

    I also though of the Perveen Mistry books by Sujata Massey. Set in the early 1920’s they involve several different historical stories. There is the history of India late in the British rule of the subcontinent. There is legal history in Perveen is the first woman lawyer in Bombay. There is woman’s history as the books explore the roles of women in Indian society of that time.

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    1. I know what you mean, Bill, about not changing history to make a story better. Like you, I prefer books that work a story into history, rather than the other way around. And the Riel Rebellion offers a lot of interesting history; no need to change it around to make it more so. As for Sujata Massey’s series, I’ve been wanting to read that. I’ve read some of her other series, about Rei Shimura – but not the Perveen Mistry novels. I know you’ve spoken highly of them on your blog, and you’re not the only one. I appreciate your reminding me of them, as they’ve been on my ‘I must read these’ list for a while…

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  3. I’m reading an excellent historical novel that follows the participants of a bizarre 1960’s “experiment.” Mind-blowing. I had no idea the government conducted this experiment, but the story is based on true events.

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    1. Oh, that is interesting, Sue! There’s a lot of ‘fodder for stories’ in those historical accounts of experiments and other scientific research. And I’ll bet you’ve found some inspiration, too.

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  4. I like books where I can learn something as well as get entertained, not every book mind you but regularly. Brian Stoddart’s and his India of the early 20th century springs to mind. A lot of Cold War spy fiction, with it’s back drop of the political situation in Europe post World War II, is another source of information for me which I enjoy.

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    1. I like books where I learn something, too, Col. Sometimes it’s enjoyable just to be entertained, but I do like learning. And Stoddart’s books strike a balance for me between wanting to be entertained, and also wanting to learn something. I’m glad you mentioned them.

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