historical fiction

History museums are in the business of helping people make meaning out of the past, often through historic objects.  Stories and personal connections in history help people feel the emotional meanings of objects, engaging with the past in a creative and intimate way.

Supporting the historical imaginary, though, could mean tolerating, supporting, even promoting stories that are not accurate.  For museums, whose brands rest on their authenticity, alternate histories can be a minefield–but I’ve been seeing a clear trend toward them.  Should we develop these kind of experiences?  Or do we have a moral duty not to?  Can museums make space for the historical imaginary?  How can we make space for visitors to dream themselves into the past?  Can museums support the whimsical and untrue while making clear what we have evidence for, and what we don’t?

The Ghosts of a Chance alternate reality game at SAAM is a great example of the way alternate stories can coexist with the real objects and stories in the museum.  In the ARG story, young curators are haunted by restless spirits whose demands visitors need to discover and propitiate through the making of objects related to SAAM’s collections and other tasks.  The story was told through the web and the museum, and despite the this-is-not-a-game epistemology of ARGs, it was clearly an alternate story (ghosts, curators in their early twenties with myspace profiles, the bodybuilder at ARG-fest-o-con).  If the Smithsonian can support alternate history storylines, can your museum?  Or is the Smithsonian’s perceived authenticity so high that something like Ghosts of a Chance can’t hurt it?  And is it easier for an art museum to support an alternate history story than a history museum, whose mission is to research, preserve and interpret the past?

Recently the museosphere has been talking about the Powerhouse Museum’s clever Odditorium, where the writer and artist Shaun Tan was given the opportunity to write fictitious labels about some curious objects from the museum’s collections.  The “real” labels for the objects (the label text is headed “what they actually are!”) are all put together in a separate area in the exhibit, while Shaun’s labels accompany the artifacts. Visitors are also encouraged to write their own (Balderdash-type) labels for these interesting objects, and visitor participation has been enthusiastic.

Nina Simon recently posted on the project, and suggested that this kind of space for play and alternate or subversive meaning-making should be “tucked into the corner of every collecting museum.”

In the Odditoreum, you know you are being given a little space to have fun and poke at the rest of it all. The rules of the museum still exist, and it’s more powerful to subvert them in little bits than to throw them out altogether.

If an alternate history space is clearly but not didactically set aside, as in the Odditoreum, I’m more optimistic about the mission fit of such a space. For instance, I’ve been thinking about how to encourage steampunk enthusiasts at my museum, and this might be an interesting model.

History is stories, of course, not just one narrative (one museum recovering and telling a true narrative different from the canonical one is the National Museum of the American Indian), and a history museum, to do good public history, needs to tell its stories responsibly.

Instantiating alternate history at museums can do a disservice to objects.  Some of the Powerhouse’s curiosities considered for the Odditoreum, like the 2nd-best collection of barbed wire in Australia, are strange true stories.  Museums like the Mutter in Philadelphia arguably tell as unusual, unbelievable and unfamiliar stories as the (entirely fabricated) Museum of Jurassic Technology.  Maybe one compromise tactic is bringing more curious and wonderful objects onto the floor, ones that resist conventional interpretations.


The winners for the big children’s book awards have been announced, and this year, history won.

The most exciting news is that Laura Amy Schlitz’s Good Masters, Sweet Ladies has won the Newbery!  This terrific, original book is a series of dramatic monologues from characters in a medieval village.   It’s a surprise and a pleasure to find that such an unusual book, and a history book at that, was this year’s winner. (If you’d like to read more about the judging, Monica Edinger, who served on this year’s Newbery committee, has been writing thoughtfully about the process all year.) Schlitz, a librarian at a progressive private school in Baltimore, wrote the monologues for fifth graders doing a unit on the middle ages, and was persuaded to send the book in to publishers.  Schlitz is also the author of one of my favorite books of 2006, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, about spiritualists, ghosts and orphans around the turn of the century (what’s not to like?).
One of the Honor books (and the Coretta Scott King medal winner), Elijah of Buxton, is also a historical, as is The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the genre-busting illustrated novel which won the Caldecott.

This indicates not necessarily that better historical fiction is being written, but that excellent historical fiction for kids can be acclaimed and honored as much as fantasy or realistic fiction.  Hopefully this will spur the publishing of better historical fiction for kids, rather than “kids’ historical novels getting a pass,” not being subject to real critical scrutiny, as Gail Gauthier has suggested.  And as Roger Sutton recently noted, historical fiction can seem just as exotic as fantasy to kids. So why is it not as widely read and widely sold?   There’s an air of stodginess that clings to historical fiction as much as it does to our small museums.  Let’s air it out.  Historical fiction is perhaps the most visible and widely distributed genre of public history, and we should be reading, recommending, supporting, and even writing it!

Suzanne Harper, The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney

Wendy Corsi Staub, Lily Dale: Awakening

Christine Wicker, Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that talks to the Dead

Lily Dale, a small town in Western New York, is possibly the last remaining spiritualist outpost–not (necessarily) New Age-y spiritualist, but practitioners of Swedenborgian spirtualist religion like it was 1879, which was, in fact, when the town was founded. Two young adult novels set in Lily Dale just recently came out, and while there has been a resurgence of YA supernatural fiction in the last few years (Twilight, etc.), two books set in a small town near Buffalo seemed like more than coincidence. After reading Suzanne Harper’s charming Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney (as well as Rob McDougall’s recent posts on spiritualism), I set out to read all the recent books on Lily Dale.

Sparrow Delaney has a problem. She lives in Lily Dale, and her mom, grandma, and all six sisters are mediums, and they want her to be one too. As the seventh child, she’s supposed to have special gifts, but she hates the attention and she doesn’t tell them that she sees and talks to ghosts all the time–and they’re extremely irritating. They won’t stop talking to her and asking her to do trivial, boring things for them, like tell someone’s granddaughter she’s putting too much garlic in the soup! Sparrow is starting at a new school where no one knows she’s from “Spookyville” and she wants to pass as a ‘normal teenager,’ but one spirit proves unexpectedly persistent and involves her in the life of a boy at the new school. I won’t run the down the plot, but Sparrow ends up accepting her gifts, learning to be true to herself, finding happiness and so on, and there will hopefully be a sequel. Lily Dale in this book is like the Delaney family’s ramshackle Victorian, sprawling, charming, a little chaotic, filled with people and spirits who may be persistent or inconvenient, but they’re family. Harper also gets points for putting a funny set piece in the local history museum, which is filled with old spirit trumpets and spirit photography. Sparrow Delaney comes closest to how I think of spiritualism in the nineteenth century, full of earnest enthusiasm.

Lily Dale: Awakening is a pretty straightforward teen horror story. Calla Delaney (I don’t know how she got the same last name as Sparrow) grew up in Florida, but when her mother dies unexpectedly and horribly she is sent up to Lily Dale to stay with her grandmother, who she barely knows, who turns out to be a medium. There are various waverings about whether or not ghosts exist, whether Calla is going crazy or not, and then she ends up saving the day but putting herself in danger. There are various teenager things included, such as going to WalMart and worrying about how to get email access. It reminded me of Meg Cabot’s 1-800-Where-R-You? books, plot-driven scary paranormal mysteries. Lily Dale in LD:A is more modern than in Sparrow Delaney, like a contemporary small town.

The only non-fiction I’ve found on Lily Dale is the religion journalist Christine Wicker’s Lily Dale: the Town that Speaks to the Dead, which is very interesting as a book about how Lily Dale has changed through the years as well as as a memoir of Wicker’s time there. Now as in the late nineteenth century, during the summer season the town is filled with visitors, seekers after all sorts of things. Wicker explores spiritualism as a religion, as its residents and founders described it, rather than as a cultural popular science movement, as I’ve always considered it. Recommended for the stories, the journalistic style, and the depth of Wicker’s research (though she starts the story with the Fox sisters, rather than in Europe). You can still visit Lily Dale to see a medium, attend a “message service,” or, as I might do, visit their library and museum, which has excellent collections around spiritualism, metaphysics, and local history, including suffrage and pacifist history. I’m still on a mission to put marginalized stuff, “pseudoscience,” “quackery” and so on, back into the history of science and medicine: historians should pay attention to Lily Dale.

Andrea Barrett, The Air We Breathe (Norton, 2007)*

On first glance, this novel could be the American Magic Mountain: it’s set in a TB sanatorium in the Adirondacks (“Tamarack Lake,” a fictionalized Saranac Lake) during the leadup to the Great War. But Barrett’s themes and preoccupations are quite different than Mann’s. The Air We Breathe is about collective responsibility, or, more specifically, the failures of collective responsibility.

Leo Marburg, trained as a chemist back in Odessa, has been working menial jobs when he’s diagnosed with consumption and sent up from the city to Tamarack Lake. He joins a group of mostly immigrants at the public sanatorium. A wealthy industrialist, taking the cure in a private cottage, sets up a discussion group at the sanatorium to help enlighten the patients, driven there by the disaffected daughter of the owner of the private cottage. The group grows and the patients and staff become entwined with each others’ lives, leading to a tragedy paralleling the concurrently spiralling tragedy of the War.

The Air We Breathe gives a good sense of the boringness and sense of being out of time of the invalid experience, and the feel of the late 19thC sanatorium building. The way the disease feels, the worry about the new hollow spots in the lungs, these things were harder to approach. The novel does a good job of depicting the collective experience of medical institutionalization, but not of individual experiences of illness.

The novel is told in first person plural, “we,” the voice of all the patients (except Leo and a few others), in a choice explained only as the very end of the novel. By taking voice together, the narrators can, if not expiate, explain their guilt. The discussion in the weekly group of collective societies and utopian communities highlights the characters’ preoccupation with how people can or can not take care of each other: one patient finds Oneida, New Harmony, etc, interesting not for the failures of these communities, but for the deathless idealistic impulse to try again. The patients discover all the small and large places where they failed.
I understand the motivations behind the narrative “we,” but I found it distancing, getting in the way of my engagement with the characters. The endless foreshadowing gave the novel a sense of inevitability, which is exactly what I think one should avoid in doing history work, and particularly in historical fiction where everyone knows what’s going to happen (the US will join the war! there will be anti-immigrant hysteria!). Additionally, not having read any of Barrett’s other books, the family tree at the end gave away a plot point for me.

Overall, an interesting meditation on blame and the collective.

*I received an ARC of this book as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program. Crossposted at LT.