Book Reviews, Education

The role of fiction in the understanding of history: Why everyone should read more historical novels

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James provides a graphic view of the life of a slave.

History has always fascinated me. I enjoy historical novels that allow me to immerse myself in other times and places and understand how people lived “back then.” However, history classes have always bored me. I have learned far more about history from historical novels than I ever learned in any history class.

Every history course I have ever taken has focused on dry facts – dates, names of battles, lists of names on important historical documents – that students were required to memorize and then regurgitate on that next test. Most of these details immediately flew out of my brain as soon as I turned in my final exam.

Ask me when the U.S. Constitution was signed. I can’t remember, but I can Google it for you if you like.

While these factual elements are important to setting a story in time and place, they never quite tell the entire story. Unfortunately, the “story” part of history seems to be missing from many American history classrooms. (Although, we do seem to get the “his” part right in most cases.)

I’m sure it’s too much to expect teachers to become storytellers and fully tell the story of every historic event that our students are expected to know about by the time they graduate from high school. Nevertheless, there are certain parts of our past that require the telling of individual tales for us to fully grasp their impact on our society now.

For example, slavery is one concept that every American needs to understand in order to understand the racial tensions that exist today. We all learn about slavery in the public school system, but do we ever really understand what it was or what it meant to the people – both black and white – who lived with it on a daily basis?

Yes, we understand that it is wrong to own a human being. We may know that families were often torn apart when children were sold away from their mothers. We may know on an intellectual level that most slaves had to work very hard and were not treated very well. But do these bare facts make us truly understand what it meant to be a slave and how slavery still impacts American society today? I don’t think so.

I personally did not fully grasp the horror that was slavery until I read Marlon James’ novel, The Book of Night Women. This fictional account woke me up to the truth in a way that no factual history book could ever do. This was one of those novels that evoked in me an extreme paradigm shift that made me truly think about slavery for the first time.

Surprisingly enough, this story made me see the impact of slavery on both the slaves and the slave owners. It made me see in sickening clarity the acts that were regularly committed against slaves. Imagine the horror of living your entire life knowing that these things might be done to you if you stepped out of line. Imagine the horror of knowing these things might happen to you even if you didn’t step out of line. Imagine knowing your owner could do whatever he wanted to you just because he felt like it. He didn’t need a good reason to have you whipped. He could do it just because he was in a bad mood and felt like whipping someone. He could just as easily chop off your foot or have you staked naked to the ground and covered with honey, and no one would say a word against it.

Now imagine the horror of growing up watching your parents commit these atrocities against other human beings on a regular basis. Consider how that sickness has been passed on for generations and still exists in our society today. Consider how it may take hundreds of years to move past slavery, if it is possible to move past it at all. We certainly can’t move past it without properly addressing the trauma that so many people have experienced because of it.

The dates we learn in history class make slavery and other historical events seem so far in our past. Historical novels remind us that the past is present in our today. We are all products of the generations that came before us. The actions of our great-great grandparents influence our actions in the present. This may be good or bad. We can’t know which if we don’t bother to understand where we came from. Knowing your history may help you overcome your ancestors’ shortcomings and create a better future. Ignoring it may condemn you to repeating your grandparents’ mistakes and teaching your children to do the same.

I am ignorant. I do not know what it is like to be you, to live your life. But I would like to learn.
I am ignorant. I do not know what it is like to be you, to live your life. But I would like to learn.

 

Of course, we can’t turn history class into literature class and just assign novels for the students to read all semester. They do need to learn many of the basic facts that we have all had shoved down our throats by the time we graduated. However, I wonder what would happen if we were to incorporate one really good historical novel into every history course.

What if we were to show these young students that there are so very many compelling stories behind all of these dry and boring facts? What if we provided students with a list of historically accurate novels that they could turn to in order to learn more about the facts they are memorizing in class?

Let’s make them read one story that brings those facts to life. Then provide them with a list of other stories that will bring other facts to life. Show them there is more to history than dates and battlefields. Show them the value of fiction and awaken a love of reading.

Fiction often reveals the truth more effectively than bare facts can. Students who continue to read after graduation will continue to learn about what it means to be human. They will learn to validate the experiences of others rather than viewing the world strictly through the lens of their own personal experiences.

What novels have you read that made you understand history on a deeper level? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

 

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