Truth or Fiction: What’s the Deal with Historical Fiction?,By Peg Glisson

Historical fiction, creative nonfiction, and fictionalized nonfiction — what do these terms mean? How much truth needs to be in historical fiction? Is there room for bending of the truth? Interpretation? I’ve read and reviewed two books in the last few months have caused me to ponder this topic, to talk about it with colleagues, and to do some research. The books are Salt, by Helen Frost, and Whistle in the Dark, by Susan Hill Long.

In my review for Salt, I wrote, “Both boys have learned the cost of fear and aggression and it has changed them forever . . . James and Anikwa are characters who will live on in readers’ minds. Quietly told, the story thoughtfully and openly examines a particular time and place in American history, the prejudice and violence therein.” About Whistle in the Dark, I wrote, “Long’s beautifully crafted writing earned her the Katherine Paterson Prize; she has created a memorable cast of characters, most with flaws and good qualities, and a setting easily imagined. Historically, the book is mostly accurate. Child labor laws were in existence but often ignored in small mining towns; workers’ compensation laws were in effect in many states by 1920; a huge tornado did strike in 1925. However, the Fujita scale for rating tornadoes was not introduced until 1971, making the reference to a F-5 tornado inaccurate. An author’s note addresses her using the name of a real town for her Ozark hamlet. Readers will relate to Clem’s sense of inevitability and powerlessness; they too often ponder the day they will quit being a child.”

Historical fiction brings the study of history to life with appealing characters in an accurately set time and place. Generally speaking, the time period is at least 50 years ago, so 1963 would be the most recent year to fit that criteria.

There are many sites “defining” historical fiction. “As with any literary form, there are standards for judging historical novels. They should be historically accurate and steeped in the sense of time and place. We should recognize totems and taboos, food, clothing, vocations, leisure activities, customs, smells, religions, literature, and all that goes into making one time and one place unique from another.” (Nielsen and Donelson, 2001).

One non-negotiable is an accurate setting for the time of the story. No planes flying around in a book set during the Civil War! Characters and plot may be totally made up or based on a real person or event(s). That can become a sticky wicket, as readers may not know what’s true and what isn’t.

In my recent cases, it’s primarily events that have been questioned. With Salt (set in 1812) one question that has arisen is about the sale of salt when an 1803 Treaty states it shall be given to the Indians. Another is around the possibility of the friendship between Anikwa and James. Yet another criticism is the downplaying of the taking of Native lands as “distrust and fighting.” There has been an interesting discussion online following Debbie Reese’s original posting, with Beverley Slapin (Through Indian Eyes, 2006) posting a blog piece agreeing with Debbie’s position and Daryl Baldwin (Director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University) and Laura Nagy (Myaamia, citizen of Miami Tribe of Oklahoma) disagreeing. Author Helen Frost has chimed in, as have several others who work in the field of children’s literature. To read their comments, scroll down below Reese’s original posting.

My review of Whistle in the Dark hints at some of the history being questioned in Long’s debut novel. An author’s note gives details factual events in the story. More can be learned by reading Long’s website and in a Q & A with other historical fiction writers. It’s true that Child Labor Laws were skirted in the 1920s and that Workers’ Compensation laws were on the books then, making it all right that Long has Clem working and Grampy writing those letters. The error about the Fujita is not.

Sarah Johnson, of Eastern Illinois University, writes in Defining the Genre: What are the rules for historical fiction, “The goal of literary historical fiction is not to show readers exactly what life was like in a historical time period, although it may have that effect. Rather, authors who write literary historicals center their tales not on the historical setting but on the plot, which may help us better understand the differences (or parallels) between then and now, and on characters who manage to transcend time and speak to us from their own perspective in a way that we, today, can understand. One definition of literary historical fiction is “fiction set in the past but which emphasizes themes that pertain back to the present.'” She continues, “In addition, while historical novel readers (including myself) believe that authors should make their best attempt to ensure their work is historically accurate, this is not the only thing that publishers are looking for. The setting should be convincing, yes, and anachronisms are still things to be avoided. Frequent historical novel readers tend to be quite unforgiving of obvious mistakes, because they can cast doubt on the author’s overall research. Some authors of literary fiction, however, simply use the past as a vehicle of making their plot more believable. They’re not particularly concerned about the setting, and if you were to ask them if they were writing a historical novel, they would no doubt respond that they were not.” ( She is speaking of adult historical fiction. Would those of us serving youth agree?

Children’s Literature Classics has a bulleted list on the children’s historical fiction, the advantages of the genre, and types within the genre and an excellent resource list of print material on historical fiction. Joanne Brown’s excellent article Historical Fiction or Fictionalized History? Problems for Writers of Historical Novels for Young Adults may be viewed at

Brown’s article was written in 1998, which only underscores this is not a new discussion. It also underscores that while we should read historical fiction with an eye on the truth, we also read with a real sensibility of how it informs our younger readers in their experiences and relationships in today’s world.

What do you think?

Updated 11/01/13

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