Ever since I was a little girl, photographs have captured my imagination by freezing a single moment and place in time. I love how they call me back to a place in a way that memory and journaling alone can never recreate.
I vividly experienced this after traveling to Rome for the first time. When I returned home, any picture of the Colosseum, the Forum, or the Pantheon took me back there in my mind. Even though a picture of the Pantheon might only show one angle, from that single shot I could rebuild the entire street, knowing the fountain just out of view or the shops closing in all around. One flat image helped me construct the entire space, placing that single image in its greater context.
I would argue that the literary genre of historical fiction works in the same way. Historical fiction gives the reader a sense of the emotional, psychological, and physical context of others in a specific time and place, letting the reader experience history in a way that straight facts from textbooks cannot touch.
The Beating Heart of a Human Story
For the past two years, I have taught 6th grade modern history, covering Victorian England all the way through the end of the Cold War. I have always enjoyed learning about history, but carrying the responsibility of explaining it to my students has pushed me to deepen my understanding of how all these events unfolded, how they relate to each other, and how I can best show my students the truths about human nature and the sovereignty of God. As I have looked for ways to grow in my own knowledge and understanding, I have found myself turning more to historical fiction rather than textbooks.
As human beings, we connect to stories. History is the story of humanity, ultimately “written by the finger of God,” as C.S. Lewis once put it. Though textbooks are absolutely helpful in clearly laying out the major events and people in history, they often lack the beating heart of a human story. Once I have a general working understanding of an event from a textbook, I want to know what an ordinary person may have thought, felt, or experienced living through history, just as I live through unfolding history now. Textbooks do not usually record the stories of more ordinary people, but historical fiction allows me to push into that question and experience the world as it might have been for a particular person in a particular time.
Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See succeeds in this by bringing readers into two human lives affected by World War II, a French girl and a German boy. In particular, experiencing life in Germany through the eyes of the young boy brings readers face-to-face with the fact that the majority of common Germans at that time were not monsters, but caught up in the narrative their country was telling them. Doerr leads us to acknowledge the humanity of the Germans and the horrible situation they faced. Wars aren’t fought between one-dimensional characters.
Fiction Gives Facts Flesh and Blood
Words on a page can dictate or they can suggest. Writing that gives readers space to recognize truths on their own is more compelling than writing that beats them to the conclusion. Knowledge and understanding stick best through experience. Because we study history as something that happened in the past and cannot be repeated, we might not consider it something we can experience for ourselves. Historical fiction, through the use of dialogue, description, and storytelling, immerse readers in the world of history so they can experience it alongside the characters. Getting lost in the story becomes getting lost in history.
Recently reading Shanghai Girls by Lisa See brought this idea home for me. I knew, at a shallow level, that the Japanese invaded China before and during World War II, but after following the story of two Chinese sisters forced to flee Shanghai and immigrate to the United States, I felt like I had a deeper, almost experiential understanding of that particular time and place. Their lives, though fictional, are deeply true because they represent, in detail, the many hardships real people experienced during that time.
Just as a single photograph transports my mind, allowing me to fill in the gaps with my deeper understanding of the shot’s context, historical fiction gives facts flesh and blood, allowing the reader to understand history not just at a factual level, but at an emotional one as well. As the emotional context seeps into our hearts, a richer understanding solidifies in our minds. Historical fiction shows us human stories in other times, allowing us to step into someone else’s life. This experience both grows us in empathy and in historical understanding, the facts sticking with us longer because they connect with a story.