Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Learning history

"I've always felt that fiction is a perfect (and painless) way to learn history." -- Nancy Pearl in Book Lust to Go

Nancy Pearl has a point,  up to a point. Those boring history textbooks most of us had in high school and college probably did more to dim our interest in history than heighten it. Novels set in earlier times, however, can give us a feel for those times, teaching us (painlessly, as Pearl points out) more about history than we ever learned in school.

There is a problem with historical fiction, however. It's fiction. That is, what we're reading is not necessarily the way it really was. This is, of course, often the case with history books, too, but at least historians are making an attempt to get the history right. Novelists are mostly interested in telling a good story. When history suits them, they use it. When it doesn't, they change it to make their story better. The reader won't necessarily know the difference.

I've just finished reading Masterson, the terrific 1999 novel by Richard S. Wheeler. The story takes place mostly in 1919, when Bat Masterson, the legendary Western hero, is working as a newspaper columnist in New York City. One day Louella Parsons, who would one day become a legend herself, asks him to tell her about all the men he has killed. Masterson's legend has it that he killed dozens of men in Dodge City and elsewhere in the West. Nobody believes him, or wants to believe him, when he insists he killed just one man, and that was in self-defense.

And so Masterson and Emma, his common-law wife, board a train to confront the legend in the places where the legend was created. They find the West has changed dramatically in their years back East. In Dodge, it's as if Bat Masterson had never existed. That rough-and-tumble period of history has been officially wiped from the slate. The powers that be don't want it even mentioned. In Denver, officials not only remember Masterson but, on the basis of the dime novels written about his life, consider him an unsavory character and want him to get out of town as quickly as possible.

Bat and Emma get as far as Los Angeles, where they get reaquainted with a grumpy Wyatt Earp and make a movie with William S. Hart.

The novel has no flashbacks. It's just the story of an old man confronting his past, trying to figure out who he really is. This is wonderful historical fiction, but most of it isn't true. Although Masterson really was a newspaperman in New York late in his life (he was considered one of the top authorities on boxing at the time), he and Emma never actually took that train to revisit their old haunts in the West. That's pure fiction.

Wheeler offers some recommended reading at the end of his novel, history books and biographies, for readers who want the true story. Chances are, however, most readers will stop with the novel, and their knowledge of Bat Masterson will end there, too, just as in another era what most people knew about Bat Masterson ended with the Gene Barry television series that ran in the late '50s.

"When John Citizen feels the urge to read history, he goes to the novels of Kenneth Roberts or Margaret Mitchell, not to the histories of Professor this or Doctor that," the historian Samuel Eliot Morison once complained. He didn't blame readers. He blamed historians for not making history more interesting.

Today we are blessed with books by a variety of writers who do know how to make history interesting, including David McCullough, Simon Winchester, Laura Hillenbrand, Thomas Cahill, Candice Millard, Bill Bryson and Erik Larson. In many cases, they offer an even more perfect (and painless) way to learn history.

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