Recently I wrote about adaptations of books and rating them. I obviously have a lot of thoughts on both of these subjects. Today I’m talking about a sort of hybrid: historical novels. I think that they are adaptations of history and therefore, I’m going to rate them as such…
I recently read “Lost Roses” by Martha Hall Kelly, her new prequel to “Lilac Girls” (which I also read) I also recently read “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris. There may be spoilers ahead: I’m not sure how I want to pen my ideas.
Historical novels are books based on actual events yet are fictional. Hmmmm. Should we be doing this? Why would we do it? What could go wrong when we take an actual event and fictionalize it? Are you starting to see where I’m going with this?
I know both of these books are based on actual events. They speak of real people who did things in their lives. In one case, the author had actually spoken to the namesake tattooer. So these things really happened.
And there’s the problem. We take an actual person, an actual thing that they did, and then you build a fictional story around it. Fictional. As in, one thing was real, and maybe 80% is what the author dreamed up based on historical documents. Hmmmm.
As a fledgling writer I have been in classes where I have presented a story or chapter and have been met with choruses of “That would never happen in real life.” “That’s not believable.” Even published authors have received criticism that things aren’t realistic. (and we all know that sometimes what we write, even though labeled as fiction, is actually based on real events, so like it or not, things happen). So with actual fiction, every story, anecdote and happening must pass the believability test. It has to actually seem like it would happen. Not so much with historical fiction.
I think there is much more license to be creative when something is deemed historical and based on a true event. You have to believe it because this is a real character who had a real life and real things that led to this incident or time in history. You must believe all the words on a page because it “happened”. It’s based on a “true story”.
I call bullshit.
Here come the spoilers.
“Tattooist” is basically a love story. Boy meets girl as he is branding her with a tattoo in Auschwitz, a concentration camp run by the Nazi’s in World War II. All these things are fact. Real people, real places, real events. Truth. The author actually spoke to the tattooer before he died.
But the story…If this was the first Holocaust book that someone read, they would have a very poor understanding of what it was. This book was more reminiscent of summer camp, and boys and girls sneaking behind the cabin to have sex. Which is literally a scene in this book. Now I want to ask you logically: with what you know about concentration camps and Nazi’s, do you think that a male and female prisoner would be able to sneak behind a building to have sex (excuse me- make love) and long talks? Do you understand why I looked at the book and said “Bullshit”?
Now, in this case I’m not blaming the author. She actually interviewed the main character back in the early 2000’s. But honestly, I can’t imagine his memories were very real. First off, by then he was probably in his 90’s. I’m sorry, memory fades with age. Secondly, he is a Holocaust survivor: he is going to have the memories he chooses to have because he survived one the most horrific periods in history. Like anyone who has experienced a personal tragedy, they need to separate things in their mind- the survivor instinct lets you build a whole new reality. But to say “Based on a True Story”? I take offense to using those words with this book.
In “Lost Roses” I am totally blaming the author. She has chosen to write about women in a prominent New York society family during WWI. I don’t think she actually spoke to any of the women personally. These women were pioneers in helping those who could not help themselves, refugees and others. Commendable. Women like this should be recognized.
To say that there were parts of this story that were ridiculous is an understatement. The coincidences and chances of fate that happen? You would not believe how many people happened to be walking down the street at the same time as their love from twenty years prior, especially as they are now in a completely different city. And the degrees of separation? every time they met someone new, that person knew all their friends and relatives. Amazing. Fate at its finest.
How many acts of fate and coincidence am I supposed to believe because something is labeled “based on a true story.” In 1917 Russia, am I supposed to believe that a woman by herself was able to get a horse and a cart through the revolution and onto Paris? Really? In a country with no food and constant rioting because no one was really in charge, a beautiful woman was able to get out alive, feed herself and feed her horse, from St. Petersburg to Paris? Really?
But I guess it happened because it was based on a true story.
So yes, I’m throwing the entire historical fiction novel, especially those based on a true story, under the bus. Don’t get me started on revisionist history either- just because we wish something was so doesn’t mean it was. But that’s not even a blog- that’s a book…
Historical fiction? Yay or nay?