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Fertile Ground for Harvesting Ideas

Fiction in the U.S. History classroom can serve to humanize the otherwise dry facts and dates which populate your average history textbook. It can prompt students to experience the emotional side of past events as experienced by actual people, people in many ways similar to the students themselves.

I recently had the honor of hearing Jane Yolen speak about her classic historical fiction novel The Devil's Arithmetic . She described becoming so immersed in research on the Holocaust that she suffered vivid nightmares; she truly experienced the time travel effect portrayed in the novel. She then added that while many critics deride the use of time travel in fiction, it's a device that effectively places children into the shoes of those who lived in the past.

The ability of good fiction to transport the reader into another time and place is one factor which makes it such an essential tool for teachers of history. Students can dutifully research, read, and record facts about our nation’s past, but where’s the story in history? The most easily recalled events of our own lives are those charged with emotion, but where is the passion to be found in the average academic textbook?

Where is the passion to be found in the average academic textbook?

I vividly recall a 4th-grade social studies text which encouraged students to "Write a journal entry of a soldier at Valley Forge. Describe the hardships you've endured." The textbook itself, unfortunately, had provided just one paragraph on this topic! How often do we similarly ask students to harvest ideas from their minds when we haven't given them fertile ground in which to sow seeds?

In a Hornbook Magazine essay titled "Tasting the Past," author Laurie Halse Anderson shares how she literally placed herself into primitive conditions in order to experience firsthand the physical hardships of the troops at Valley Forge which she describes in her novel Forge. She concludes that essay with:

Is it possible to write historical fiction based only on the reading of primary sources? Of course it is. But for me, walking in the footsteps of people from the past adds vibrancy to their words. It’s one thing to read about a fire, quite another to smell the smoke and hear the wood pop and sizzle.

Textbooks lack not only passion, but also those details which would allow students to imagine themselves in these historical contexts.

In addition to breathing life into otherwise dry facts of textbooks, fiction also provides students with a glimpse into the lives of the “bit players” of history. Who were the ordinary people of these extraordinary times, and what effects did these events have upon their lives?

In a School Library Journal interview about his novel Woods Runner, for example, Gary Paulsen describes how the common soldiers of the Revolution are rarely given their due respect:

The Revolutionary War has always bothered me because it’s been trivialized, oddly. You learn about Concord and Lexington, and then about George Washington. When I was doing research I kept running into people like my character Coop. I was interested in what real individuals did, how they worked. People like him were never discussed; he wasn’t a Paul Revere or a landowner. If there had been just one Coop, the war would still have been worth writing about, but there wasn’t just one. There were thousands, and they weren’t paid; they just lost limbs.

This interest in the human side of history is what prompted millions to see Titanic, despite the fact that every moviegoer knew, even before the opening credits, how the story would end.

Fiction also provides students with multiple perspectives of history. We’ve all heard variations of the saying that “History is written by the victors” and it seems that many texts are written by the victors as well. History teachers should therefore embrace fiction which provides students with alternative viewpoints of historical events, from Jane Yolen’s simple picture book Encounter (which describes the arrival of Columbus in the New World from the native Taino point of view), to Chris Lynch’s more recent I Pledge Allegiance (a narrative of best friends experiencing the Vietnam War in different branches of the armed forces). Experiences like these help students to not only understand history, but to also realize that they, themselves, are witnesses to history being made each and every day.

History teachers should . . . embrace fiction which provides students with alternative viewpoints of historical events.

Poet Cesar Pavese stated, “We do not remember days, we remember moments,” meaning that we recall those events which touch us emotionally. By allowing students to experience the past on an emotional level through historical fiction, teachers will help students realize that history is more than dates and events; history is, in fact, the impact of those events upon the lives of both the extraordinary and ordinary people who experienced them.