In Praise of Unsung Heroes
This essay first appeared on River City Reading on 24 October 2013
Writers of historical fiction are often reminded to keep their characters true to the period in which they appear. Civil War characters shouldn’t carry automatic weapons, and medieval knights shouldn’t fly off in airplanes. Characters are supposed to talk, dress, and eat the way that historical people did.
But what about the ways people thought—and think? When I was writing The Altarpiece, set in Tudor England, I made my main character, a young nun named Catherine Havens, a woman of the 1530s. She wears long skirts, she covers her hair, and she accepts monarchy as a form of government, despite political struggles. She also believes in God and the Church.
My Catherine, however, is also an individual with a mind, and she recognizes and responds to the contradictions and quarrels that make up every society. If she is to be subject to men, then why is she solely responsible for her own sins? Must she obey a king who asks her to defy her God? Should she ignore her divinely-given gift for healing because men are suspicious of it?
These questions, in my novel, reveal the contradictions in which change can occur, at least within the mind of one woman. Does this make her “modern”? I don’t think so. It just makes her one of the many unsung people who got us to the present moment from somewhere in the past, like many other characters in historical fiction.
Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is set in the Civil War, and yet his Inman expresses quite contemporary attitudes toward race, gender, and war. Some of Ron Rash’s characters are “green” in their attitudes about environmental degradation. Robert Morgan’s Brave Enemies features a pregnant girl, Josie Summers, who dresses as a boy and goes to war during the American Revolution. And Lee Smith’s Guests on Earth, set at the Highland Hospital in Asheville, NC, provides a sympathetic look at female patients, including Zelda Fitzgerald, in a “mental hospital” through the eyes of the main character, Evalina Toussaint, who is herself a patient in the facility.
Some critics scoff that such characters did not and could not have existed, but this position seems to me to miss one of the fundamental points of historical fiction. We all know about the big changes effected in human history by the famous figures, and novels about them are fine. But they don’t tell the whole story. I also want characters who are not players on the public stage of politics or religion but who act and think in ways that change their families, their friends, and thereby their cultures. Societies do not evolve, devolve, or develop at the simple stroke of a pen–or a sword. Ordinary people make that happen, by being extraordinarily thoughtful, intelligent, kind, and honorable. They do it by questioning their leaders, observing contradictions, and refusing to accept what they’ve been told when their experiences tell them something different.
We often have no record, however, of most of these everyday folks. For me, a great historical novel gives life to those men and women who did remarkable things without becoming famous for doing them, who doubted and wondered and empathized and made decisions for themselves. So bring on the unsung heroes. Make them smart. Make them skeptical. Make them sensitive and wise. And make them true, because a historical novel should not only reproduce the elements of a bygone era as faithfully as possible but also show us how we got to the present day from the past.