Fall of Giants – critiquing historical accuracy

Fall of Giants by Ken FollettAccuracy is a difficult challenge for writers of historical fiction. 44% of readers  in the 2012 historical fiction survey mentioned inaccuracies as detracting for their enjoyment of the genre. As a case in point, my older brother Dave Bingham mentioned that he had discovered inaccuracies in Ken Follett’s two recent novels, Fall of Giants and Winter of the World. I immediately asked him to write about them.

Dave studied history at university and has an amazing recall for all manner of historical facts. Unlike me, he is always able to make sense of the swirl of dates, politicians, military figures and events that occurred. Here’s a few inaccuracies he noted in Fall of Giants.

One of the final chapters of Fall of Giants is called January, 1920. In this chapter, one of the main characters, Lev Peshkov, a Buffalo, New York gangster, murders his father-in-law, Josef, steals one of Josef’s cars, and heads towards Canada to escape. Follett has Lev cross the border at an “unguarded” location. 

That would have been very difficult, if not impossible, even in the 1920’s. Buffalo lies right on the Canadian-U.S. border, at the eastern end of Lake Erie where the Niagara River begins. The Niagara River forms the international boundary and flows north over  Niagara Falls to Lake Ontario, a distance of about 50 km. (30 mi.). The river is too wide, deep, and swift flowing to ford by car.

In 1920 there were 4 ways to cross the Niagara River by car, from the U.S. to Canada. These included a ferry from Buffalo to Fort Erie, Ontario (the Peace Bridge was not constructed until 1927); 2 bridges from Niagara Falls, New York to Niagara Falls, Ontario; and 1 bridge from Lewiston, New York to Queenston, Ontario. These 3 bridges were completed in the 1890’s. All 4 locations would have had border posts in 1920.

Continuing east along the international border is Lake Ontario and then the St. Lawrence River. Again crossable only by ferry or by bridge. Peshkov would have had to drive all the way to the extreme north-eastern corner of New York State, near Malone, New York, and cross at an unguarded location just south of Montreal. In 1920, that would have been a long, 2 day drive.

After crossing the border, Peshkov drives to Toronto, exchanges the stolen car for a truck, finds a liquor store, and buys several cases of Canadian Club whisky to take back to Buffalo. Because of Prohibition in the U.S., he seizes the opportunity to become a bootlegger.

In 1920 Toronto, there were no legal liquor stores. Prohibition was adopted in Ontario in 1916, and in 1918, Prohibition became national as part of the War Measures Act, almost a year before the U.S. Volsted Act. Prohibition was not repealed in Ontario until 1924. Peshkov would have had to contact an agent for Hiram Walker Distillery, the makers of Canadian Club, and buy the cases of whisky “for export purposes”, destination unspecified, in order to get around the Canadian liquor laws at that time.

See what I mean? Inaccuracies are indeed a challenge! Of course, that doesn’t take away from the exciting story Ken Follett has written.

Thanks, Dave, for your thoughtful perspective. On Thursday, we’ll have a look at Winter of the World.

11 thoughts on “Fall of Giants – critiquing historical accuracy”

  1. I belong in the group of people who would say it does take away from the exciting story. I guess I am in the 44%.

  2. Very interesting. There are a lot of facts to track down in historical fiction, and I guess writers sometimes go with what seems right. Better not have savvy readers. :o)

  3. For me, it depends upon how blatant the inaccuracy is. Sometimes HF writers may need to blur the truth a little bit for the sake of the plot. In these instances, I’m willing to overlook minor inaccuracies if they help the overall story.

    1. I agree Janna .. DanteWilde has said something similar. And in the cases my brother points out, many folks wouldn’t stop to investigate whether prohibition had or had not occurred in Canada at that time, they would have just assumed it was the same as the US – the 51st state and all that!!

  4. As a Historical Fiction writer, I think it’s important that we mention the ‘iffy’ bits, as it were. Our main job is to tell a story, a good story, and Janna is right, at times we need to blur the lines a little to get our job done. I would say each inaccuracy should be looked at in the whole (whether that is page or chapter). It can be a fine line to walk, geography is perhaps the hardest to get right.

    1. I totally agree with you, Dantewilde. Often there’s an author note to explain discrepancies or liberties taken with history. An author of Ken Follett’s stature probably has fact checkers as well!

  5. well I was concerned at first, but if this is the only discrepancy in a 1000 page book, I think it’s great, taking in account that is not an historical book, and I’ve heard of many inconsistencies in history books that are meant to be accurate.

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