Coronavirus and Living in a Historical Novel

Whether you’re a writer or not, we’re all experiencing the highs and lows of Covid-19. Today, author Michelle Cameron discusses how the pandemic parallels the experiences of some of her characters in her novel Beyond the Ghetto Gates.

Coronavirus and Living in a Historical Novel

I keep repeating the same phrase when I talk to people about my recently published book, Beyond the Ghetto Gates: “It’s ironic that I’ve released this book about a community that was locked inside, when we are all, in fact, locked inside.”

Because now, I have a greater sense of empathy for my characters’ dilemma, trapped inside iron-wrought gates from sunset to sunrise. Writing is so often a case of respectful imagination – imagining what someone must have felt in a situation you could never expect to experience yourself. Certainly no one could have anticipated our social isolation even a few months ago. Our current reality hit so abruptly and took hold so quickly that “surreal” was the word everyone kept using to describe it. We’re living in a science fiction novel, some of my writing students said, as we met via Zoom to continue classes. A dystopia.

But are we, in fact, living in a historical novel instead? “Bring out your dead” replayed in my mind, seeing photos of the mass graves lined up in a New York park. Having written In the Shadow of the Globe, a verse novel about Shakespeare’s time, I had used that same respectful imagination to conjure up Shakespeare’s grief over his lost son, and that famous line features in a poem about poor dead Hamnet:

“Give us your dead”

floats by tonight in London streets,

keeping time with a laden wagon

dragged past a miasma of fever,

then the dirge beyond

my neighbor’s chalked door,

his cracked voice crying, What,

all my children? All?

All gone from me in a single night?

Earlier in that same collection, I wrote a poem listing the “postings about the city, on church and tavern doors” that has eerie resonance to our present reality:

no one may congregate in large gatherings save Church –

no bearbaiting, gambling, playacting,

no assemblies for purposes other than prayer –

this applies, too, to taverns and ale houses,

all now closed by order of the City.

Even the “save Church” line is weirdly appropriate, considering how many mega churches ignored the regulations to remain isolated during the crisis and held holiday services, trusting that God would keep their congregants safe.

In Beyond the Ghetto Gates I didn’t write about pestilence and pandemic – though the next book in the series, which will take place in Egypt and Israel during Napoleon’s expedition there, will certainly describe the plague that took the lives of many of Bonaparte’s troops. But being locked inside against one’s will is definitely a part of the novel:

From dawn until nightfall, ghetto residents moved freely through the stone archway into the city of Ancona. As the sun dipped behind the horizon, however, city guards slammed the gates shut and chained a heavy padlock to the bars. The clang of the closing gates always raised the hair on the back of Mirelle’s neck.

It affected her generally carefree brother even more. Jacopo often railed against being imprisoned inside the ghetto.Just once, I want to see what the sea looks like under the stars,” he’d said one night as they stood outside, straining to see more than a few inches of night sky. “Just once, I’d like to walk freely out the gate and not have someone stare at me because I’m Jewish.”

Something had stirred in her chest as he spoke. A whole world existed outside the ghetto. If only they could both walk out of the gates freely!

And yet, there was vibrant life inside the Jewish ghettos that couldn’t be denied, despite padlocked gates and enforced isolation. I describe at one point the many suitors who pay court to my heroine and her friend in the evenings during a visit to the Venice ghetto, even as the community is confined to their narrow streets and crowded homes. Our own isolation is different, of course – but then, consider how much art, music, and performance is being streamed onto our electronic devices, much of which we don’t generally have access to. Consider the Zoom book clubs, social hours, classes, even the play dates. Forced apart, we’re still finding ways to come together.

There have been countless plagues throughout our history that we have survived. This is not in any way to minimize the suffering of those who have coronavirus, or those who were afflicted with the Black Death, the great plagues of the 17th and 18th centuries, yellow fever, polio, Spanish flu – the list goes on and on. And there have been many historical novels written about them. Each of those authors brought their own brand of respectful imagination to convey the loss of life, the pain, and the suffering. Regrettably, our generation of writers no longer have to imagine what it’s like. I anticipate many pandemic books in our future, books that capture the angst and the loneliness of isolation – and I’m sure many of them will have dystopian overtones.

But for me and my fellow historical novelists, what we’ve all learned will harken back to our shared pain in the present as we reach into the past. It’s something we all carry with us now. As I recently told an aspiring novelist who is depicting the TB epidemic in America: “Go deeper. You don’t have to imagine it any longer. You’re living it.”

Many thanks for these insights, Michelle. Today’s shared pain will indeed inform how and what we write in the future as well as the reader’s experience.

Beyond the Ghetto Gates by Michelle Cameron ~~ When French troops occupy the Italian port city of Ancona, freeing the city’s Jews from their repressive ghetto, two very different cultures collide. Mirelle, a young Jewish maiden, must choose between her duty — an arranged marriage to a wealthy Jewish merchant — and her love for a dashing French Catholic soldier. Meanwhile, Francesca, a devout Catholic, must decide if she will honor her marriage vows to an abusive and murderous husband when he enmeshes their family in the theft of a miracle portrait of the Madonna.

“With vivid clarity and keen historical insight, Michelle Cameron sweeps us into the unusual setting of Italy during the Napoleonic invasion, and the plight of two courageous women of different faiths, who must fight for their right to love and live during a time of tumultuous upheaval.” ― C.W. Gortner, international best-selling author of The Romanov Empress


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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