Shining a light on today

How does historical fiction illuminate the issues of today? I’ve just chosen four novels from my book shelves: Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks, Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig, The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks, and My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. Let’s see what emerges.

Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks

As one Goodreads reviewer says: Charlotte Gray is “an unflinching view of life during wartime and the worst of what man is capable of; with a more positive recognition of individual courage and camaraderie in the face of seemingly overwhelming force.” Another reviewer writes of “Faulks’s preoccupation with the chaotic alliances and shifting allegiances of the French people” and “Everyone saw the conflict differently, and loyalties changed, as staying alive became the priority, making for impermanent alliances and fragile friendships.” And then there’s the trauma Charlotte Gray suffered at the hands of her father that has left her emotionally repressed and sexually timid.

What comes to mind for today’s world? An understanding of what the people of Ukraine and other war-torn countries are experiencing. Chaotic alliances makes me think of Afghanistan. Charlotte Gray’s trauma helps us understand the many different ways that women cope with sexual assault. For the “worst of what man is capable of” we need look no further than Vladimir Putin. As for individual courage, our world is full of issues requiring individuals to stand up and be counted, to take initiative, to sacrifice for the common good.

Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

1917 France. A country torn apart by war. Villages destroyed. Families homeless. Children orphaned. Women pregnant against their will. To this land comes a small band of college graduates—a band of women inspired by the notion of helping French citizens rebuild their lives. [from my HNS review] They lived in an era when “a woman ought only to appear in the papers three times: when she was born, when she married, and when she died.” Instead these women helped the everyday people of France endure the war. As one of them said: “We’re not looking for glory. Just to do something decent and worthwhile.”

Friendship is a central theme along with the theme of belonging, “with finding one’s place in the world, even if it’s not the place anyone thought you ought to be.” And then there is “the triumph of hope over hopelessness. Of plunging in and doing everything one can for a good cause, and then plunging in again, even if it seems hopeless, even if you have no idea what you’re doing.” [quotes from the author] These women, like many women today, struggled to define themselves and make a contribution. In the face of death and destruction, they stayed rather than running away to save their own skins.

Useful ideas for today? A resounding yes, as far as I’m concerned.

My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

What could be more relevant than a novel about the forging of a nation at a time when that nation is struggling to find common purpose, and when some question its very survival as a democracy? Told through the eyes and voice of Elizabeth (also called Eliza and Betsy) Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton’s wife, this powerful novel shows us that the process of birthing a country is a dangerous, complex thing requiring men and women of passion and dedication. As we stand here in 2022, we can see that the process of maintaining a country may also be a dangerous and complex thing.

My Dear Hamilton is also a love story, the love between Alexander and Betsy that was tested on many occasions but ultimately survived. It is told in four parts: (1) A War for Independence, (2) The War for Peace, (3) The War of Words, and (4) The War for History. In part three, we read of the complex and exceedingly difficult process of drafting America’s constitution. After reading My Dear Hamilton, one might conclude that the result represented compromise and in many ways unfinished business. It seems to me that those governing today and in the future might conclude that while this 235-year-old document is an excellent foundation, the opportunity remains to improve on it for future generations. Of course, that’s the opinion of a Canadian.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

“Peeling away the myth to bring the Old Testament’s King David to life in Second Iron Age Israel, Brooks traces the arc of his journey from obscurity to fame, from shepherd to soldier, from hero to traitor, from beloved king to murderous despot and into his remorseful and diminished dotage.” [from the book description]

From the author’s website, Brooks reflects on how her work as a journalist related to the novel: “Covering modern desert warfare, interviewing contemporary despots and seeing how absolute power is wielded, living among people whose lives are entirely shaped, and sometimes deformed, by ardent religious conviction—all these things fed my imagination in some way. Also, in my six years living among the women of the region, I saw how those who may appear to be powerless on the surface, often in fact exert tremendous influence. This helped shape my thinking about the lives of David’s wives, Mikhal and Batsheva.” Geraldine Brooks goes on: David is “a murderer, which is pretty hard to get past. He abuses power. He’s also a criminally indulgent parent. But he is paid out heavily for these crimes and flaws. Unlike many of our modern leaders, when he makes a mistake, he admits it. He listens to criticism. I’m drawn to his ardency, his huge capacity for love.”

What strikes me from the author’s words? Absolute power and abuse of power. Shaped, and sometimes deformed, by ardent religious conviction. Two significant issues for today.

What do you think? If you’ve read a recent work of historical fiction – or written one – how does it illuminate the issues of today?


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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2 Responses

  1. Mary, my motto as a writer is “Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.” I passionately believe that the greatest value of historical fiction is to help us understand our own world and human nature.
    Thanks for this entry!

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