Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Joys and Sorrows of (Writing) Historical Fiction

This post originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 September 2017.

A friend of mine is an author whose favored genre is contemporary noir fiction—hard-boiled, edgy, dark. Since that’s what he writes, that’s also what he reads. Without prompting, though, he read my novel of historical fiction set in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Washington, D.C., a story that could never be described as “edgy”. Graciously, he told me what he liked about it, but concluded by saying, “I write fiction so I can make [stuff] up. Historical fiction seems like way too much work.”

He’s got a point. Fiction is supposed to be fictional, right? Why go to the effort of having to do a ton of research and ensure detailed accuracy (because you know how those historical fiction fans are about that) when the story is supposed to be invented?

Sometimes I do find myself envying my contemporary fiction peers, who seem to have a much easier job of it. Historical novelists could pump out books a whole lot faster if they didn’t have to slow down for all that pesky research.

But even contemporary writers need to do research depending on the subject. If they’re writing about an unfamiliar field or area of expertise, or a different culture or geographical region, all of that takes investigation to get it right. But putting any of those issues two hundred — or two thousand — years in the past increases the extent and complexity of research by orders of magnitude.

Consider Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, a bestseller that received the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Leonard Award for a debut, along with many other accolades. The novel is astonishing in its sweep: not only does it span three hundred years, it spans three hundred years in parallel on two continents, inhabits multiple cultures on both continents, and changes the characters it follows with each new chapter. Even for an historical fiction writer, that’s an exceptionally tall order. But that scope was critical to the book she wanted to write, which shows the reverberations and repercussions of slavery across time, geography, culture, social fabric, and — most importantly —people.

When it comes to research, the danger for writers of historical fiction is knowing when to say when. Most learn to let the story drive the research, doing just-in-time homework to understand historical context or events, and to fill in the details.

The other peril of research is the author’s being so proud of what she’s learned (or having spent so much time learning it) that she wants to shoehorn it all in. The mark of a talented writer is that the story is infused with a sense of the time and place, and that any details are organic to the story and placed correctly in time — so that a character in 1920 would button a garment rather than zip it.

The trick for authors is to understand for themselves what something looked like, how it worked, or how it was used at that time so that the words they choose are appropriate. No contemporary fiction author would describe what a telephone looks like, and neither should an historical fiction author, but he needs to be capable of picturing the phone his character is using, and to be aware, for example, that the phone is connected to a party line.

Historical fiction tends to go in and out of popularity over time. Twenty years ago, when Richard Lee established the Historical Novel Society (HNS), he says, “it was a genre everyone said was dead. Or if not dead, it was at the nadir of fashion.” Now, a reader can find historical fiction in every single sub-genre imaginable: romance, mystery, horror, thriller, YA, LGBT, sci-fi, and fantasy. Westerns are by definition historical, as is Steampunk, a relatively new addition to the histfict cannon. Of course, there is also the “alternative history” sub-genre of historical fiction.

I write reviews for the Historical Novels Review, HNS’s quarterly publication. Each issue contains hundreds of reviews, organized by general time period, beginning with prehistoric, and moving through biblical, classical (that is, ancient Greece or Egypt) into the centuries from first through twentieth, then on to the hard-to-categorize, such as “timeslip” — think Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. A committed reader could read nothing but Edwardian or Regency-era fiction and never run out of books; I’ve heard (but have no evidence myself) that books of U.S. historical fiction, particularly early to mid-twentieth century, are especially “hot” right now.

So when people tell me, “Oh, I love historical fiction,” it’s a natural impulse for me to ask, “Yes, but what kind?”

For anyone asking why an author would bother with the extra labor that comes with historical fiction, part of the answer may be that there is a huge market for it. But for most writers, I think, it’s that even the most cursory glance backwards can generate a lifetime of compelling story ideas. So often, a writer will catch a snippet of an historical account and just know there’s a great story in there, with just “a little” digging. Author Carrie Callaghan saw a seventeenth-century self-portrait of Dutch painter Judith Leyster hanging in the National Gallery of Art. Carrie’s debut novel, A Light of Her Own (due out next November from Amberjack Publishing), is a direct result of that encounter.

I look for ideas everywhere.  I review a lot of non-fiction, both for HNS (yes, even the fiction guys read non-fiction sometimes) and for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Often, I choose books because I think I’ll find interesting historical information that might be useful later, such as in Greg Jenner’s A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age, and Steam Titans: Cunard, Collins, and the Epic Battle for Commerce on the North Atlantic, by William M. Fowler Jr. — and, yes, I did, in both cases.

For myself, I write historical fiction to remove myself — and, I hope, my readers — from the clutter of the known, everyday “here” and to go to a different place, to be, as it were, transported. I also find that it’s sometimes more effective to make an observation about the lives that we live today by approaching that point from a remove, through the reflection of history. My current project takes place in the U.S. of the early twentieth century, but I’m drawn to the specific topics because of the parallels to today’s social, cultural, and political climate. Writing a contemporary story about these same issues, while we’re in the midst of them, would, to my mind, feel too raw, and would overshadow the story I want to tell. Coming at a subject obliquely allows readers to put their guard down and simply let the story seep in.

And no matter what kind of fiction an author is writing, any reader knows: we just want a good story.

Book Review: The Weight of Ink

This review originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.

In modern-day London, a cache of mid-17th-century papers is found, apparently untouched for three centuries, in a house under renovation. The Hebrew and Portuguese writings bring in Jewish-history expert and ailing academic Helen Watt to assess their provenance. Pressed to assist her is stalled American Ph.D. candidate Aaron Levy. Temperamentally mismatched, they nonetheless begin to uncover the mystery of an anonymous scribe working for a blind rabbi in pre-plague London.

Rachel Kadish offers an impressive achievement here in her latest novel. She ties together complex concepts of metaphysics and theology from the days of philosopher Baruch Spinoza, along with a mid-20th-century love story set in Israel, and a modern-day academic treasure hunt. The book offers a surprisingly taut and gripping storyline for one that spends much of its time in a dark study or a research library.

The true central character here is Ester Velasquez, a brilliant young Jewish woman whose family took refuge in Holland to escape Inquisition-wracked Portugal; she later finds herself in 1650s London serving as secretary to Rabbi HaCoen Mendes. Education for women was considered unseemly, and Ester’s work as a scribe renders her unmarriageable—a state she prefers. Ester’s wide-ranging intellect pushes her to read voraciously and ask questions, in particular about the nature of God, man, and the universe; those questions are extraordinarily dangerous.

Helen knows this is her last opportunity to redeem the choices that she’s made, and she and Aaron work against another academic team and her own worsening illness in a race to find and fit the last pieces of the puzzle in order to understand Ester’s true identity. The Weight of Ink has the brains of a scholar, the drive of a sleuth, and the soul of a lover.

 

Book Review: G-Man

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 23 June 2017.

Bob Lee Swagger is getting older these days. It’s to be expected, of course, given that we’ve known him now for almost 25 years, ever since meeting him in Point of Impact (possibly better known to folks by its movie title, “Shooter”).

In this 10th in Stephen Hunter’s popular series, Bob is now 71 and taking inventory of the many ways his body is starting to betray him. Puttering around his Idaho homestead, he obviously needs a project. One lands in his lap when he hears about the strongbox that’s been unearthed on his family’s old place back in Arkansas.

The contents obliquely point to Bob’s enigmatic grandfather, Charles, but present a puzzle. In part, the box holds an old-but-mint-condition gun, an uncirculated $1,000 bill, an apparent treasure map, and a badge from the Division of Investigation — the short-lived name for what soon became the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was only called the Division for a single year, in 1934.

That year was both formative and legendary for the brand-new federal organization. In the teeth of the Depression, notorious bank robbers were using jurisdictional boundaries to evade local law enforcement, which demanded the use of a new federal force charged with the pursuit of these public enemies across all borders, to capture or kill.

A small problem, though: “Our Director…envisioned a scientific national police force, incorruptible, untainted by ego, vanity, and politics. Alas, as we have learned, that also meant untainted by experience, toughness, cunning, and marksmanship. Lawyers make poor gunfighters.”

Enter Sheriff Charles Swagger, steel-willed marksman who has already made his chops in battle during the Great War and by singlehandedly taking out three bad guys in a gunfight earlier in his career. Charles is a no-nonsense man who keeps a low profile, and G-Man inserts him into the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde in May 1934.

His desire to stay out of the papers puts Charles on the radar of the Division, which — after a disastrous gun battle with John Dillinger’s gang at Little Bohemia that April — understands it is in desperate need of men who know how to shoot.

Shooting, of course, is what the Swagger men know how to do. Bob grasps this well, though he never knew his grandfather, or even very much about him, since his own beloved father Leon never talked about him.

Bob finds the thought of Charles vaguely frightening; the one thing he does know is that his grandfather ended up a hopeless drunk. But the strongbox is a direct link to the man, and, really, who could resist trying to solve this mystery?

Hunter has some fun with the structure of the story, which follows three primary characters: Bob in the present sleuthing through scant clues to piece together what happened with his grandfather in 1934; Charles as he joins Melvin Purvis and Sam Cowley in the manhunt for Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and the rest; and Lester Gillis himself — devoted husband and father, and gun-crazy killer, who usually punched or shot anyone who dared to call him Baby Face, a nickname he despised.

Those three characters, along with their author, share an appreciation for well-made firepower, and parts of the book read like a dreamy-eyed love letter to the massive, manly guns of old — a Thompson machine gun with a full drum weighed something like 50 pounds — and readers are treated to an apprenticeship in gun-smithing and craft.

For the Swaggers, they find beauty in the precision engineering and craftsmanship, joy in the working of the instrument. For Les, holding a gun simply brings on a blood fever to use it. He is the most dangerous man among the outlaws.

Bob is a fascinating guy, but his detective work — and his being trailed by two nasty fellows who want what he’s got — can’t compete with our experience of riding shotgun with both the G-Men and the gangsters, which is where the story sizzles.

Our interest in the present is further hindered by the fact that we end up knowing far more than Bob does about what went on with Charles, so we can feel a little smug as we sit back and watch him try to piece it together.

Ultimately, there is something unsatisfying in how Bob finally learns the full story, on top of which we know he doesn’t learn the full story. Bob never gets to know Charles the way that we do — his principles and moral code, the high standards that drove him and the demons that plagued him. Only Charles knew that, and he wasn’t talking.

Perhaps, though, that unfinished business lays the groundwork for the next Bob Lee Swagger story. After all, there’s still plenty of Swagger left.

Jenny Visits MWA Montgomery County

Join me at the Montgomery County chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association this Saturday, July 15 (Mid-county Community Recreation Center, 2004 Queensguard Road, Silver Spring) from 10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. for the July meeting and I’ll be discussing “Publishers, Publicists, and a Reading Public”, to share what I learned in my publication journey, including:

  • the pros and cons of publishing with a small press
  • understanding the publication calendar and using that time wisely
  • knowing what to expect when working with a publicist
  • using every tool at your disposal to connect with readers.

Historical Novels Review Spring 2017 Issue

The following reviews originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Historical Novels Review, published by the Historical Novel Society.

LILLI DE JONG, Janet Benton, Doubleday/Nan A. Talese

In her debut novel, Janet Benton believably imagines the speed with which a young woman’s life can change from safe, happy, and privileged to miserable and outcast. The titular character, Lilli de Jong, lives with her Quaker parents and younger brother in late 19th-century Philadelphia. But then her mother dies, a relative sweeps in to usurp her mother’s place beside her weak-willed father, and a young man staying with the family seduces Lilli before leaving to seek his fortune in Pittsburgh, taking Lilli’s brother with him. When Lilli’s black-hearted stepmother discovers her burgeoning pregnancy, Lilli finds herself homeless.

Benton has Lilli relate her story by writing in a series of notebooks, a technique that allows the main character to reflect on ideas and events in ways that would have been difficult in a straight narrative. On the other hand, as Lilli’s circumstances become increasingly fraught, it’s hard to imagine her having the time or inclination to scribble out pages and pages of observations and events—with dialogue—as she attempts to find food, fend off villains, and care for her infant daughter.

To Benton’s credit, she doesn’t render caricatures of either good or evil. The headmistress of the Haven for Women and Infants is severe and exacting, but she is also dedicated to giving the young women in her charge the second chance that society is unwilling to grant. Lilli’s aloof employer, Clementina, is a talented musician who has been forced by convention into matrimony and motherhood; her disappointment makes her bitter and even cruel, but not inhuman. The same cannot be said for the rigid culture that dismisses the human dignity of those at its fringes.

MISS TREADWAY AND THE FIELD OF STARS, Miranda Emmerson, Harper/4th Estate

In 1965 London, successful American actress Iolanthe (Lanny) Green walks out of the theatre where she had been starring and disappears. Lanny’s dresser, Anna Treadway—unemployed when the starless show shuts down—feels compelled to search for the woman she soon realizes she doesn’t know very well.

Anna ignores repeated warnings to stay out of the investigation by the detective assigned to the case, Barnaby Hayes, a tightly disciplined Irishman whose real name is Brennan. She finds a lead through Aloysius, a Jamaican accountant, who joins Anna in the pursuit.

Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars is a consideration of identity: of the intentional and unintentional reinvention of identity, of the identity we project out to the world compared to the one we live with inside ourselves, and of how the world perceives us compared to how we imagine we’re perceived. This point is underlined when Aloysius suffers a beating by police and is coldly leveraged into becoming an informant, despite having committed no crime. “He realized now that the man he had become inside his head was far whiter and more handsome than the outer Aloysius… would never have been beaten… would never have had the experience of handcuffs.”

It also explores how often we disappoint ourselves and those around us for not being who we—or they—thought we were or ought to be. The most poignant example is Brennan’s relationship with his wife Orla, which is so filled with mutual disappointment they are incapable of speaking to each other.

In some ways, Lanny is too unevenly drawn to be entirely believable, and Anna’s past remains unsatisfyingly oblique, but Emmerson’s debut is a touching, thought-provoking read.

THE CUTTHROAT: AN ISSAC BELL ADVENTURE, Clive Cussler and Justin Scott, Putnam

Pity poor Justin Scott, who’s listed as the co-author of nine of the ten books in Clive Cussler’s Isaac Bell Adventures series. One imagines Clive checking in every so often from his beach chair in St. Tropez to see how Justin is getting along with the latest installment. On the other hand, not everyone gets to be the marquee name.

However the work was portioned out, The Cutthroat represents a rollicking if scarcely believable turn-of-the-20th-century whodunit—or, more precisely, “who keeps doing it?” When the object of his missing person search turns up dead, Isaac Bell—principal investigator at the Van Dorn Detective Agency—promises the wealthy, distraught father that he will find the killer. Since the agency has offices nationwide as well as internationally, and is far better resourced than the police, Bell’s team is able to pursue an emerging pattern of grisly murders across time and geography that point inexorably back to—wait for it—Jack the Ripper. Bell focuses in on a set of suspects in a touring company of the play “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” giving us ample opportunity to ponder the good-versus-evil struggle inside all of us.

The story steams across the county and over the ocean, and squeezes the most out of every bit of technology available to the modern age of 1911. For those of us not familiar with Books 1-9, there’s a handy “Who’s Who” at the front that dispenses with backstory. Though it strains credulity that the perpetrator—given his “day job”—could have pulled off 20-plus years of carnage, it’s a fun, page-turning romp.

Jenny’s Spring 2017 Calendar: Join Me at GBF!

Hope you’ll join me for one or all of these upcoming events:

Inspirational Women in Literature virtual conference, Saturday, March 18th from 9-6. These are some high-powered women! I’ll be speaking at 9:40 about some the strong women who inspired me to write. Contact me for login information.

Maryland Writers’ Association 2017 Writers Conference, Saturday, March 25th at the Crowne Plaza in Annapolis, MD from 8-7. I’ll be presenting “From Family to Fiction” at 11:00, and I’m thrilled to be following the always-inspirational Austin Camacho, though he’s a tough act to follow.

Kensington Day of the Book, Sunday, April 23rd on Howard Avenue in downtown Kensington from 11-4. It will be tough to beat the beautiful weather we had last year, but this is a vibrant and growing book festival with lots to see and do no matter what the weather holds. It’s great for families! Plus, I’ll be sure to have good chocolate!

Books Alive! 2017 Washington Writers Conference, Friday and Saturday, April 28th-29th at the College Park Marriott Conference Center (Friday from 6-8:30 pm and Saturday 8-5). I’m chairing this conference, which is one reason I’d love to see everyone there, but I’m also on a panel with luminaries Michael Dirda, long-time book critic at the Washington Post, and Tom Shroder, author, ghostwriter, and former editor of the Washington Post magazine. We’ll be talking about “The Twilight Zone: Between Memoir, Fiction, and Family History” at 2:50 pm with Chloe Miller, memoir writing instructor at Politics and Prose.

Gaithersburg Book Festival, Saturday, May 20th on the City Hall green in downtown Gaithersburg from 10-6. This is one of the largest book festivals in the DMV and draws nationally and internationally known authors. I’ll be moderating the Historical Mysteries panel with authors David O. Stewart and Burt Solomon at 11:15 in the Dashiell Hammett Pavilion, and signing books from Politics and Prose after that.

Book Review: The Bowl with Gold Seams

This review originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 November 2016.

I’ve written frequently about my admiration for small-press publishing, folks who are driven more by their love of the written word than by any expectation of making a commercial killing. It’s that willingness to simply go with what they love that leads many small presses to build impressive catalogs of work by authors of remarkable talent. This month I’m highlighting another example of this marriage of small press to big talent.

I originally heard about Ellen Prentiss Campbell from several sources almost simultaneously, one of which was our shared publisher. As small presses go, publishers don’t come much smaller than Apprentice House Press, run out of Loyola University. Of unique note, though, Apprentice House is both non-profit and student-run. Students learn by doing; authors get unparalleled input into the creative process behind bringing a traditionally published work into print. What is perhaps most remarkable is that the students work as a team to choose the projects for which they’d like to offer a contract. Kudos for their selection of Ellen’s novel.

THE BOWL WITH GOLD SEAMS, Ellen Prentiss Campbell, Apprentice House, 2015, 221 pp.

“What is broken is also beautiful.” This is the lesson taught by kintsugi, a Japanese ceramic art form in which objects are purposely broken and then mended with golden joinery, thereby making them even more beautiful and more valuable.

In Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s gorgeous, quietly nuanced debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, it is time and experience that combine to mend that which has been broken in the main characters.

The novel’s basis is a brief footnote in World War II history. When they rolled into Berlin, the Americans captured Japan’s ambassador to Germany and his retinue as they attempted to flee. Close advisor to Hitler, Hiroshi Oshima was considered valuable bargaining collateral in negotiating for release of American POWs as the war in the Pacific dragged on. The entire captured embassy staff and their families were taken to the U.S. and interred at the already-historic Bedford Springs Hotel in tiny Bedford, Pennsylvania.

Campbell’s approach to relating this story is intriguing, with a long prologue and epilogue in the story’s present day that bookend the main story of young Hazel Miller, raised as a Quaker by her father in Bedford between the wars. He runs the town’s jail according to Quaker principles, instilling in Hazel the concept that “people can do bad things without being bad people.”

She and Neal Shaw find each other on the first day of school; after graduation, they marry just before he ships out for the Pacific. Almost immediately, he is listed as missing in action. When it’s announced that the ambassador and staff will be held at the hotel, Hazel decides to take a job there. She finds herself intrigued by the Harada family: Japanese Takeo, reserved, severe, and as beautiful as a marble sculpture; his statuesque, high-strung, and musically talented British wife Gwendolyn, and their lonely thirteen-year-old daughter Charlotte who is trapped between two worlds.

With spare language and a clear-eyed approach to exploring difficult themes, Bowl packs an emotional punch. Characters are flawed and human, and the author avoids caricatures of virtue or villainy. The anger and suspicion of the locals at having the Japanese among them is palpable, and understandable given the still-active fighting and recent horrors of Bataan. Hazel starts out wondering how she will be able to tell these exotic-looking foreigners apart, but quickly learns to see and treat them as individuals.

In particular, she takes Charlotte under her wing, despite Takeo’s initial disapproval. He’s concerned that his daughter’s mixed heritage makes her stand out too much already, and wants to protect her from being “the nail that sticks out” and therefore “gets pounded back in.” But Hazel is drawn to Charlotte, the product of two warring parents who belong to two warring countries. Hazel comes to grasp the natural affinity between the Quaker and Asian philosophies of finding beauty in simplicity, and in using stillness and shared silence as a tool for divining a path forward.

In the prologue, Hazel and Charlotte are brought together again through Hazel’s position as the head of a Quaker school, just as the school is hit with a crisis that places Hazel at odds with the school’s board in discerning the best path for all concerned. She and Charlotte decide to visit Bedford Springs together and face their shared past, even as Hazel understands that she’ll need to confront the outcome of choices she has made.

The Bowl with Gold Seams is a reminder that first recognizing and then choosing the right path is a life-long effort that takes courage and a willingness to learn from earlier failures, to work actively to heal what is broken. The seams may show, but there is beauty in that, too.

Book Review: The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 9 November 2016.

THE MOST FAMOUS WRITER WHO EVER LIVED: A TRUE STORY OF MY FAMILY, Tom Shroder,  Blue Rider Press, 416 pp.

The title of this book could have been The Most Famous Writer You’ve Never Heard Of, but irony is probably the more effective strategy. Like me, there will be others who will pick it up thinking, “Okay, I’ll bite. Who is the most famous writer who ever lived?” followed immediately by, “Who [the heck] is MacKinlay Kantor?”

Herman Wouk, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner: these are the Pulitzer Prize-winning authors immediately preceding Kantor’s award in 1956 for his seminal Civil War novel, Andersonville, about the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp.

Here was a writer with a 30+ year career, more than 40 books, and innumerable stories to his credit; a Medal of Freedom recipient who, as a war correspondent, documented the liberation of Buchenwald; and the toast of the literary world for years. What caused Kantor to fall so completely off the literary map?

His grandson Tom Shroder sets out to answer that question in this new biography/memoir. Shroder is best known to Washingtonians as the longtime editor of the Washington Post Magazine, where his behind-the-scenes stewardship left an indelible mark. (As one example, he encouraged the late, great Richard Thompson to create a comic strip; the result was the sublime “Cul de Sac.”)

The author of several nonfiction books and editor of many others, Shroder has been a writer his entire career. Yet his own grandfather’s writing career was of no particular interest to him until he started this book project. By his own admission, Shroder had previously read none of the Kantor oeuvre — despite owning signed first editions — and paid scant attention to his own family history until many of its original witnesses had died.

“If only I could ask my mother,” he notes wistfully more than once, and kicks himself over his tardy interest.

Thus, despite having spent significant time with his grandfather, Shroder needed to answer the question, “Who was MacKinlay Kantor?” as much for himself as for us. The book is something of a detective story, with the author sleuthing out the details of his once-famous relative’s public and private life, in many cases drawing parallels to his own.

Benjamin McKinlay Kantor was born in Webster City, Iowa, in 1904. That first name never stuck, and he later changed the spelling of his middle name to make it seem more Scottish. He was known to all as Mack.

His mother, a strong, intelligent woman named Effie McKinlay Kantor, was unaccountably drawn once and forever to a charming, handsome, self-absorbed con artist, John Kantor, who bilked many people out of their life savings, forced Effie’s father to cover his early bad debts, and apparently enjoyed toying with his children’s emotions.

Amazingly, it was Kantor who divorced Effie, leaving her as a single mother to Mack and his older sister, Virginia. The three lived through many painfully lean years. Mack got his start as a writer when Effie was offered a job as editor of the Webster City Daily News, and she brought her 17-year-old son on board with her. Together, they wrote the entire paper every day.

As a young married man, Mack suffered more years of grinding poverty along with his wife, Irene Layne, and their kids, Layne (Shroder’s mother) and Tim, even after Mack became a published novelist.

His first big-ticket novel was the Civil War story Long Remember, and it finally pulled the family out of the poorhouse. In addition to his biggest artistic and commercial success, Andersonville, which came when he was 50, his novel Glory for Me — improbably written in blank verse — was the basis for the movie “The Best Years of Our Lives,” considered one of the finest films ever made.

It’s hard to point to where Kantor began his slide into becoming a bombastic, overbearing alcoholic who spent money like it was water. Shroder describes his own early fascination with the limos and fawning waiters that surrounded any New York outing with Mack, but which were leavened by the embarrassment of the loud, ugly public scenes that inevitably resulted after his grandfather consumed too many cocktails.

Shroder weaves together a fascinating portrait through the use of family lore, boots-on-the-ground investigative journalism, dusty research, and a solid dose of flesh-and-blood familial feeling for his subject and those closest to him.

Some of what he found would have been available to any biographer who had undertaken the effort — most notably, 158 boxes of artifacts in the Library of Congress, which Kantor had painstakingly annotated as part of donating them, at the library’s request. Other details, like so many families’ historical records, had been stored for years in various basements, unexplored and always one move or sewer backup away from the dumpster.

After years of being somewhat dismissive of his grandfather, Shroder was genuinely surprised to grasp just how famous Mack really was. Yes, he truly was buddies with Ernest Hemingway. He held the interest of the cultured and successful writer Peggy Pulitzer — nee Margaret Leech, author of Reveille in Washington — with whom he conducted a long-running affair. He was a bona-fide celebrity.

Sadly, MacKinlay Kantor outlived his success. His writing, always a bit ornate and old-fashioned, fell out of favor, and the paychecks stopped rolling in. He became a walking object lesson in how ephemeral and poisonous fame can be, and in the dangers of believing one’s own press.

It’s still unclear, though, why he seems to have been so thoroughly forgotten. If part of Shroder’s aim in writing this memoir is to resurrect his grandfather’s literary legacy, I’ll gladly report that it worked for me. I’ve now read Andersonville, and plan to go back for more. Thanks to Tom Shroder for re-introducing the world to MacKinlay Kantor.

Listen In! Jenny talks about HOME on Epic City

caroliviaRecently, I was honored to join author and talk show host Carolivia Herron on her weekly book program, Epic City, on the brand new Takoma Park radio station WOWD, broadcasting worldwide on takomaradio.org. Carolivia and I met through Upshur Street Books when I read there in July, and–among many other things–she is very interested in the underappreciated Battle of Fort Stevens. We discussed that in detail during the hour-long program, and I read from the chapter in Up the Hill to Home that’s all about the battle, “Jubal’s March”. We also talked about D.C. voting rights, the various characters in the book, and the surprising parallels between black and white family experiences in the then-segregated city.

You can listen to the discussion section of the program by visiting Epic City Broadcasts and scrolling down to the October 18th entry. The program is separated into four sections.

The music used in the program is not included here, but Carolivia introduced me to a haunting song written and sung by Bob Weir called “Lay My Lilly Down”, which she played during the broadcast. You can listen to it here.

Historical Novels Review Summer 2016 Issue

The following reviews initially appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.

THOMAS JEFFERSON DREAMS OF SALLY HEMINGS, Steven O’Connor, Viking

A brilliant, inventive debut novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings presents these two historical figures in intimate detail well beyond the historical record, and in ways sure to scandalize Jefferson worshippers. In his Author’s Note, O’Connor reminds us how little we actually know of Sally Hemings or of Jefferson’s true relationship with her. But because the author so seamlessly weaves the known historical record into this fully and believably imagined relationship, readers may be tempted to accept its story as an historical account.

For the most part, the novel offers a standard narrative that follows both Jefferson and Hemings from childhood through their long-standing intimate relationship and beyond. It wrestles with the question of Sally’s level of consensual participation, as well as the contradictions between Jefferson’s philosophy and practice. Throughout the main narrative, however, is a series of flight-of-imagination vignettes: Thomas Jefferson watches a Hollywood movie of his life; an interviewer tapes a Q&A with Sally Hemings and her brother James; Thomas Jefferson sees his former lover, Sally Hemings, from across a crowded and lurching subway car.

Some of these work better than others, but they allow O’Connor to explore concepts and perspectives in ways the main narrative could not. A disturbing exchange between a female guard and the male prisoner (Jefferson) she is tasked with torturing demands that we contemplate how it is that anyone who buys and sells human beings is not considered evil.

Most affecting is Sally’s “confession,” related in snippets, in which she reflects upon the ways that perhaps she was a collaborator in an evil system, turning a blind eye to others’ suffering while she benefited from her status. Her confession culminates in the horror of the auction of 130 Monticello slaves, held after Jefferson’s death to help pay his significant debts. Unfortunately, that is an historical fact.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 8.43.02 AMTHEY WERE LIKE FAMILY TO ME, Helen Maryles Shankman, Scribner

A compelling blend of folktales, magical realism, Nazi barbarity, and family history, They Were Like Family to Me offers a series of interconnected stories primarily set in 1942 in the small Polish town of Wlodawa (six kilometers from the Sobibór extermination camp), as the Nazis systematically empty it and the surrounding countryside of Jews.

What might otherwise have been an unbearable recounting of inhuman atrocities Shankman transforms through a prism that is by turns forthright and tender, oblique and intimate, brutal and ethereal. Woven through the stories are talking dogs and horses, humans transformed into avenging beasts, a modern-day Golem sent as protector. How else to explain the unexplainable of the few Jews to survive the systematic slaughter at Wlodawa, in which “in three days, ten thousand lives vanished into smoke, like a colossal magic trick”?

Though each story stands beautifully on its own, it is the completed tapestry of interwoven details that finally reveals the entire picture and provides the full emotional depth of the collected stories; the sum is unquestionably greater than the parts. The stories describe characters and events from different perspectives, and each tells a piece of the full story.

Two characters recur somewhere in every story: Willy Reinhart, Reich Regional Commissioner of Agricultural Products and Services, and Haskel Soroka, Wlodawa’s skilled saddlemaker (and Shankman’s maternal ancestor). Reinhart, undeniably flawed but fundamentally “a decent man,” is determined to use his position, his talents, his legendary smile – “the smile threw its arm around your shoulders and called you friend” – to protect as many Jews as possible. Soroka, generous and well-respected, becomes Reinhart’s conduit to the people of Wlodawa.

The author’s greatest accomplishment is in leaving the horror to speak for itself, and instead giving voice to the enchantment.

*Note: They Were Like Family to Me was originally published under the title In the Land of the Armadillos.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 9.12.14 AMREADER, I MARRIED HIM, edited by Tracy Chevalier, William Morrow

As anyone with even a passing familiarity with Charlotte Brontë knows, “Reader, I married him,” is the climactic sentence of Brontë’s book for the ages, Jane Eyre. Conceived of, edited by, and with a contribution from Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring), this collection of stories is out in time to celebrate Brontë’s 2016 bicentenary, and it features wonderful writing by a cast of strong female authors, each contributing one of these “stories inspired by Jane Eyre.”

Inspired, that is, by both the book and the titular character, who – for many girls who are now women of a certain age – was the first strong, independent-minded female character in literature we ever met. She made an impression.

These stories make an impression too; each one is thoroughly engaging beyond the frisson of discovering how each author uses the shared springboard. One of the most thought-provoking is Susan Hill’s title story, “Reader, I Married Him,” which gradually reveals the identity of the historical character who is narrating, and demands that the Reader rethink probably knee-jerk assessments she may have about one of modern history’s most notorious and reviled home-wreckers. Helen Dunmore gives us “Grace Poole Her Testimony,” offering a decidedly different take on the ever-stoic Grace and her true role at Thornfield, while Salley Vickers paints a not-so-happily-ever-after picture from Mr. Rochester himself in “Reader, She Married Me.” Finally, Elizabeth McCracken’s story is a fully modern take on the construct of marriage as two men take their young son on a day trip in “Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark.”

Just know that after enjoying this story collection, you’ll be certain to pull out your old, yellowed copy of Jane Eyre (mine is a Signet Classic from 1960) and enjoy it one more time.