Friday, June 10, 2011

Reading: An Historical Perspective

I'm a fiction writer. I believe in fiction writing—through most of my reading life, it's been stories that have brought me meaning—but my favorite writer today is not a fiction writer, he's an historian. I don't see a paradox between the professional fabricator (fiction writer) and the presumed truth teller (historian). They borrow from one another. The fiction writer uses what he knows of facts and real events and incorporates them into his imagination. The historian weaves together original and secondary source materials into a readable structure to produce compelling characters, story lines of interest, and narratives that move through time. When I remember The Guns of August and A Distant Mirror by that great writer, Barbara W. Tuchman, these historical texts appear in my memory like novels.

Even in grade school I had a sensibility for the past. One of my friends, Mike Saunders, had an interest in the Depression, and we would have long discussions about life in the old days. Saturday afternoons I would go to the movies—Westerns, mainly. I knew the shows were pretty much bullshit, but the idea of the West—wide open spaces, rugged individualism, firearms worn at the hip, and no Catholics and hence no Sunday mass (or so I thought) seemed like pretty good living to me. I loved war movies, especially the wars from ancient times. I see from all the video games these days that boys still do love wars. War lite is fun. Real war, not so fun.

I've written one historical novel, The Old American. It was a hard book to write (they're all hard to write) but reading the books necessary to familiarize myself with a time period was great fun. There's something about knowing you're going to write a book that sharpens your reading, gives it dimension, so that unlike leisure-reading the content stays with you in great detail and satisfies in a deeper way.

My reading of history continues to influence my writing and my world view. One of my favorite books is A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of French Acadians from Their American Homeland by John Mack Faragher. The author writes about the Acadians being deported from their lands in Nova Scotia in 1755. Many of them died. Some found their way to Louisiana. Today their descendants are known as Cajuns. My ancestors in old Acadia escaped "Le Grand Derangement" and settled in Quebec, moving to New Hampshire in the early 20th century. Faragher's book gave me information and moral support in the writing of my new novel, Never Back Down, which will be published in September.

The historian who has had the most profound effect on my understanding of what it means to be an American and my favorite writer today is David Hackett Fischer, author of Champlain's Dream, Washington's Crossing, Paul Revere's Ride, and Albion's Seed. America can not be summarized in one nor even a dozen books, but if I had to pick a book that best represents us as a people it would be Albion's Seed. Should it be required reading? Of course not. Once you require someone to read something they'll secretly or overtly hate that book and its author for the rest of their lives. It's a weird world we live in, and it's the job the fiction writers and the historians to try to make sense of it or, failing in that enterprise, entertain us.

Hebert lives in New Hampshire and teaches writing at Dartmouth College. His novels in­clude The Old American and the acclaimed six-volume Darby series. Godine will publish his forthcoming novel, Never Back Down, in September 2011.

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