Fascinated by the way the past shapes the present? Eager to get away from the modern world and become absorbed in different times and places? Come to the Field Library and check out some of our newest historical fiction, ranging from the Civil War South through the old West, through Hungary and Paris in the aftermath of the 1956 uprising, based on real events sometimes and based on beloved fictional characters in other cases.
While there are a lot of books about the Civil War, both fiction and nonfiction, The Second Mrs. Hockaday, by Susan Rivers, takes a unique look at the people behind the lines in the South. Placidia, the protagonist, is just a teenager when she meets Major Hockaday. She marries him within two days (!!), mostly because she wants to get away from home and become an adult. However, he’s soon called away to the Civil War, leaving her alone on a farm she has no idea how to run, with all the privations of the Southern experience of the war ahead of her. Two years later, Major Hockaday has returned to his home to find her on her way to jail, charged with having given birth to, and then murdering, a child which couldn’t possibly be his. What happened to her in the meantime? How did she go from being a naive teenager to a possible murderer? This book, told at least partially in the form of letters, journal entries and court reports, is based on a real life case, intriguing and revealing.
I confess to having a soft spot for authors who take on famous characters and put their own spin on the characters and books, if they do a good job. Robert Coover has the audacity to imagine the life of Huckleberry Finn after the end of Mark Twain’s book, and the result is Huck Out West. At first, Tom Sawyer and Huck are working together on the Pony Express, but Tom becomes a hero and feels the pull of civilization, going back East to marry Becky Thatcher and get a law degree (Tom Sawyer? A lawyer? Hard to imagine, isn’t it?). Huck, not one for rules and regulations, continues out West alone, where he acts as a scout for both sides in the Civil War, joins a bandit gang (now that sounds more appropriate), makes an ill-fated friend in the army and in a Lakota Sioux tribe, and ends up in the Black Hills just before the Gold Rush there. Along the way, he runs into Tom again, and Becky Thatcher and even Jim, facing his past and coming to some hard decisions. Outside of my favorite fictional historical character (Harry Flashman), I can hardly imagine a better guide to the ins and outs of the wild west than Huck Finn.
For something completely different (to quote Monty Python), The Afterlife of Stars by Joseph Kertes, takes us to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and two young brothers living in Budapest just before the Russian tanks roll in to crush the revolution. The two boys, Robert and Attila Beck, flee with their family to Paris, to stay with their Great Aunt Hermina. Growing up in exile, the boys deal with the usual pains of sibling rivalry and family issues, grapple with family secrets and terrible loss as well. A sharp and vivid look at a period of recent history many of us aren’t familiar with, and a story about becoming adults in a world that is changing faster than you are, The Afterlife of Stars is moving and funny, a shining example of what historical fiction can be.