Mark C. Carnes, editor,
Novel History: Historians
& Novelists Confront America's Past

(Simon & Schuster, 2001)

One thing that often sets my teeth on edge when reading a historically-set book is an obvious anachronism, whether in setting or dialogue. I imagine for a historian it can be even worse when she sees a novelist taking what she considers to be too much liberty with history. On the other hand, the novelist may feel that even if history didn't happen this way, it should have -- in fact, must -- in order for the story to work out right.

In Novel History, historians examine historical novels while the chosen novelists respond to their analyses producing an interesting dialogue of sorts.

The essays are divided into five sections: Biography, the West, Slavery, Religion & American Culture, and War. As with any collection of essays, some are very engaging and others, less so. I found Michael Smith's analysis of Gary Jennings's Aztec especially fascinating, mostly because I am almost completely unfamiliar with Aztec culture and history. Also of interest was Mark C. Carnes's contribution, "Albany the Wondrous: William Kennedy's History in Quinn's Book." I was amused to see the analysis of Thomas Fleming's Time & Tide by Thomas Fleming (historian) and the response by Thomas Fleming (novelist); I assume they are the same person.

While the analyses generally go into great detail about the chosen novel, full appreciation of them is hampered by the fact that I simply haven't read all of these books -- or even most of them. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne were required reading in high school, but I had read none of the other novels, which include Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and Gore Vidal's Burr. On the other hand, I now have a bunch of new entries on my "books to be read" list (which, I might add, includes Carnes's previous book Past Imperfect).

Anyone who reads and enjoys historical novels should find this book fascinating.

- Rambles
written by Laurie Thayer
published 13 November 2004

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