Rewriting History (historical fiction)

I didn’t think I would like this genre too much, but I do.  I used to be a “snob” about it, a purist if you will, thinking that “if it didn’t really happen to these exact people, its not worth my time”.  But I have found out that I can enjoy a good story set in a historically significant time period.

My first historical fiction novel I read was “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara.  Then immediately absorbed “Gods and Generals” and then “The Last Full Measure” ( both by Jeff Shaara).  Then I started in on Jeff Shaara’s WWII books, “The Rising Tide“, and one of his Revolutionary War books, “Rise to Rebellion“.  Reading the historical fiction made me want to read more about the actual engagements and people featured within the books.  I didn’t even know “Ultra” existed until I read about it in Shaara’s books about WWII.  The historical fiction helped to weave a personal story through the dry dates and facts of the history.  From Shaara’s books, I started to seek out the actual history of WWII, a time period I was never really interested in.  I started devouring my dad’s library of Stephen Ambrose.  And my WWII post is for another day.

Since the Shaara experience, I no longer rule out historical fiction.  “1776” by David McCullough was awesome.  It is not my preferred time period in history, but “1776” it was extremely well researched and well written and I feel it should be required reading for all high school students.  It revived some of the patriotic spirit within me. I read  “Texas: A novel” by James Michener before I moved back to the area.  It had me completely captivated by my birthplace and extremely proud to be a Texan (like Texans need any more reasons to proclaim pride for their state).

I most recently have had a brush with the genre of “historical fiction romance”.  Apparently these are extremely popular.  The two I read took place in Victorian England, as many of them are.  I guess they are appealing because of the clothing (corsets, stockings, dresses), the entire idea of what is socially acceptable during that time and the taboo of crossing those lines.  Honestly, I was thinking of the lack of hygiene and STDs that no one knew about.  I guess that’s  just me, the curse of being a nurse.

One recent historical fiction book I really liked was “War Brides” by Helen Bryan.  It is the story of five women living in England during WWII and their relationships to each other.  Extremely engrossing with wonderful characters.  Gives another perspective of the war through the eyes of civilians.  I just finished “Nobel Cause: A Novel of Love and War” by Jessica James.  The U.S. Civil War is the background and it features a young woman who is a courier for the Union (dressed as a boy) and her actions behind enemy lines. Truly emotional and literally had me in tears.

Alternate history.  I only have two books in this category, and they both are about the U.S. Civil War.  As a disclaimer, before attempting these type of books, the reader should know a fair amount of knowledge about the actual engagements that the authors are re-imagining before attempting to read it.  I first attempted “Dixie Victorious” edited by Peter Tsouras.  That didn’t go so well as there were engagements, mainly in the western theater, that I was not as familiar with as I should have been.  After I read a few more books and gained that knowledge, I could go back and read the alternate history book and appreciate it.  The book consists of several essays looking at different engagements and the “what ifs” of a crucial event or battle.

The other one that I have read is “Grant Comes East” by Newt Gingrich, William Forstchen and Albert Hanser.  Regardless of politics, ol’ Newt can write history books.  Alternate history, at least.  I find this particular niche of historical fiction completely fascinating, kind of like going down the rabbit hole as there are endless possibilities when just one event or outcome of a battle is changed.  I plan on reading more.

I love history.  I love learning about history.  But you can only absorb so much facts and figures.  There are few writers that can make it truly interesting.  I love this genre because it introduces history but as the background of the main story.  With characters that actually existed, or with fabricated characters based on actual historical characters, either way, I find historical fiction a way to feed my need for history but also feeding the need for entertainment.

If you have made it this far in another “nerdy” post, any recommendations on other historical fiction I should check out??

From Fort Sumter to Appamatox

Ok.  More nerdy stuff.

At last count, I had over 25 “real” books and 15 “ebooks” on the U.S. Civil War.  I have all the standards, “Battle Cry of Freedom” by James McPhereson, I do have Shelby Foote, I even have a book or two by Bruce Cattone.  I have the fiction, “The Killer Angels” by Shaara.  I have ones with interesting titles “Confederates in the Attic” by Tony Horwitz.  I have the “Ghosts of Gettysburg” series up to #10 I think (by Mark Nesbitt).

The point being, I know a lot about the American Civil War.

I was drawn into this part of history by an awesome A.P. history teacher as a freshman in high school.  This teacher had a way of explaining events in history that would stick in your brain.  He drilled it in so successfully, that to this day I can recite some of his mantras:  “The emancipation proclamation freed no one” — due to the fact that it freed slaves in Confederate territory and not in the slave holding states of the Union, and held so many exceptions that only a small number of slaves of the millions were actually freed at the time it was issued.

I received the highest grade possible at the time on an A.P. U.S. History exam when I sat for it as a sophomore.

I have been to Gettysburg many times.  I feel drawn to the area for some reason.  I know some people say that they feel they were there in a past life.  I will leave that discussion for another post.  All I know is that I absolutely love being in Gettysburg and one of my regrets about moving south is that I can’t just pack it in and go to Gettysburg for the weekend.  Or Antietam.  Or make a longer trip of it and go to the battlefields in Virginia.

You can read about an area in a book all you want.  Even look at pictures in a book or online.  But until you are actually on the battlefield (if it hasn’t changed much in the last century and a half) you have no idea about lines of sight, the way the land offers concealment, how important the high ground was in an age without aviation (they were experimenting with balloons at the time).

My other fascination with the time period is linked directly to my profession.  Modern nursing in America is directly linked to this event in history.  Prior to the U.S. Civil War, nurses were usually male.  It was considered improper for women to bathe strange men and to care for them.  I read extensively on the subject and would love love love to go to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Fredrick, Maryland.

** going off on a tangent here ** I have this ongoing fantasy that we will magically hit the lottery or come into some money and I can plan this grand trip to the northeast, see my relatives, his relatives and hit civil war sites and D.C in between.  Sigh.  ** end of looney fantasy**

In another life, I did visit the National U.S. Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA, and they had an exhibit on nursing.  Wow.  They had no knowledge of germs at the time or contagion.  No sterile technique.  No idea of infection.  Pus was considered a good thing.  Treatments usually consisted of diet and nutrition.  Anesthesia was next to nonexistent.  The nurses worked nearly day and night and some actually died with their patients.  The nurse to patient ratio would make your eyes bulge out of your skull.  And yet Dorthea Dix felt it necessary in the beginning to put appearance and age restrictions on nurses because she didn’t want anything to seem “improper” between the patients and the nurses. Nurse candidates were preferably over thirty, married, and looked plain or homely.  These were the “officially sanctioned” nurses.  Many of the ones that didn’t fit this mold took it upon themselves to gather supplies and go on their own way toward the battlefield.  I could write an entire post on Civil War Nursing.  I think I might.

Back to the books.  “Battle Cry of Freedom” by James McPhereson is listed as one of my favorites for a reason. I feel it plainly discusses the U.S. Civil War without confusing the reader.  You don’t have to have a history degree to read this book.  “Confederates in the Attic” by Tony Horwitz looks at the phenomenon of the South, what I have recently experienced by living here in Texas.  The war is still being fought.  I know, right?  If you haven’t been here, then you just don’t know.  If you go up North (“North meaning above the Mason-Dixon line, if you know where that is), most people haven’t given a thought to the Civil War except about learning about it once in school, unless they have an active interest in it like I do.  Come down south, it is a different story.

** Another tangent, but this one is actually related to the topic** I was born in Texas, raised in Pittsburgh, and moved back to the South awhile ago.  If this were 150 years ago, I’d be screwed.  My husband is from the North as well.  My brother still lives up North.  I would be majorly, majorly screwed.  But families like mine existed back then.  People were seeking out their fortune  “out west” and the Civil War tore them apart.  They don’t call it a war of “brother against brother” if there wasn’t a reason.  My take on it?  I see both sides.  I truly understand that it wasn’t a war only FOR slavery.  Trust me, there wasn’t a white man in either army that was fighting for the future of a black man.  For the idea of their own destiny?  The right to live their life as they see fit?  Sure.  To fight to preserve their country intact?  Sure.  It was affecting the future of the North as well.  To let the Confederacy secede would mean economic ruin for the North.  And just imagine the millions of acts of unofficial warfare along the borders that would probably be continuing to this day.  Point is, I can see the arguments of both sides.  I actively read about both sides.  ** End tangent**

Back to the topic at hand.  Down here in the South, people proudly display the Confederate flag.  I’m neutral on the subject, although I know that the intent usually is racially motivated.  People claim that they fly it for historical reasons.  Well, I haven’t seen anyone fly any of the other Confederate flags that were tied to that period of time.  Fly the “Bonnie Blue Flag” and then I’ll accept your argument.

If you are flying it up North, then you are just an asshole.  Up in Pittsburgh, there was one of those who had a souped up monster truck and would fly a huge Confederate flag from the back of his truck and drive through black neighborhoods.  He wasn’t celebrating his history.  He was being a dick.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he took a few bullets for that one.

Now Texas isn’t considered “the deep South”, thank God.  We are a little west of that designation.  But Texas did have a role in the Civil War.  Fort Hood is named after a general in the Civil War who lost a limb at Gettysburg.  His unit fought at Devil’s Den.  Google it.  People in the South are damn proud of their ancestors who fought in that war.  I have a friend (from Kentucky) who still has the saddle his great great something or other wore when he rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest.  I’m not sure I would be proud of that one.

And people still hate the North and talk bad about Yankees.  I’m serious.  I’m ok because I was born here.  I tell them that I escaped as soon as I could and brought my husband with me.  But I feel bad for my husband.  People still give him a hard time because he talks funny and it is evident that he isn’t Southern.  People here are still pissed at a war they lost 150 years ago.

I love this time in history.  It just fascinates me because there is so much to it.  The birth of my profession, further constitutional issues (we should have stopped paying income tax a LONG time ago), cultural issues that continue to this day.  I just came across another news article about the naming of another monument in the honor of a Confederate spy in Arkansas who was hanged at the age of 17.  The public is questioning the naming of yet another public item in the name of this person as he was working to preserve slavery.

I promise more on all these issues.

End of nerdy post.

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