February 05, 2012

WAR STORIES: Further Musings on Historical Fiction

"[O]nly the dead have seen the end of war." - George Santayana

In one of those serendipitous synchronicities of the blogosphere, Marjorie Ingall was blogging the other day about the Holocaust books which scared and distressed her as a child, and linked to her Tablet piece about the "fear factor," and when and how one introduces this bit of history to young children.

I chuckled at some of the memories she collected, while shuddering at the same time. I am still haunted by a Dutch girl named Betsie.

"Girl" is a misnomer; she was a grown woman when she died at Ravensbrück, and she didn't die in any particularly harrowing manner, except from being kept in dehumanizing conditions, from not being fed, from being kept in the cold and wet, from being forced to do horrendous manual labor and shoved and beaten and threatened instead of being told what to do and where she was to go. Sometimes, though the mind is strong, the body just gives up.

But -- I was six when someone got the bright idea to read the book The Hiding Place in our church's book group. Then they showed the film... I was six. My parents wanted me to see the life of a righteous woman, I know, but they didn't count on my imagination. I kept my eyes closed a lot of the time after the soldiers came, and I cringed back in my chair, thinking, "But, the sisters took care of the Jews and were kind and didn't fight with anyone, and they prayed, and the Nazis still shaved their heads and slapped them, and Betsie still died???"

And the penny dropped into the rather empty piggy bank of my understanding: for every choice, there is a consequence. Or, sometimes, stuff just happens ...because.

Well. I tried to put the stopper back into that particular bank, but there was nothing doing. The Holocaust - or, The War, as it is still referred to here in the UK, as if there has never been any other - figured largely in dreams and nightmares. Indeed, WWII and its horrific aftermath held an entire world in thrall for more than a generation, and now its villains - and its heroes -- are in some ways being lost. We don't like reading war stories. Remember now - I'm just repeating what almost every single (female only - hm. I wonder if this comes into it?) person has said, when responding to CODE NAME VERITY over the past week or so: we don't like war stories. We don't "normally" read them. We prefer other types of fiction. There's blood, in war stories. There are bad teeth and squalid toilets - or none at all - in history. There are often great clothes, but sometimes they're bloody. History, while a fine thing to enjoy sometimes in an esoteric sense, is maybe a little uncomfortable when we put people we can relate to into its midst.

I am, at times, thankful for the peculiarities of memory, and grateful to draw a veil over Bad Things. At the same time, the adage, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," lurks in my hind brain. Perhaps it's simplistic to lay it out in this way, but it is fact: Americans, largely, have gotten on with their lives after WWII. After the Korean War. After the Vietnam War. After the Bay of Pigs Invasion. After Grenada. After the U.S. invasion of Panama. After the Gulf War. After the NATO Bosnia intervention. After the Afghanistan invasion. After the Iraq invasion. In point of fact, some young adults now can remember no other world than the one in which there has been war. It plays as a backdrop to "normal life;" like the television being on in a distant room. Never mind the machine gun fire. Turn up your iPod.

Perhaps World War II still haunts much of Britain because it leveled out the class divisions and displaced thousands and created change in a society which had been the same way for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. Americans, meanwhile, are more conversant with change, because we were "newly" cast upon our country's shores, in comparison. It was easier to forget hardship and displacement; easier to compartmentalize Pearl Harbor into a tiny corner of our minds and have a moment of silence for it, easier to concentrate on commerce, on getting ahead, on the shiny and the new. The tragic and horrific events of 2011 expanded our memories, though; we will never forget now what it feels like to be fired on in one's own country, and have thousands of civilian casualties.

One would think that this would help us remember to avoid war at all costs.

And yet.

I maintain that it is especially important not to forget WWII, and not just because historians call it "a just war," but largely because of the arrogance, excess, and dangerous rhetoric of the past has returned to the present full-bore. What happened back then, people agreed, should happen not ever again. Historical fiction which examines these places and times gives voice to the millions who did their job and got on with things, gives young readers - and us older readers, too - a hook into the past, to align ourselves with its huge and epic events, and to have a place to hold onto, so we can understand. Why do you read historical fiction? For those same reasons, or others?

I leave you with some powerful bits of thought from things I've read recently on the topic:

"History gives us a pair of powerful eyeglasses with which to examine our own times. It is hard to look directly at our present reality because we are both too myopic and too faint-hearted." Katherine Paterson, from her keynote address to the annual meeting of the Vermont Historical Society, "Why Historical Fiction?" September 18, 2004.

“That may be the best that any work of historical fiction has to offer—not just to its author, but, more importantly, to its readers—a chance to grapple with the mysteries and complexities of the past, in hopes of seeing the present a little clearer.” - "The Facts of Historical Fiction," by Ron Rash, Publishers Weekly.

"This gift of the practice seems to come of its inherently solitary nature. A writer has no credential except as it is self-awarded. Despite our university graduate programs in writing there is nothing that licenses a writer to write, no equivalent of a medical degree, or a law degree or a Ph.D. in molecular biology or divinity. Writers are on their own. They are specialists in nothing. They are liberated. They can use the discoveries of science, the poetics of theology. They can ventriloquize as anthropologists, report as journalists; they can confess, philosophize, they can leer as pornographers, or become as wide-eyed as children. They are free to use legends, myths, dreams, hallucinations, and the mutterings of poor mad people in the street. All of it counts, every vocabulary, every kind of data is grist for the mill. Nothing is excluded, certainly not history." - Cory Doctorow, "Notes on the History of Fiction", August, 2006, The Atlantic.

As you can see, CODE NAME VERITY's blog tour is moving onward! Today Elizabeth is at I Want To Read That, talking about her life as a pilot. (You will never find me talking about Liz's piloting skills on this blog. Though I'm quite fond of the woman, I am NOT GETTING INTO AN AIRPLANE THAT SMALL WITH HER OR ANYONE.) Tiger Moths and Westland Lysanders, Avro Ansons and Spitfires were the planes flown in the novel, and Elizabeth can, of course, fly them all. And probably parachute out of them, too. ::shudder::

Stay tuned for more tomorrow!


E Wein said...

I honestly can't fly them all. Except in my head. geez, woman!

I am IN THE MIDDLE of re-reading The Hiding Place for the gazillionth time, apparently, though I don't remember reading it beyond the age of twelve. I came to it through comic book form when I was 8, then in book form at 8 or 9. I think it probably made me the woman I am, even if it's taken me this long to come back to it. The book I am working on now takes place, partly, in Ravensbrück. And yes, I am partly working on it because it seems like it is drifting out of our cultural consciousness again.

I just SO hear what you're saying about the different perceptions of "the war" on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

In A PROBLEM FROM HELL: AMERICA AND THE AGE OF GENOCIDE, Samantha Power maintains that genocidal violence is far from rare, and "never again" is a vow we break all the time. Sometimes I think history is a successful way to examine the problems of discrimination and war--we begin by studying a situation from which we can feel detached, since it's all in the past. Having reached conclusions about past events, we can then apply that framework to our own time, asking: In what ways are we continuing any actions that we've identified as wrong in past situations?

But then, so often the conversation doesn't get that far. We don't apply the framework to our own times, instead drawing a conclusion that, "Ignorant people did such-and-such in the past, but that's all over now." It's especially true of WWII, which Americans are prone to calling the "good war" and seeing as a story of good vanquishing evil, period, end of story.

And then, to go down a different path here, there's the fact that so much war literature (fiction and nonfiction) ends in despair. Anne Frank and every person she hid with, except her father, died in the concentration camps. In ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, all the main characters die. CATCH-22 has a hopeful ending, but only after many deaths. BETWEEN SILK AND CYANIDE recounts the fate of spies who were tortured and/or killed.

I think literature is where we turn when we want to make sense of life and find meaning in it, not be reminded of the senselessness, incomprehensibility, and hopelessness we often find in life. And maybe that's why we often shy from war stories.

tanita✿davis said...

@ EWein: Okay, fine. You can't fly them all. But, I'm sure you think about it, and look at them longingly... The Hiding Place is a novel I will never forget -- I haven't read it in years, though. The thing I remember most was the moral ambiguities, how difficult it was for a good woman to lie and steal to ...help others. The complexities of that are worth considering, when too many people make WWII seem very simple: white hats vs. black hats (or, brush moustaches).

@ Jen: We don't apply the framework to our own times, instead drawing a conclusion that, "Ignorant people did such-and-such in the past, but that's all over now." Oh, yeah. I hear you there. It's never over, and in many ways, situations are aligning which set up many of the same things which precipitated world war the first two times. The phrase "the War to end all wars" was supposed to refer to WWI - which is just heartbreaking. SO close on the heels of the first, the second must have been immensely demoralizing for those who felt that diplomacy and dialogue were of huge importance.

As Marx said in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852):"Hegel remarks somewhere that history tends to repeat itself. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

Estara said...

I've often thought the way that Americans can subsume their various war efforts so easily as a country is that there has been no war on their soil for a loooong time.

Which is why the war of Independence is still a topic and even MORE so the Civil War - from what I gather even the resentment between the different states on both sides hasn't been overcome yet.

tanita✿davis said...

@ Estara, re: the Civil War - The war wasn't fought over anything sensible, except for individual state's rights, which is still debatable, but the resentment and the constant resurgence of issues relating to the civil war comes, I believe, from sheer racism...

I don't know that the Revolutionary War is a topic much except for in school - the Americans may have left their position as colonists, but many still find the British fascinating...

Sarah Stevenson said...

Fantastic and thought-provoking discussion. I love the quotes you brought in, T, about history and the importance of historical fiction. I just wanted to add (though I don't have too much of depth to add here) that a story--that is, the FICTION part of historical fiction--helps the reader get at the HISTORY part in a way that transcends time, in a way that we can relate to because it's people's lives and stories and human themes. History is brought down to a human scale in fiction, and as a result it's much easier (if not more pleasant, necessarily) to absorb and understand on the deep level of the psyche.