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Category Archives: historical fiction

Digging a Hole to Heaven

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S. D. Nelson’s children’s book Digging a Hole to Heaven: Coal Miner Boys will teach readers about the hardships of the children who had to work deep in the mines during the 19th century. The illustrations are well done and show a sharp contrast between the dark mines and the sunny lives lived above ground. Throughout the story of 12 year old Conall, his brother and miners, Nelson has inserted sidebars with facts about child labor, and mining in particular.

I enjoyed the book, but wish the characters had more depth and personality. Each one was standard cookie cutter. Yet I still recommend the book as an introduction to this aspect of history, that’s usually forgotten.

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Posted by on November 12, 2017 in 19th Century, book review, Children's Lit, historical fiction, history

 

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A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate

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Engrossing and authentic, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate by Susanna Calkins is set in 17th century England. It’s historical fiction mixed with mystery.

Lucy Campion begins as a chambermaid for the Hargrave family. The head of the family is a magistrate who takes his duties seriously and treats one and all justly (so he’s a far cry from Poldark’s George Warleggan).

When the lady’s maid, Lucy’s friend the teasing, lively Bessie disappears she’s soon found murdered. She had run off with the family silver in the middle of the night. Rumor had it that she went to meet a lover. She was sweet on Lucy’s brother Will and he’s accused of her murder, but it seems he’s been the victim of rumors and gossip in an era before the press had to fact check. In fact, most people got their news from sensationalized broadsheets sold for a penny. Lies could easily gain credence and be given ad testimony.

Will was Bessie’s beau, but she also was spending time with a libertine portrait artist who makes Lucy’s skin crawl. Lucy isn’t the typical rebel but she will defy social conventions to visit her brother at Newgate prison or to gather some evidence on the murder that took place at the same spot.

At an event at my public library, author and historian Susanna Calkins spoke of being intrigued by murder ballads that people in this era would sing, or buy and paste on their homes as decorations. These ballads inspired this fascinating story, that weaves historical detail throughout in a natural way.

In addition to murder the story features a touch of romance, which added a nice contrast to gruesome murder.

I learned a lot about life and history circa 1665. I didn’t know there was a plague that year, or that at a trial the accused, not the lawyer did all the interrogation. They took “face your accuser” very seriously. I didn’t know that warm potatoes were put in someone’s bed to keep it warm. There’s a whole lot more, but I suppose you should read the book to learn for yourself.

This story would be great on Masterpiece Theater. It’s a lively read and I found the characters well developed and engaging. I want to read more of Calkins’ work.My one quibble is the ending. Towards the end, when we discover who murdered all these servant girls, the murderer gives a long-winded monologue (well a couple questions were sprinkled in). I just didn’t buy that he’d elaborate in such detail.

 
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Posted by on November 9, 2017 in book review, fiction, historical fiction, history

 

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Chicago History Museum, Service Safari

Today I went to the Chicago Historical Museum to do some research for a writing project I’ve started. It’s a historical

Chicago Historical Museum Research center

  • What was my goal  and was it met? My goal was to get some primary sources on the 1870’s in Chicago to find out about how
  • What was good about the service? The librarian was very approachable and helpful. She showed interest in my search and checked on my progress and offered new ideas as I worked.
  • What detracted from the experience? I had no complaints.
  • With whom did you interact? I spoke with a friendly reference librarian and I suppose an intern who brought the items I needed. You have to show a membership card or give the librarian the entrance ticket ($10) when you arrive.
  • Were you confused at any time during the experience? I had to use a microfiche machine, which I hadn’t used since probably high school. The librarian gladly showed me how, but all the different knobs are hard to get straight right off the bat.
  • Describe the physical space. The reference desk is near the entrance. In the main room there were several long tables with slips for patrons to fill out to request items. Along one side of the room are books on shelves and the opposite wall has several computers and microfiche machines.  Beyond the tables is an area with lots of old maps on tables.

When I went, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the scope of their collection or what would help me. I want to also try the Chicago Public Library, if non-residents can, and the Newberry Library so I wasn’t sure that I’d be back so I didn’t purchase a membership. Now I think I’ll go back perhaps weekly and hope to take one of their walking tours. So I will get a membership.  Going to one of these special libraries is kind of cool, but also a little intimidating at first. You can’t bring in any bags, pens, food or drink. You’re not supposed to bring in cameras, but one woman was snapping photos of documents with a camera. That was pretty obvious since her camera clicked loudly. I guessed she must have had permission.

You can just bring in a pencil and/or a laptop computer.

They’re only open in the afternoon. I did find out quite a bit from their history magazine about servants in that era. I went perused several weeks of the Chicago Times, a now defunct paper on microfiche. Best of all I got to go through Mrs. George Pullman’s diaries and address books of the time.

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2014 in book lovers, historical fiction

 

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Peony in Love

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Lisa See’s novel Peony in Love is rather odd because about a quarter of the way into the story the protagonist dies. I wondered what was going on and how the story would continue and then I learned that most of the story is the story of a ghost, a hungry ghost.

Young Peony is the daughter of a well to do nobleman, who apparently loves his daughter and encourages her to become literate. Like all females, Peony’s forbidden to interact or even seen males outside her family. She’s eagerly preparing for her arranged marriage when her father hosts a multi-night performance of a Chinese Opera The Peony Pavilion. The women can watch from behind a screen separated from the men in the audience. The first night Peony slips out of the women’s area and encounters Ren, a dashing young man. They talk. They gaze lovingly into each others eyes. They pledge to see each other the next night.

Now Peony’s done for. She can only dream of Ren and after her second rendezvous becomes love sick. She won’t eat or sleep fearing that she’ll never be able to be with her true love. The doctor can do nothing and she wastes away, not knowing till after her family dresses her emaciated body in her wedding clothes and abandons her outside the family compound to waste a way and die outside, that her arranged husband was Ren. Custom demanded that the young girl die outside the family home to avoid bringing bad luck to the family. Sorrow and confusion result in Peony’s funeral tablet not getting properly dotted with ink so she’s left as a hungry ghost, doomed to wander the earth without peace.

Thus begins Peony’s haunting of Ren and his subsequent wives. Readers learn of the imaginative and rich beliefs the Chinese held about ghosts, how they must be fed and treated, how they can insinuate themselves into the lives of the living despite the clever crooked bridges that keep them out.

Readers also learn about the history of women writers during the thirty years when the Manchus defeated the Ming dynasty. It was a time of chaos and one good thing, perhaps the only one, was that during this upheaval men were so distracted by the political and social upheaval, women were allowed to venture outside, explore their surroundings, gather, discuss and write. Many women, whose ghosts Peony meets, were successful, published authors.

While there were times when I found it hard to care about the “life” of a ghost or what would happen to her ancestral tablet, I do applaud See’s creativity. I was able to keep reading, though I wasn’t as concerned with the ghost heroine as I had been with See’s flesh and blood ones. Still I recommend this novel, which makes the history of China come alive, to any lovers of the genre.

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2014 in historical fiction

 

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

snow flrw “A lovely face is a gift from heaven, but tiny feet can improve social standing.”

Lisa See‘s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan tells the story of Lily and her “old same” or lao tang, Snow Flower. Because the two girls share so many similarities in birth and life experience a matchmaker pairs them as old sames. During the 19th century in parts of China old sames were vowed relationship between two girls, sort of like an official sworn sister.

Lily and Snow Flower both start the foot binding process, a special form of Chinese torture in which girls’ feet would be bound to attract men and show beauty. The book describes this long process and tells us that at the time a mother’s job was to induce pain in her daughters to prepare them for a hard life. The girls were fed special foods believed to support this process. Furthermore, the girls were forced to walk back and forth in their rooms in agony. Some girls’ did die of infected feet as a character here does.

All this was for status and the women did buy into it. Their actual feet became hideous so women wore silk sleeping shoes in bed for their husbands to fondle.

Fascinating and tragic as this practice is, the heart of Snow Flower and Secret Fan is the relationship between the two girls as they grow. In the beginning Lily is in awe of Snow Flower, her social superior. Snow Flower’s ancestry has greater status and she is far more educated and refined than Lily. Yet as they grow and marry, Lily gains status and security, while Snow Flower is victimized by her father’s decline and her husband’s low status. The book intrigued me as a portrait of a far off, exotic arena where women were taken for granted, yet had the the audacity to invent their own written language, nu shu, which they used to communicate with the people they left behind when they got married off.

tiny shoeSnow Flower and Secret Fan is a dramatic, satisfying book that focuses on the trust, conventions and loyalty in another era presenting a different culture with historical authenticity.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2013 in historical fiction

 

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Dreams of Joy

In Lisa See’s Dreams of Joy, the sequel to her historical fiction novel, Shanghai Girls, an idealistic Chinese American college student runs off to China in the late 1950s after learning that her aunt is really her mother and vice versa. Likewise the man she thought was her father isn’t. She’s grown up in a web of lies. On top of that, her stepfather recently committed suicide as his immigration status was fraudulent and the FBI started asking him questions.

So Joy steals her mother’s savings and heads to find her biological dad in Shanghai. Soon her stepmother Pearl follows her rightly fearing that Joy doesn’t know what she’s getting into.

While the plot sounds like a soap opera, the story is absorbing and well told. The characters are well defined and the plot unfolds credibly. Joy starts off in Shanghai and soon finds her father, an artist who’s volunteered to teach peasants at the Green Dragon Commune to get out of some political trouble.

The novel shifts from Joy’s to Pearl’s narration so readers can see experiences from two different vantage points – the young newcomer and the Overseas Chinese returnee.

I found the narrative a detailed, convincing glimpse into the era of the Great Leap Forward with its deprivations, idealization of the proletariat, petty power struggles and denunciations. See provides a section at the end of the book explaining aspects of the story and their history. Her acknowledgements not only thank the experts, who helped her, but allow the reader to see the extent of her research.

In many ways the book reminded me of Wild Swans, a non-fiction work mainly about the Cultural Revolution. Both show how women of different generations cope during hellish circumstances.

I enjoyed Dreams of Joy, but felt the ending was a little too pat and happy. I think in reality someone readers had come to root for would have suffered greatly. Also, since May, Pearl’s sister was important to Joy, Pearl and Z.G., Joy’s father, it was strange that she figured so little at the end.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2012 in historical fiction

 

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

I didn’t read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, but I want to now after hearing the Midday Connection discussion of it today. Listen. See if you aren’t drawn in.

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2012 in American Lit, contemporary, historical fiction

 

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