They say you are doomed to repeat history if you don’t learn from it, but that does not mean you have to learn it entirely out of a textbook. Historical fiction stories, while fictional (as the genre title implies), often contain more truth than their readers realize and can teach those readers about history in unique and engaging ways.
Historical fiction stories have long been popular as a form of literature – Virgil’s epic poems “The Iliad” and “The Aeneid” can both be seen as works of historical fiction. They describe in detail and embellish upon events in the past, and although the stories are not entirely factual, both contain elements of truth that serve to teach any reader valuable lessons.
The genre has expanded greatly in recent decades with the rise of works based in the Holocaust era, such as Marcus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” and John Boyne’s “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.” Both novels provide us with unique insight into the true horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, truly driving the point home that we as a species can never let something like that happen again.
Harper Lee’s ever-popular “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” show us the realities of everyday life both before and during the desegregation of American society. Sure, you can read about these time periods in any history textbook, but in doing that you do not get to personally connect with and feel for a character experiencing the history as it is being made. That personal connection can make those facts really stick in your brain come test time.
But books are only one side of the historical fiction coin. As the world of cinematography expands, historically based movies and TV shows are being produced left and right. All four of the above books have since been made into movies and were wildly successful. Movies like “Titanic” and “American Sniper” teach us about the contexts behind the upper class lifestyle of the early 1900s and the bitter conflicts of the Iraq War, respectively. In this way historical fiction not only teaches us about the past – the Titanic’s timeless story is more than 100 years old – but also about the present – the events on which the plot of “American Sniper” is based occurred just a few years before the movie’s box office release.
Even television streaming services are joining the bandwagon. Netflix original series “Marco Polo” and Amazon Instant Video’s series “The Man in the High Castle” (a special case discussed below) have seen huge success and received critical acclaim for their historical accuracy. After watching a season of “Marco Polo,” you could take an exam on the Mongol Empire under Kublai Khan and correctly answer many questions.
“The Man in the High Castle,” as noted above, is another story. The show depicts what life would be like in 1960s-era United States had the Axis Powers won World War II and as such is a hybrid between historical and science fiction. Sets and costumes were designed to look as authentic as possible to preserve the history, and trends were analyzed to produce a realistic alternate timeline. However, this show is not a history lesson like its above-described counterparts – it is a warning, one that shows us what could happen to America under the rule of a totalitarian fascist party like the National Socialists (Nazis). To put it simply, what happens is not pretty.
Now, do not interpret this ode to historical fiction as me telling you to watch TV instead of study for that APUSH test. You can never learn all the facts you need to succeed in a history class solely from historical fiction, and reading the textbook unfortunately remains necessary. But if you ever want a closer look at what life was like during a certain time period, find a historical fiction story based in that period and enjoy learning in a new way.