In Praise of Historical Fiction

This afternoon I went with a friend and her mother to Plimoth Plantation, the museum and living history site that focuses jointly on the native Wampanoag people and the settlers from the Mayflower and following ships who founded the Plymouth colony. My friend and I are both into history and have done a fair amount of reading in the area – I read Philbrick’s Mayflower, for one – and we were both the type of kid to pay rapt attention in school, anyway. But we found as we went through the exhibits that almost all of our knowledge and reference points could be traced to historical fiction written for children and teens. Patricia Clapp’s Constance – now, sadly, out of print – is the story of a teen girl who sailed on the Mayflower with her family, and we found ourselves talking about it constantly as we walked through the reproduction village. For colonial information not specific to Plymouth, we referenced The Witch of Blackbird Pond and American Girl’s Felicity series far more often than any of the non-fiction we’d read in school or for fun.

I doubt my friend and I are alone in this, and it makes me wonder why schools don’t integrate history and literature classes as a matter of course. (I know some do, of course.) There can be factual issues, of course – some historical novels are far more accurate than others, and fact-checking is necessary when it matters whether a detail is actually true. But kids, and adults, remember characters and stories more easily than names and dates, and even when the names and dates are important to know, story can provide a vital entry point.

And really, if you ever come across Constance at a library or used book store, you should read it. I’m going to go back and reread it myself, now that I’ve seen the setting. The novel informed my visit to the place, which, in turn, will make my reading experience all the richer.