Thursday, June 18, 2015

Genre Shifters - When Contemporary Fiction Becomes Historical

by Suzanne Morgan Williams

Recently I re-read Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s classic novel about the Depression. When he wrote it, in 1939, it was contemporary fiction. Grapes of Wrath was the result of interviews and short stories he’d written about California’s migrant families who’d been displaced during the Dust Bowl. But to today’s readers it’s historical.
How do some books hold up to the test of time? Of course, there is the engaging, universal story. In the Grapes of Wrath, we recognize the Joad family’s struggle to stay together in the face of insurmountable odds, to hold onto their dignity as it is stripped away, to stay alive. But what else makes this work as a historical novel when it wasn’t written as one? I’d argue it’s the detail.
Steinbeck gives precise descriptions of the land, the cars, the contents of the Joad’s homes and what they choose to carry with them to California. He lays out the politics and policies that work against them. We know what Rose O’Shar’n wore and what over ripe peaches taste like. Yes, some of the language is old fashioned and his message of workers joining together against big business may seem dated in hind sight (although the problem of greed undermining the value of human beings is certainly current). Through his copious and well-chosen details, Steinbeck offers a fully fleshed out world that we can understand and visualize seventy-five years later. If he had written only for his contemporary audience, if he’d assumed they knew much about the Joad’s world as the took to the road and so omitted what was then common knowledge, modern readers might feel lost or disinterested in a story we can no longer relate to.
What does this mean for today’s middle grade writers? Don’t skimp on detail. Even if everyone knows what the Empire State building looks like, give us a sense of looking up to the spire from street level, of the textures and messages of the bas relief art that lines the interior, of the speed of the elevator. This will engage today’s children and act as a guide to future readers who will have life experiences we can’t yet imagine. What will kids, seventy-five years from now need to know in order to love your books?

My question to you - What books do you love that where contemporary when they were written and are now historical? Why do you think they still speak to us?


  1. Great post! I love novels grounded in historical settings, and you are right: It's the details that plunge me into that world. As for books that are historical now, but were contemporary when written, I utterly love Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. And Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone -- as well as all of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes canon. I read one of them, and once again I'm in Victorian England!

  2. I confess when I read Steinbeck, I found him utterly depressing - but wasn't that exactly what he was doing, chronicling the era of the great depression? Those details, the way people spoke and acted, brings the time home to young readers who cannot imagine life without iPad, world news on Television, and Skype with faraway family. As for books that were contemporary and are now historical, I love all the Arthur Ransomes - the children in them have a freedom today's youth can only dream about enjoying - L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series, Conan Doyle's immortal Sherlock Holmes, Captain W.E. Johns' Biggles of the R.A.F. series - he also wrote the Worrals books for girls.