Thursday, April 14, 2016

The History We Make

by Suzanne Morgan Williams

It's an election year and adults will be making some important decisions. I can't help thinking that we'd all be better prepared if we had a solid education in history, political decisions, and their consequences for the country and the world.

I do a lot of school visits and I taught for a number of years. Try explaining genocide or slavery or war and conquest to a ten year old. They’ll ask you, “Why?” And they should! I’d say there is no logical answer to this, and yet, we humans continue to back ourselves into places where power, greed, or difficult circumstances breed oppression and hatred. That’s part of the answer.

The bigger question is why don’t people take other paths? How would they do that? And another – when we travel back in time fifty or a hundred or maybe five hundred years and try to understand and portray what happened, is that impossible? Were people so different in their outlooks, values, and expectations that we can’t understand them? What part of humanity is unchangeable and what can be evolved, grown out of, hopefully for the better?

Historical fiction gives faces and emotions to the facts. It can help children explore alternate plots and creative ways to deal with adversity. Are these characters accurate to the times? Are they reworked to modern sensibilities, or a blend of the two? A careful reader will ask those questions. I’d say that historical accuracy is fundamental but that, in creating modern work authors will bring a different point of view. They can’t help it. So is historical fiction real? No, it’s fiction. But historical fiction is a gateway to real history and the questions it poses. I’m all for that.

How does interest in history translate into today’s decisions? What role does history play in current events? By presenting the past in understandable, human details, historical fiction may let our children and grandchildren see that today’s decisions – to go to war, to accept or reject refugees and immigrants, to fund schools, prisons, health care, or armies – these all have direct effects on people’s lives, right now. History is nothing but story after story after story. Decision after decision. What we do with our lives matters. Let’s read historical fiction, then talk about the past and our future. And most of all, what can we do to help each other today?

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