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Almost 20 years ago I worked at a large independent bookstore in Raleigh, NC. It wasn’t my first bookstore job, but it is the one where I learned the most. There were fewer big box stores then and Amazon didn’t exist. Customer service was our number one priority and we placed special orders every day. Twenty years feels like a long time, but there are customers I remember still.
Mrs. G was a regular who frequently asked us to order books for her. I remember the first time I waited on her. She had come in to pick up a book she had ordered. I handed her the inexpensive paperback. She looked at the cover for a moment and pushed it back toward me. “I can’t buy this,” she said. I asked her if we had ordered the wrong book. “No,” she said, “but I can’t buy it with that cover. I called the publisher and asked about the cover and they told me it wouldn’t look like that.” I was puzzled, very puzzled. The book looked to me to be very similar to other romance novels that featured a man and woman on the cover. The man would have been a pirate, or a duke or a knight and the woman was beautiful, and beautifully dressed/undressed. The way they looked at each other let you know where the plot of the book was going. My best friend in junior high often secretly took books just like this from her mother and passed them around to the girls in our 7th grade class. I think I said something to Mrs. G about the “romance” book. She was aghast! “This author does NOT write ROMANCE books. THIS is a HISTORICAL NOVEL! I only read them for the history and I can’t possibly read something with a cover like this.” Well, okay. So, providing excellent customer service meant she certainly did not need to purchase her special order, but at the time I could not guarantee that her future choices of “historical novels” would not arrive with similar covers.
So, fast forward 20 years and I now read quite a few historical novels myself, but the covers and content are very different from the ones Mrs. G chose. Historical fiction encompasses a wide variety of books and can mean that the setting is historical, but all of the characters and plot points are fiction. Other authors use the genre to bring to life famous (or not so famous) characters in a way that a biography cannot do. In telling about his next book, Wiley Cash gave the known information about a mountain woman murdered in Gastonia during a factory strike. Since very little is known about her life, he has free reign to create what I know will be a novel I will want to read.
Some authors choose a character about which information may be readily available, but choose to change some facts or chronology. Sue Monk Kidd did this in her novel, The Invention of Wings. It’s a great book, and I’ve been interest in the Grimke sisters since graduate school, so I was very please that Sarah Grimke was the subject of this historical novel. There are some authors who have made a career (and maybe a lot of money) on the genre, such as Ken Follett and Phillipa Gregory. I do have two authors who are my favorite masters of the genre. One is Geraldine Brooks. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, March, recounted the plague in Year of Wonders, and told the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in Caleb’s Crossing. My favorite of her books is People of the Book is the story of a fictitious Australian rare book expert and the real life Sarajevo Haggadah.
I’m lucky enough to have met my other favorite master of the genre, Sharyn McCrumb. I’m sure you are familiar with her ballad novels that weave memorable characters, present day intrigue and Appalachian history all into great books. What I love about Sharyn is that she is as good a fiction writer as she is historian. The story and the characters are well-developed and her novels are as good a read as any AND her historical research, details and accuracy are unmatched. Her novels often have more than one narrator. North Carolina Confederate Governor (and Western North Carolina native) Zebulon Vance is one of the narrators of both Ghost Riders and The Ballad of Tom Dooley, although neither book is really about Vance . I had the chance to talk to Sharyn about these two novels and I told her that I was fascinated with all that I learned about Vance. When I said that I felt that I knew him, she replied that SHE felt she had dated him in high school. Now, THAT’S good historical fiction.