Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Life Changing Almost Nonfiction

   The nonfiction book that changed my life was Daniel Defoe's A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR.  Okay, okay, I know.  It's not really a book of nonfiction.  But when I read it at age 12, I wasn't much of a reader and didn't really care about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction.  What I knew was that I took a fancy to the notion of a gooey mega-disease killing off thousands of people, read the book and found myself wandering the streets of London with the narrator, tentitively entering shops and bars with him to see if anyone was still alive, and wondering how many dead bodies might be clogging the alleys off of Coleman Street.  Defoe and his narrator put me in the middle of a disaster and it changed my life.
   How?  To start I began reading everything I could about the Black Plague.  Not just the 1665 one that Defoe chronicles.  All of them and in any and all countries.  Right now I'm happily reading Ole J. Benedictow's (what a great name!) THE BLACK DEATH 1346 -- 1353.  Now aside from a history paper I did as a freshman in college, I've never written anything about the plague, but I can recommend a wonderful children's book entitled WHEN PLAGUE STRIKES: The Black Death, Smallpox, AIDS by James Cross Giblin.  He looks at how the arrival of these diseases created great fear and prompted nasty and sometimes hostile responses to vicitms.
   But Defoe's book also changed the way I approach my own writing.  After writing a couple of standard nonfiction books, I decided I wanted to do something a little different.  I wanted to put young readers into the middle of whatever historical event I was investigating, much as Defoe did.  But with a major difference.  He was free to invent things; I'm not.  Still, I was sure that with enough research and thought I could fashion nonfiction that read like a story (and slip in lots of important details and information and historical analysis along the way).
   How have I done?  Well, the results vary according to the subject being explored.  Some topics are information rich (especially with firsthand accounts); others not so.  One I'm particularly fond of is my AN AMERICAN PLAGUE: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793.  Because no one back in 1793 had any real scientiific knowledge of the disease I decided to write the book as a medical mystery (telling readers precisely what doctors knew about the disease in 1793 and holding back our current understanding of yellow fever until the last chapter).  I wanted kids to experience this plague just as people back then did and let them come up with their own opinions and ideas along the way.
   One example is how to view Benjamin Rush.  At the time, he was the most famous and powerful doctor in the United States, but his notion of a cure (massive amounts of bleeding and purging) probably harmed more people then it helped.  I let readers see how he came up with his cure, its impact on his patients, how he tried to bully other doctors into using his methods, and how other doctors viewed him -- all without trying to influence readers as to whether Rush was a hero or a monster.  It's one of the many instances in this book where I hope readers use critical thinking skills to form an opinion about an individual or situation.  
   Doing nonfiction books like this isn't easy (and I usually end each day with a headache as a result).  Sometimes I grumble that Defoe did this to me; most days I just sigh, thank Defoe, and see this curse as a kind of blessing.         


Susan E. Goodman said...

What does it say about us, Jim, that we love plagues? The first chapter of A DISTANT MIRROR by Barbara Tuchman that described the devastating effect of the Black Death on the 14th century world is unforgettable.

Steve Sheinkin said...

I had pretty much the exact same experience at age 12, with the MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY trilogy - historical fiction that seemed real to me, and hooked me into a lifelong obsession with the story. But don't get me wrong, plagues are good too.

Jim Murphy said...

Susan -- I don't think it says anything bad about us, though I admit that studying various plagues is a bit like driving past a car accident. I'm curious about d and glad I wasn't in the area when it happened.

Steve -- Oh my, yes. I read the Bounty books also and loved them (I think I read Michner's Tales of the South Pacific, then went on to read anything that was set in the Pacific and had beautiful women in it. Hey, I was 12!).

Steve Sheinkin said...

Yeah, Jim, I admit the BOUNTY'S descriptions of the women of Tahiti might have made a slight impression on me... I confessed as much in a comic I did a while back:

Myra Zarnowski said...

Keep on putting your readers in the center of what happened in history. It's what helps teachers like me to discuss historical context with kids. And, the big bonus is that it makes a fascinating read.

Myra Zarnowski said...
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