Wednesday, August 27, 2008

New Hooks for an Old Era

Lately I’ve been doing research on the American Revolution for several biographies I’m writing. (I find that research for one subject often turns up the next subject.) While the same information shows up in many of the books I’ve read, I’m intrigued by the novel approaches nonfiction authors find to resuscitate the old facts and figures.

Finding the way into a story – the “hook” – often takes me two or three (or more) drafts. Surrounded by alluring anecdotes, details, and theories, I will hack my way through my overly-dense early drafts until I begin to recognize the story I want to tell. Why couldn’t I see it from the first? Other authors must surely do it better and more quickly than I do? Will practice make it easier? Rhetorical questions these. On I bushwhack at my own sluggish pace.

Meanwhile, other authors have come up with some great hooks on the Revolution.

I mentioned Don Brown’s LET IT BEGIN HERE last month – full of personal stories of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. What Brown does for one event, Steve Sheinkin does for the whole period in KING GEORGE: WHAT WAS HIS PROBLEM? Short sections describe dozens of events, laws, battles, etc. and virtually every one gives us lively on-the-spot quotes and experiences of famous and not-famous people who took part. This is the human side of history and it’s one great story. (Sheinkin’s TWO MISERABLE PRESIDENTS tells the same sort of story of the Civil War.)

Thomas Flemings’s EVERYBODY’S REVOLUTION describes how many different ethnic groups fought for independence, not just English-Americans, allowing children of more recent immigrants to relate to that far-off era. Laurie Halse Anderson’s INDEPENDENT DAMES focuses on the feminine patriots who advanced the American cause, often in unconventional ways. The Brown Paper School USKids History BOOK OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION combines essays, fictional pieces, games, recipes, and crafts to draw readers into the fray. Guilio Maestro’s illustrations in LIBERTY OR DEATH show us battle formations, maps, uniforms, and portraits of the major players, enlivening the traditional text by Betsy Maestro.

GEORGE VS GEORGE: THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION AS SEEN FROM BOTH SIDES by Rosalyn Schanzer, while rooting for the Americans, does give us a glimpse of the British perspective. Another side of “our” George (Washington) is revealed in Peggy Thomas’s FARMER GEORGE PLANTS A NATION. Who knew he was an inventor, barn designer, and proto-environmentalist with his compost experiments and “make and buy local” policy? Perhaps my favorite view of the Revolution came from Thomas B. Allen’s GEORGE WASHINGTON, SPYMASTER: HOW THE AMERICAN OUTSPIED THE BRITISH AND WON THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR. This story of spies, counterspies, covers, moles, double agents and cut-outs is a thrilling one, full of twists and turns, codes and ciphers, traitors and heroes that don’t make the ordinary history books.

Slipping across the border into fiction, I must mention Kay Winters’ COLONIAL VOICES: HEAR THEM SPEAK. Though the dozen or so “voices” are her own creations, she takes us to Boston on December 16, 1773 from dawn to dusk, to witness the historic Boston Tea Party. And since I’m on “the other side” I have to mention two new Revolutionary War novels with slave protagonists. Laurie Halse Anderson’s CHAINS, gives us a girl in British-held New York – with an ending that hints at a sequel. M.T. Anderson’s second volume of THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING transports a Massachusetts slave to the British Army in Virginia. And wandering a bit farther afield, I just read a terrific picaresque adult novel I must champion: JOHNNY ONE-EYE: A TALE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, by Jerome Charyn. It will change your view of George Washington forever.

All my reading shows me that history can be revived again and again in the hands of a good writer. And my latest book hook….. still working on that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love it that you've given us so many books to check out. Yay! I admire the generous nature of I.N.K. Y'all write not only about your own work but recommend others', too. THANK YOU. Count me in as an I.N.K. fan!