Salem Witches – Real and Imaginary

9781589791329_p0_v1_s260x420Mary Roach’s new book – The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege – offers a factual account of a riveting piece of history that has fostered fictional plays and novels.  Roach based her nonfiction book on twenty-seven years of original archival research, including the discovery of previously unknown documents, chronicling the real drama of Salem in 1692.  I usually prefer fiction to nonfiction, but having read Roach’s Packing for Mars, I look forward to her unbiased research mixed with her practical humor and cynical perspective.  That said, I still prefer imagining those lives from Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane or Deborah Harkness’ “All Souls Trilogy,” following the fictional modern trials of witch Diana Bishop (A Discovery of Witches).

How true to fact does historical fiction need to be? Do you get stuck on the details that don’t quite fit (if you know them), or let the author’s poetic license weave a story that has universal appeal? Traditionally, historical fiction uses incidents that happened at least a hundred years ago.  Authors expect the reader to make the connections to history, but also understand that the author is creating conversations and actions that probably did not really happen.  (Going back in time to lurk under the bed of all those Elizabethan queens to hear those conversations was not an option for Philippa Gregory).   The more realistic they seem, the better the book. Often a movie follows, with even more digression from the facts.

Authors may offer a disclaimer that their story was inspired by an incident, a person, a place that appears in the book as an anchor, with the rest from the imagination of the writer.  If the authors of historical fiction are not accurate – this is fiction, after all – do they risk misinforming the literal reader?  creating alternative history?  Were the reputations of Frank Lloyd Wright (Loving Frank), and, most recently, Robert Louis Stevenson (Under the Wide and Starry Sky), enhanced by Nancy Horan’s fictional imaginings to their life stories?  Or, do some readers want, like the Queen in Hamlet,  “More matter with less art” ?

What fiction have you read based on real history? How did that work out for you?

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House of Velvet and Glass

Do those who miraculously miss the boat that sinks, the plane that crashes, the train that goes off the rails, feel a sense of relief – or guilt? Have they changed their destiny – or was the outcome unavoidable? Katherine Howe examines the consequences and controls of fate in her historical novel The House of Velvet and Glass.

Using the sinking of the Titanic as her catalyst, Howe weaves historical fiction into the lives of the Allston family – those who sank with the ship and those left behind. Helen, and her daughter Eulah, died at sea on the Titanic en route back to Boston from a successful European campaign to find a husband for her daughter. Helen’s husband, a former seaman and now successful businessman, remained behind with Sibyl and her brother, Harley.

Following her mother’s interest in séances, Sibyl, the unmarried eldest child, visits a medium, hoping to contact her dead mother. She comes away with a mysterious scrying glass in a velvet box; under the influence of opiates, Sibyl can see events in the glass. As she looks for her mother and sister within the glass’ misty aura, she finds instead a future catastrophe.

As the chapters move back and forth, following each member of the family at different times and places, the focus of the story is a little hazy, and you may wonder where it is going.  Although the present is set at the aftermath of the Titanic, with Sibyl’s search for solace, the plot has more to offer than just another Titanic story.

Howe revisits the patriarch’s youthful adventures in Shanghai that foreshadow Sibyl’s talents and a surprise solution at the end to the mystery of their paranormal inclinations.  Helen’s and Eulah’s fateful voyage also become part of the action with descriptions of passengers and shipboard romance. Harley, the youngest and only son, recently expelled from his senior year at Harvard, brings Dovie, his ethereal lover into the plot as well as Benton, his professor and Sibyl’s love interest – both catalysts who help Sibyl realize her hidden talents.

Howe weaves traces of the supernatural into historical events – similar to how she used New England history in her first book, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. For Downton Abbey fans, the story echoes the nineteenth century era of  World War I with its fashion and emerging technological advances.

An ominous clock ticks away throughout the narrative, marking the lives of the characters, bringing them closer to the inevitable, and Howe poses some philosophical questions about chance, fate, and how choices can affect both.

A clever mix of mystery, romance, history, and the supernatural…if you enjoyed Howe’s first book, you will like this one too.  I did.