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?

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Tiger’s Wife – continued – finished and appreciated

Tea Obrecht, Author of The Tiger's Wife

For those who are lost in the book – wondering whether or not to finish it – or whether to start at all…I’m continuing the review of The Tiger’s Wife – now that I have finally finished it…

When Steven Galloway wrote The Cellist from Sarajevo, he told the story outright; it was impossible not to understand the fears and terrors of the war.  But with The Tiger’s Wife,  Obrecht is obscure and only sidesteps how circumstances have changed lives – as though it’s too horrible to tell as it is – maybe she’s right.  Her use of myth and superstitious folk tales masks the real details.  As a result, her story does not follow a linear progression:  it jumps from Natalia’s modern dealings with those who have been emotionally scarred by predators to her grandfather’s youth with the folklore and superstitious stories that he held on to, even when he became a respected doctor.

Among her grandfather’s stories,  Natalia remembers the tale of the tiger’s wife, and she looks for more information as she returns to her grandfather’s boyhood village to recover his belongings, after he dies.  The tiger’s wife is a deaf-mute girl, constantly beaten and abused by her butcher husband; she feeds raw meat to the wild tiger escaped from the zoo – successfully keeping him satiated, thus saving the villagers.  Just as no good deed goes unpunished, the villagers’ superstitions lead them to see her not as a saviour, but as complicit with the devil.  Her mysterious pregnancy, after her husband’s death, only adds to their furor.

The vein of superstition is constant – in the story of the deathless man her grandfather periodically meets, who predicts death but cannot die; in the mora who feed off the graves of the dead, insuring their passage to the other side; in the tiger’s wife – and other folk stories Obrecht weaves into the action.  In the end, Natalia concludes that these superstitions have helped older survivors through the awfulness of war – the unknown was created as so horrible that the actual horrors are manageable.

When I read that some readers had dismissed the book halfway through  (as I almost did) because the story line was so difficult to follow, I was determined to persevere and analyze why I was finding it so hard to read.  Obrecht does jump in time and place, but so have other authors who have successfully navigated this.  The writing tool that tripped me was her constant penchant for introducing a character, then backtracking to describe his/her background, family, idiosyncracies – too much information too soon; it seemed irrelevant until I figured out how the character fit, and by that time, I was losing interest or forgetting the connection.   So, I started to skip over pieces to find the action again – then returned to the description – took a little longer, but helped me stay connected to the story.

The Tiger’s Wife is one of those books that demands analysis and slow reading – not for the faint hearted or readers who like to “get through” quickly to find out what happened. The war in the Balkans happened – again and again – and still.  The story is complicated, and the ending offers no real resolution.    The people somehow survived, but never to be the same.  Obrecht’s story tries to give a glimpse of why they are still afraid – the tiger gives them an excuse to forget the real terror.

This complicated book is probably not a good choice for a book club – unless it’s connected to a university discussion class – but a candidate for an award – it is on the list for the UK Orange Prize for Fiction.