The Crucial Role of Historical Fiction in Times of Political Turmoil

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Editor's Note:

Jillian Cantor has a BA in English from Penn State University and an MFA from the University of Arizona. She is the author of award-winning novels for teens and adults, including, most recently, the critically acclaimed The Hours Count and Margot. Her newest novel, The Lost Letter, discussed here, is a historical fiction piece based on events during WWII. Jillian speaks about why historical fiction is so important in times of political disaster.

Three years ago when I began writing The Lost Letter, a historical novel about resistance, I had no idea that in the months leading up to the book’s release #resist would be trending on Twitter as a new political movement. I also had no idea that we would be living in a time of political turmoil unlike one I’ve ever known in my lifetime.

I believe that one day my grandchildren will study this time we live in now as a historical moment, one I’m not sure they’ll be able to fully understand without having lived through it. They will memorize names, dates, and facts, like I once did in school. But it is hard to imagine – to really imagine – a historical moment if you didn’t live through it. And that’s why I write – and read — historical fiction. I’m interested in understanding how people not all that different than myself lived and loved and survived in different times and places. How did real life go on amidst historical unrest or the horrors of war?

In the time of political turmoil we’re living in now, I find history even more important. Reading historical fiction not only puts our current events into a historical context, but also helps us understand and imagine and empathize with what people lived through in other times and places. It reminds us that other people, ordinary people, real people, have lived and survived and fallen in love, but also, died in these times of political turmoil before us.

But most importantly historical fiction helps us to reimagine and see these other times as real, allows us to put ourselves in the shoes and minds of people who lived through these events. It makes history more than just a list of dates or facts to memorize. Though I’ve long known about the facts surrounding Kristallnacht, for instance, it was a different feeling altogether when one of my characters in The Lost Letter gets caught up in the events of that night. The character was someone’s father, someone’s husband, – an innocent man, except for his religion – and as I wrote it I imagined what it would’ve been like if it were my family.

The Lost Letter takes place partially in Austria just before and during World War II, and in the US and Germany just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It follows the path of a love letter that connects generations of families. My characters in Austria, Kristoff and Elena, are engravers who work with the resistance to help Jews escape Austria. They fall in love amidst all the chaos and brutality of the burgeoning war.

They are completely fictional characters, but they are based on the real men and women I studied who did work with the resistance leading up to and during the war: real engravers who forged papers and made fake stamps, real young men and women who published propaganda against Hitler and were murdered for it. My novel explores and reimagines how real life carried on, how ordinary people acted with bravery amidst the horrors of Kristallnacht, the Anschluss, and the arrests and murders of innocent Jews in Austria.

What I’ve always loved about writing and reading historical novels is that these fictional stories can be both windows and doors. We see not only ourselves but also understand and learn about things entirely outside of ourselves. When I sat down to write The Lost Letter, I wanted to understand the ordinary men and women who were brave enough to resist things they knew were wrong, even in the face of great danger. And right now, that feels more important than ever.