17 August 2006

Off to Work They Go

Today, a diversion from fantasy to historical fiction. The two genres have a lot in common, actually: both tell stories in worlds unfamiliar to readers, adding an extra layer of challenge for the author (and of potential interest for the reader).

One of the toughest aspects of writing historical fiction for today's young readers, I think, is conveying the drudgery of most children's lives in the past. Most of them worked for their bread, they worked at unskilled jobs, and they worked six days of the week and for most of the day. And they liked it! Or else, in most cases, they went hungry and might be beaten.

That reality is so far from the circumstances of young readers in the industrialized West, especially the USA, that it's hard to convey. All us readers want excitement in books, after all, not hard labor. So we writers often end up writing about privileged children who don't have to do such work, whether we mean to or not. Or we focus our stories on periods when a child's life is disrupted by a crisis, freeing him or her from normal drudgery; that's often good for the story, but may not convey such an accurate picture of the past.

One recent historical novel that did a very good job of portraying the reality of repetitive toil is Linda Sue Park's A Single Shard. It won the Newbery Medal, and the committee even mentioned the "months of drudgery" it depicts. Park never loses touch with what that labor means for her hero, Tree-ear, even as he slaves over gathering firewood, digging clay, moistening clay, and so on. The first line of the book--"Eh, Tree-ear! Have you hungered well today?"--establishes that the boy goes through life hungry, like most children in history, and food plays a big role in the drama. (The Newbery committee, to be sure, called the book "an extraordinary story of courage and hope"--we must have that "sense of hope.")

Park also does a good job of showing how superstition can rule people's behavior, another aspect of the past that we now see as odd and irrational. Tree-ear hides overnight from a supposedly demonic fox. This episode turns out to play no role in the novel's resolution, so it holds no valuable lesson for the hero to learn. Rather, it's a lesson to us readers in how what might seem like foolish beliefs could hold great meaning in other cultures.

And then there's Paul Bajoria's The Printer's Devil, set in Victorian London. Last week I slipped the cassette of this first novel into my car stereo, awaiting a story like Leon Garfield's Smith. About twenty minutes later, I'd heard a great deal about young Mog, and the job of printer's assistant, and how Mog spends every midday break at the nearby tavern, and the atmosphere of the time, and the same-old-same-old of steady work justified by hot meals. But I was still waiting for a plot to kick in.

I understand from reviewers that The Printer's Devil has quite a lot of plot eventually, full of twists and betrayals, the sort I like. But I doubt I'll get there. I had an even longer audiobook awaiting my ears, and though I appreciated Bajoria's ability to recreate a life in the past, I also wanted something important to happen.

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