08 January 2010

Fantasy and the Bounds of Historical Fiction

The announcement that Matt Phelan’s The Storm in the Barn won the Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction for young readers apparently prompted some questions about whether it was eligible even though it’s in comics form. Which were quickly and rightly batted down.

But award judge Roger Sutton’s response also prompted new and more incisive questions. And by “incisive,” I mean, “from me, among other people.” Roger wrote:

As far as I’m concerned, historical fiction is an invented tale which not only takes place in the past but proposes to shed some kind of light on an actual event or situation of historical import.
His colleague Claire Gross replied, “I would think that the main reason Storm in the Barn might be ineligible for a historical fiction prize is not that it is a graphic novel but that it contains a significant element of fantasy. I suppose the fantasy element does not detract from its historical evocation...”

I think the fantasy element may not detract from Phelan’s evocation of Dust Bowl America, but it certainly gets in the way of shedding light on that ”situation of historical import.”

The Dust Bowl was an ecological crisis that led to an economic crisis. The Storm in the Barn portrays the latter development, with families moving, the hero’s sister suffering from a lung disease, and farmers’ desperate attempts to bring on rain. However, the book portrays the ecology through a personification of the storm that’s decided to keep its rainfall in a carpet bag. And the resolution of both crises appears to involve a small boy fighting the storm for the bag atop a windmill (with, so far as I could tell, no allegorical resonance).

Of course, that resolution is easier to depict (especially in graphic form) than long-term meteorological shifts or changes in U.S. farm policy, and it gives more agency to the young hero than if his father had moved his family to Long Beach and found work in a factory. But those other possibilities are part of the history of the Dust Bowl, as opposed to a fantasy of it.

Let’s imagine a book about a current ecological and economic crisis, such as tropical deforestation, climate change, or influenza pandemics. Let’s imagine the book evokes that crisis, and then shows a child fixing it by wrestling a supernatural being. Would such a novel really “shed light” on our situation today, or would it come across as a trivializing escape?

I see The Storm in the Barn as a fable that’s set in the Dust Bowl, just as Edward Eager’s Half Magic is a fantasy set in the 1920s. Both books are informed by their historical settings, but that doesn’t work the other way around: they don’t offer a reliable view into history.

At least not the same way as some other fiction for young people published last year:
  • Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (“Kelly, without anachronism, has created a memorable, warm, spirited young woman who’s refreshingly ahead of her time.” —The Horn Book).
  • Alan Gratz’s The Brooklyn Nine (“an impressively cohesive mix of sports, historical fiction, and family history” —The Horn Book).
  • Sherri L. Smith’s Flygirl (“good, rousing period fiction” —The Horn Book).

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