I have decided to start putting up reviews on my blog. These will be primarily of interest to those people who are fans of my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series and might therefore be interested in what books I like to read. I remember how Dana Stabenow in one of her earliest Kate Shugak mysteries listed the books in Kate’s cabin. I assumed they reflected Stabenow’s own literary tastes, which were very similar to my own, and I remember thinking this was one of the reasons I enjoyed these mysteries set in the Alaskan wilderness so much. So I thought that readers might enjoy getting a glimpse into what literature influenced me, and conversely be influenced to pick up some of these books to read for themselves.
This first post is a repost of an article I did for the HFeBooks.com blog about the books that influenced my decision to write historical fiction. While not strictly a review, I thought it might be a good way to start out these series of reviews. When I wrote this post I was startled to realize the enormous effect the books I read as a child had on both my thirty-year career as a history professor who specialized in social and women’s history and my second career writing my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series (see Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits).
I was a voracious reader as a child, and my mother took me every week to the huge Carnegie Library in the next township so I could check out enough books to get me through to the next week. It was the 1950s and early 60s, and there were no local bookstores in my neighborhood, no Amazon.com, and most of the books in my house were either my mother’s childhood books or the books I got as presents for birthdays and Christmas.
I probably read thousands of library books in my youth, but my favorites were the hardbacks my family owned, that my parents read to me, that I learned how to read from, and that I read over and over. In fact, these favorites are sitting up on the shelves of my study still today.
These books are Johanna Spyri’s Heidi (set in the 1870s Alps), Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (set in late 1860s Boston) Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series (set in 1870s Wisconsin, Kansas, and the Dakota Territory) Kate Seredy’s The Good Master and The Singing Tree (set in Hungary in the period right before and during WWI), and Lucy Fitch Perkin’s Spartan Twins (about a girl and a boy living in 5th century Greece).
While most of these books don’t fit the narrow definition of historical fiction (that the work be set in a time period more than fifty years earlier or be written by someone who was not alive during the time period covered in the work), to a young girl growing up in a 1950s American suburb, all of them were stories from the very distant past.
To show the direct connection between my childhood reading and my choices as an historian and writer, let’s look specifically at what all these books have in common. First of all, they all describe in meticulous detail the material culture of the families in each book. For example, in Wilder’s Little House in the Woods, I experienced through little Laura’s eyes the everyday task of churning butter, the steps taken to turn a live pig into sausages, and how to make maple syrup. In the next book in the series, Little House on the Prairie, I learned about how dangerous it was to cross swollen streams in a covered wagon, what it felt like to have been raised in a place of hills and trees and to find yourself in a sea of grass with nothing between you and the sky, and I read about how Laura’s parents constructed a log cabin from scratch.
In Kate Seredy’s The Good Master, which introduced Jansci and Kate, two young Hungarian children, I read about the lives of sheep herders, the importance of horses to Hungarian plainsmen, how to decorate Easter eggs and the daily chores connected to milking cows and raising chickens. Then in Heidi I got to spend a day in the mountains with goats and imagine what the golden goat cheese would taste like. In the Spartan Twins, Dion and Daphne watched their mother spin wool, helped keep the birds from the ripening fields, and Dion, like Kate, stole sausages that certainly sounded tastier than the sausages I ate. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women didn’t portray a rural society, but her Civil War era Boston felt even more foreign to me than the rural scenes of Wilder or Seredy as I read about young girls who fixed baskets for the poor, wore complicated and uncomfortable clothing and hairstyles, and, even though they were “poor,” had a servant named Old Hannah who seemed to do most of the work.
All these childhood books, while they described the lives of children who lived in different centuries in different parts of the world, helped me feel a connection to the people of the past. I recognized in these books that whether it was by candlelight or oil lamps, parents in every age got frustrated with their children, children from every part of the world got into trouble, and families of every culture passed on their wisdom and beliefs through stories, and poetry, and song.
Besides their focus on the details of every day life, these favorite childhood books also featured young women as the main protagonists, the second element my early childhood reading had in common. These stories were a revelation to a young girl in 1950’s America. As an adult, I can see that these books, most of them written in the late 19th century, reinforced the ideas of gender roles of their period. Women and girls did domestic chores in the home or around it, and men and boys worked with livestock, hunted, and worked the fields. A major theme of The Good Master was how Kate first became a tomboy and then learned how to put on her multiple skirts and be a real woman. Jo March and her sisters devoted themselves to the home and steering their neighbor and friend Laurie away from moral temptation. As a child growing up amidst the 1950s Feminine Mystique, I saw these gender roles as perfectly normal and therefore not particularly noteworthy.
However, it was the differences I noticed. I was growing up in a world where fathers disappeared every day to go “down town” to do some mysterious job they never talked about and mothers fussed with what seemed trivial chores like dusting, setting the timer on the oven for a roast, and going “shopping.” Boys knew they could be almost anything when they grew up: doctors, lawyers, dentists, professional athletes, newscasters, mechanics, bankers, engineers, plumbers, construction workers, or university professors. As a girl, however, my future was supposed to be marriage, with maybe a brief stint in the limited occupations of teaching, nursing, or being a secretary. And the history books I read were about men, doing male things, like politics and war.
Yet, in my childhood books, women and men worked together, sometimes helping each other, as when Ma and Pa Ingalls built the log house, sometimes doing different jobs side-by-side, as Kate’s aunt spun wool next to her husband who was building chairs, and sometimes running the family by themselves, as Jo’s mother did while her husband was away at war in Little Women. Even the girls in the family contributed. Whether it was Kate doing multiple farm chores, or Laura Ingalls teaching in a rural school to add to the family savings, or Jo March’s “scribblings,” in each of these stories it was abundantly obvious to me as a child that women’s activities were as crucial to the economic well-being of the household as were men’s. This was an alien concept in my middle-class suburbia, and I was intrigued by this vision of a different kind of society with different roles for women.
So, how did these childhood books affect my subsequent career? First of all, the attention to the detail of ordinary people’s daily life became the kind of history I was interested in as an historian. When I pursued my doctorate in history in the late 1970s, I chose to become what was called a social historian, which meant that I concentrated on studying “history from the bottom up.” I was not the kind of historian that was particularly interested in the “Great Men” of the past. I didn’t focus on political parties, presidential campaigns, kings, parliaments or on wars and military campaigns. Instead, I read and wrote about groups that had seldom appeared in standard history texts: working class men and women, immigrants, the urban and rural poor, African-Americans, and women. I looked at what their lives were like day-to-day (where they lived, what jobs they had, who they spent time with) and analyzed how family and community, and racism, nativism, and sexism impacted their opportunities (or lack thereof). These themes dominated my dissertation, ran through my lectures on U.S. and women’s history, and are woven into my historical mysteries. Anyone who has read my first historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, should recognize the connection between the sections in that book describing the daily chores done by 19th century domestic servants and the kind of childhood historical fiction I read.
Secondly, when you consider that all of my favorite childhood books were written by women about women, it is not surprising that my dissertation was on women who worked in the west at the end of the 19th century, or that I taught women’s history, or that the books in my Victorian San Francisco mystery series have a female protagonist, look at gender issues, and feature different women’s occupations. As I work on the third book of my series, Bloody Lessons, I even found that Wilder’s excellent descriptions in her Little House on the Prairie series of different schoolrooms were one of the best sources for details on 19th century teaching.
These childhood books had an extraordinarily important influence on the rest of my life. So, this question is for all of the rest of you: what childhood books were important to you and your subsequent love of historical fiction?