I’m so thrilled to have this guest post for you today. Julia Bryan Thomas, the author of For Those Who Are Lost and the upcoming release The Radcliffe Ladies’ Reading Club, shares thoughts on the significiance of historical fiction and how the past mirrors the present. It’s a fascinating piece by a prolific historical fiction writer.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF HISTORICAL FICTION: How the Past Mirrors the Present
by Julia Bryan Thomas
Three years ago, during the onset of the pandemic, I was seized by the desire to write another book. In the suddenly silent world of lockdown, I needed a distraction from the deep uncertainty of what was happening in the world around us. I had previously written two contemporary mysteries, but as I considered my options, my heart wasn’t in writing a third. Trying to decide what to do, I pulled my favorite books off the shelves and took a serious look at what I really loved to read. As it turned out, all my favorites were historical fiction.
That was a revelation to me. I’m a voracious reader who loves many different genres, including biographies, classics, modern literature, and even a well-written cookbook, but I discovered that the books that resonated with me the most were all steeped in history, emotion, and a setting that swept me away from the ordinary cares of life and took me to another world in another time.
There are many reasons that historical fiction has great significance in our lives today. First, it helps us understand how the events of the past can lead us to create the future we want to create. For example, Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See, reminds us that in times of war and suffering, the ordinary experiences in life are precious and must be protected at all costs. In another favorite classic, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, books represent humanity and knowledge; burning them was a means of keeping the public ignorant and making society volatile. These issues are as relevant today as when they were first written.
Historical fiction also creates a bridge between the past and present, humanizing people from an earlier time and their struggle to find significance in the world, much as we struggle to find it today. Historical fiction is important because history is important: it gives us the opportunity to see patterns in human behavior that affect our lives. Taking a closer look at society, cultures, governments, and human behavior, not only gives us information, guidance, and encouragement, it provides us with guard rails to defend ourselves against the worst of human behavior.
Another benefit of historical fiction is that it teaches us about humanity. Famous characters remind us of the basic human emotions that we all experience: Scarlett O’Hara defines tenacity and grit, Atticus Finch symbolizes morality and reason, Jay Gatsby is the embodiment of chasing the American dream. We see ourselves more clearly through the depiction of historical characters, underscoring both our flaws and our strengths, as we understand that we, too, are only human.
The opening scenes of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles takes us back to a Bolshevik tribunal in 1922 where the main character, Count Rostov, has been sentenced to house arrest in Soviet Russia. When I first heard the premise of the novel, I couldn’t imagine how a book could take place in a single setting – basically in lockdown – and how he could create a world within a world that kept us rapt with attention. However, he did, and when I reread it during the pandemic, I didn’t feel quite so alone.
By studying history through the entertaining means of historical fiction, we can learn from the stories and experiences of others. These windows into the past remind us that we have all have gone through similar tragedies and triumphs, whether it was yesterday or a hundred and fifty years ago. In some cases, we can see how far we’ve come as a society. In others, we see how much farther we still need to go.
About The Radcliffe Ladies’ Reading Club:
Title: The Radcliffe Ladies’ Reading Club
Author: Julia Bryan Thomas
Page Length: 384
Publication Date: June 6, 2023
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Synopsis: For readers of Martha Hall Kelly and Beatriz Williams comes poignant historical fiction that reminds us that literature has the power to speaks to everyone uniquely — but also to draw us together.
Massachusetts, 1954. With bags packed alongside her heavy heart, Alice Campbell escaped halfway across the country and found herself in front of a derelict building tucked among the cobblestone streets of Cambridge. She turns it into the enchanting bookshop of her dreams, knowing firsthand the power of books to comfort the brokenhearted.
The Cambridge Bookshop soon becomes a haven for Tess, Caroline, Evie, and Merritt, who are all navigating the struggles of being newly independent college women in a world that seems to want to keep them in the kitchen. But when a member of the group finds herself shattered, everything they know about themselves will be called into question.
From the author of For Those Who Are Lost comes an extraordinary love letter to books and friendship, a story that is at once heart-wrenching, strengthening, and inspiring.
About the Author:
JULIA BRYAN THOMAS is a graduate of Northeastern State University and the Yale Writers’ Workshop and the author of For Those Who Are Lost. She is married to mystery novelist Will Thomas.