Last summer, my partner and I travelled to England (sans enfants) for a whirlwind 10th anniversary getaway in London and Oxford.
After we flung open the windows of our 16th-century B&B on Holywell Street in Oxford, my love embarked on an ambitious tour of the learned city’s many fine museums while I walked up St. Giles Street, past the Eagle & Child Pub, where Tolkein and Lewis and the other Inklings gathered on Thursday nights, to the Andrew Wiles Building, site of the 2016 Historical Novels Society (HNS) conference.
I had registered for the conference in hopes of gaining insight into the genre. I had only recently acknowledged that the novel I am (still) writing about a magico-religious midwife and healer coming of age during the Holodomor (a famine orchestrated by Stalin) was indeed historical fiction. And, among other issues, I was wrestling with questions like “How does one balance historical accuracy with literary merit?”
One of the main attractions, for me, was a keynote address by Tracy Chevalier, the author of nine brilliant novels, including the blockbuster hit Girl With a Pearl Earring, which sold more than five million copies, was translated into 39 languages, and was made into a movie starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson.
Chevalier, like me, never set out to write historical fiction. In her talk, however, she shared some of the reasons why she was (and is) drawn to write about the past. Writing about history, for example, allows the writer to be somewhat detached, more objective. It also provides an escape from day-to-day reality, something that Chevalier says is appreciated as much by writers as it is by readers. Finally, there is this:
“Interest in the past makes us better people, more three dimensional. It makes us bigger than ourselves; it makes our writing like that, too.”
Chevalier’s latest release, which was the subject of her presentation in Oxford last summer, takes place in a more recent past than her other books. And it takes place in familiar environs. When she was invited by Hogarth Press to retell one of the Bard’s stories for its Shakespeare Project, she looked to her own past, and recast Othello as a diplomat’s son trying to adapt to life at a new school in Washington, DC, where the London-based Chevalier was born and raised.
The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Peeking over the shoulders of four 11 year olds – Osei, Dee, Ian, and his reluctant ‘girlfriend’ Mimi – Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.
Set in 1974, the novel highlights the instability of the time, a time marked by the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Black Power Movement. With its searing indictment of racism and its preoccupation with how society treats those who are “other”, New Boy does what historical fiction often does so well: it dramatizes the past to highlight real life dramas unfolding here and now.