Guest Post: Erin Lindsay McCabe Talks Diversity in Historical Fiction

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I (Ellice) am so thrilled to have Erin Lindsay McCabe on the blog again. She is the author of one of my favorite historical fiction novels, I Shall Be Near to You, and she’s one of the sweetest people I know! You can read my interview with her here, and my review of the book here. Last year, Erin had the brilliant idea to host a historical fiction Twitter chat (#IShall), and it was such a huge success that we decided to do it again! If you are a lover of historical fiction, or even if you’ve only read ONE historical fiction book, y’all join us tonight (Tuesday, March 31) at 5:30 PST at #HistoricalFix. Today’s post will give you a sneak peak of one of the main topics we plan to discuss tonight, Diversity in Historical Fiction. Intrigued? Join us! I hope to see you tonight. :) Now, without further adieu, here is Erin!

Guest Post: Erin Lindsay McCabe Talks Diversity in Historical FictionTitle: I Shall Be Near to You
Author: Erin Lindsay McCabe
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Release Date: January 28, 2014
Genre/Age Group: Adult, Historical Fiction
Add it: Goodreads

An extraordinary novel about a strong-willed woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight beside her husband in the Civil War, inspired by a real female soldier's letters home.

Rosetta doesn't want her new husband Jeremiah to enlist, but he joins up, hoping to make enough money that they'll be able to afford their own farm someday. Though she's always worked by her father’s side as the son he never had, now that Rosetta is a wife she's told her place is inside with the other women. But Rosetta decides her true place is with Jeremiah, no matter what that means, and to be with him she cuts off her hair, hems an old pair of his pants, and signs up as a Union soldier.

Rosetta drills with the men, prepares herself for battle, and faces the tension as her husband comes to grips with having a fighting wife. Fearing discovery of her secret, Rosetta’s strong will clashes with Jeremiah’s as their marriage is tested by war. Inspired by over two hundred and fifty documented accounts of the women who fought in the Civil War while disguised as men, I Shall Be Near To You is the intimate story, in Rosetta’s powerful and gorgeous voice, of the drama of marriage, one woman’s amazing exploits, and the tender love story that can unfold when two partners face life’s challenges side by side.

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“I’ve always loved historical fiction, long before I realized it was its own genre, and even longer before I started writing historical fiction. For one thing, historical fiction has often been the only place I could find stories in which women were central and important in times past. Certainly the history textbooks I studied in high school and college often offered only the most cursory mentions of anyone other than white men—usually politicians, businessmen, captains of industry, generals.

I think Lois Leveen was the first author/historian whom I saw articulate this idea that historical fiction was becoming, for better or worse, the new Women’s Studies in her essay “The Paradox of Pluck: How Did Historical Fiction Become the New Feminist History?” and for a long time now, I have really felt that way—that if I want to find out about interesting historical women, historical fiction is the place to do it. Since so many women’s stories are largely undocumented and untold– at least in women’s own words– and so few facts exist for so many women’s lives, fiction seems like a natural way to tell these stories. An author can imagine what history has left out, and, as Leveen writes, it’s fiction that appeals to readers’ emotions and stirs our curiosity.

But as I watched the #WeNeedDiverseReads trend on Twitter, I realized that so many of the characters I read about are white women. It got me wondering where all the diverse characters who surely populate real history are. Where are their stories, both in history and in fiction? And who is telling them?

At first I could only think of one or two books that I’d recently read that featured diverse characters—Lois Leveen’s The Secrets of Mary Bowser being one—and that seemed a very stark and sad realization. But the more I thought, the more books I remembered that I hope qualify for a #WeNeedDiverseReads list (at the same time, the more I also remembered immensely popular books whose treatment of diverse characters has been both lauded and also criticized as reductive or prone to stereotyping and emphasizing the exotic—books such as Memoirs of a Geisha, which I loved when I read it, and The Help, which I haven’t read). So, in the event you, too, are looking for diverse historical reads, here’s my list. I’m hoping you’ll share some of your #DiverseReads (maybe during the #HistoricalFix Twitter Chat? It’s tonight!), so that perhaps we can develop a much more extensive list for those of us who love historical fiction and who want to find our ways to a much more rich picture of the past, one that, as author Chimamanda Adiche discusses in her TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” includes many voices, many stories.

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The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen: This incredible story explores the free black community in antebellum Philadelphia, the abolitionist movement, and the Civil War itself through the eyes of Mary Bowser, a Northern educated, freed slave who returns to the South and spies for the Union—by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. I learned so much from this novel!

Revolutionary by Alex Myers: In this nuanced portrayal of Deborah Samson’s service during the Revolutionary War (a topic near and dear to my heart—a woman disguising as a male soldier), Myers explores gender identity with particular care, giving voice to one woman’s search for freedom and shedding light on the fascinating story of America’s first female soldier.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: What really drew me into this novel was the voice—I am a sucker for an amazing, unique voice. While this probably isn’t “technically” historical fiction, the story does span decades as the narrator traces the family history that led to the birth of a girl named Calliope who becomes the male narrator Cal. I remember this as another nuanced and sensitive exploration of gender identity, immigration, and more.

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God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: Set in the 1960s, it’s maybe not exactly “historical” fiction. But this book wow’ed me with its use of language and the suspenseful and circuitous way the story unravels to reveal what happened the night protagonists Rahel and Esta’s cousin drowned.

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolpho Anaya: This is one of the novels I used to love reading with my high school students. Set in 1940’s New Mexico, it’s a coming of age story that centers on Tony and his relationship to Ultima, an elderly curandera who comes to live with his family. The novel explores the conflicts between cultures, religions, parents, and more.

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende: When her lover heads to Gold Rush-era California, Chilean-born Eliza dresses as a boy (!) and leaves home in search him. Her journey takes her to San Francisco and beyond, with the help of her friend Tao, a Chinese cook and acupuncturist. While this isn’t my favorite novel by Allende (that honor goes to House of Spirits), I enjoyed her signature humor, complex characters, and sprawling story.

Chang and Eng by Darrin Strauss: The fictionalized account of conjoined twins, this novel follows the first “Siamese Twins” throughout their lives. This book has a fascinating premise and is clearly well researched, with plenty of detail. The focus on the differences between the twins, especially Chang’s longing to be separate, are especially well done, though there were also many moments that I wished carried more emotional weight or were delved into more deeply. What I appreciated most was the very human way both men were portrayed when it might have been easy to sensationalize them.”

Join the #HistoricalFix chat tonight (Tuesday, March 31) at 5:30 PST!

Ellice has been blogging at Paper Riot since 2013. She is a librarian, book lover and Southern belle who loves sweet tea, animals, football and books with kissy scenes in them. You will mostly find her fangirling over contemporary books.

2 Responses to “Guest Post: Erin Lindsay McCabe Talks Diversity in Historical Fiction”

  1. Leah says:

    lovelovelovelovelove this post! I can always count on Erin to add even more books to my To Read list :) & obvs I’ll be there tonight for the chat!

    Can I add a few more diverse histfic recs?

    Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli: this made my Top Reads of 2014 list ♥! A family saga sweeping from pre-Civil War to the 1940s and told through a number of eyes. Not only was this book everything I wanted, but it’s also a debut!

    The House Girl by Tara Conklin: just as Glow made my 2014 list, The House Girl was on my Top Reads of 2013 list. I came across it through the GoodReads Awards and oh man I fell HARD. It alternates between the present day and 1852. A slave whose artwork is credited to her mistress. A young lawyer working on a case to seek reparations for descendants of slaves. So, so lovely.

    The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy: okay, so this one doesn’t come out until May, but ADD IT TO YOUR LISTS. It’s incredible. Underground Railroad fiction. Need I say more?

  2. Alexa S. says:

    I am totally bookmarking this post for future reference! I’m slowly finding my footing in historical fiction again, and it makes me so happy to see some diverse reading recommendations here :D

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