The books I love to read are historical fiction. Historical because I get to learn stuff about my ancestors, things that happened to humans long ago, historical events like wars and discoveries. Fiction because more than dates and accounts of “what actually happened,” I get pulled into “what could have actually happened.” I get to meet actual people with real life dramas. They just happen to have lived long ago.
The fiction part turns history into stories. That makes history come alive for me. The drama, the betrayal, the loyalty, the tragedy, the triumph, the secrets, the life-changing decisions that people make. This makes it really fun for me, and relatable. I can see myself in the stories. It’s hard for me to see myself in dates and facts. But I can see how a person in a story is facing the same kinds of things that I am, although in a different age.
The history part of historical fiction reminds me that humans have been through this before, and worse. Of course Americans have not gone through the same things as the Chinese or Romans or other empires, but certainly the same types of things. Always with different settings and different players, yet many societies have faced dramatic political uncertainty much like America today. Many societies have feared scarcity of resources. Many societies have endured pandemics.
As a younger man I toured the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I stumbled out onto the sidewalk afterwards and cried uncontrollably. If you don’t know, Anne Frank was a Jewish girl hiding with her family during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. You think our lockdowns are bad? For 761 days Anne and her family lived in a secret part of house behind a bookcase. It’s a remarkable story that shows me how things could be. Check out her story here.
And this is just one story. One. There are millions of such stories in other times and places. And these stories are happening today. They are even happening in America right among us. People are trapped in their houses or apartments. People are prisoners in abusive relationships. People are in hiding. People are desperately hungry. People fear for their lives.
Reading such stories – even tragic stories – gives me strange comfort. I think it’s because I get to see I’m not alone. I’m not the only one who has been through stuff like this. I get to see what it means to be human. I feel a sense of belonging.
And I get to see that actually, things aren’t so different today. Or so bad. And I get to see how my ancestors handled the tragedies they were handed. I learn coping skills.
And I learn that today’s tragedies are not my fault. The historical characters in the stories before me didn’t ask for their tragedies either. History is just human nature over and over again.
I am in awe of authors who can bring me history though stories. Thank you.