I was recently honored by an interview with the Ironton Tribune, which was followed up by an editorial which discussed the importance of interesting young readers in history, a sentiment I care deeply about.
The article reminds us that history is often best learned by means other than text books and history class. Class assignments can be boring, yet knowing our past is vital to our future.
For me the answer was historical fiction. Reading stories made history more interesting, and now I attempt to share history with today’s young readers in that same way.
History is so filled with catastrophes and big events that time eventually relegates them to old files and archives. Movies have kept the fate of the Titanic alive, while the steamboat Sultana remained unknown by most. That is what led me to write my novel Like a River. I wrote about the record-breaking Ohio River flood of 1937 in Not on Fifth Street. I feel an obligation to remind people of those tragedies, remind them what previous generations have endured.
Jack Gantos, Newbery-winning author, wrote, “…every soul is a book of their own history… Sadly, we don’t know the history of every person who ever lived…”
Millions of real people have lived on this earth in ways barely noticed. Some would have stayed unnoticed if their skeletons had not been unearthed thousands of years later and studied. Paleontologists and archeologists can tell us about long-gone people by their remains and artifacts they left behind.
The more recent past has been recorded and handed down to us. We read about famous inventors and their inventions. We learn about generals, kings, and presidents, artists and writers, and even outlaws and criminals.
But what about “average” people? People have struggled through everyday lives, fighting their own personal battles, living their own dramas, but not “making history” by their actions.
My goal when I wrote Empty Places was to show what an average person’s life was like in 1932 in a Harlan County coal camp. I use fictional characters to portray lives of people long forgotten.
We might have heard stories passed down by our parents and grandparents. We can pass those stories on to our own children and grandchildren, stories that get a little less firm in our memories as time fades them. And what about those who don’t have progeny to tell their stories to? Are their stories lost forever?
I research the way people lived in the last two hundred or so years. I listen to stories handed down by families, including my own. My fictional characters are a mixture of many real-life people, whose stories haven’t been recorded in history books. I write fictional stories that COULD HAVE happened to people.
It is my way of trying to make their lives live on, to have meaning for a new generation of readers.