Turning Seacoast Fact into Historical Fiction
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Homer_Figg_closeupHISTORY MATTERS

Writing history requires total accuracy, but for fiction writiers, the truth is just a springboard. The people and plot comes from the author’s creative mind. This article dips one toe into the ocean of historical fiction written about our Seacoast region and by Portsmouth-area novelists. Is historical fiction a good way to learn history? Or is the past just a backdrop to imaginary adventure? (Click to read)


Historical fiction flourishes in Seacoast NH

Sometimes the truth needs a little shove to get our attention. My friend Rodman Philbrick did not quite win the Newbery Medal for children’s literature as the Portsmouth Herald reported last week. He and three other authors received the Newbery Honor as runners up to the 2010 medal for excellence. But in the publishing business, as in horseshoes, close counts. This is a huge national honor for a Portsmouth-born novelist, and for this city, and if one headline writer accidentally bent the facts a bit -- so much the better.

Funnier still is the fact that Philbrick’s novel is about a boy who has problems with the truth. The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg is about a 12-year old Mainer who gets caught in the crossfire of the bloody Civil War while searching for his older brother. Homer is prone to exaggeration in the colorful tradition of humorist Mark Twain who once said, "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't."

Philbrick does what historians only dream about – he makes things up. That’s standard fare in science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery novels – all genres where Philbrick has published in his prolific career. With Homer Figg, however, Philbrick drops his imaginary characters smack into the Battle of Gettysburg and other historic events and sites. The result is both good fiction and good history as we see the Civil War through the eyes of a poor and largely undeducated boy from Pine Swamp, Maine. It is the fresh perspective that makes history come to life. Philbrick spent two years, between other novels, studying up on the Civil War before the narrative "voice" of Homer Figg coalesced into the spunky character that narrates the book.

"I found a wealth of information -- whole archives -- on the American Civil War, from letters of the time period to everything you'd ever want to know about weapons, uniforms, and particular battles," he says.

Philbrick also ran his manuscript by Richard Adams, a local Civil War buff, and former president of the Portsmouth Athenaeum, where Philbrick is also a member. Adams and other experts, questioned Philbrick’s use of the word "bullets" in Homer Figg. Standard Civil War ammunition, they pointed out, was a lead slug then called a "mini-ball" or "Minie-ball" after its inventor Claude Minie. But knowing how hilarious "mini-balls" might sound to a nine-year-old boy discussing the story in class, Philbrick stuck with the word "bullets".



Making up the past

We have entered the dangerous world of "historical fiction" where real and make believe bond like molecules, sometimes enhancing our view of the past, sometimes distorting it beyond reason. As a kid I loved Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, but despised Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. When I parodied the latter as "Toilet Tremain" in an eighth-grade column in the local newspaper the wheels almost came off my career as a journalist. Do we learn good history from history-based novels like The Three Muskateers, War and Peace or those weighty paperbacks by James Michener?

Historic novels run the gamut from Alex Haley’s descent into slavery in Roots to the bodice ripper romances on the grocery store shelves. Does E.L. Doctorow have the right to put words in the mouths of real life characters in books like Ragtime? Was it okay for novelist Anita Shreve to turn the surviving victim into the murderer in the very real 1873 homicides on Smuttynose Island at the Isles of Shoals? The jury is still out.

"I thought her [Shreve’s] Weight of Water was beautifully written," Philbrick says. "She has a very persuasive way of transiting between the past and the present, and manages to make it look easy. It isn't."

patriots_reward_coverSometimes an historical novel can change our image of history itself. In Patriot’s Reward, writer Stephen Clarkson wanted readers to know that slavery existed in both the North and South. A lawyer by trade, Clarkson was surprised to learn that his own New Hampshire ancestors had enslaved an African man from Senegal in 1755. Clarkson threw himself into research based largely on Valerie Cunningham’s work on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. In his novel, Clarkson’s African protagonist fights for the America’s freedom in the Revolution. In fact, 180 black men from New Hampshire joined the patriot cause. One-third of the soldiers at Bunker Hill, according to Clarkson’s web site (PatriotsReward.com) were black, and despite their sacrifice, emancipation did not arrive for another century.

Philbrick’s award-winning novel, however, has no historical agenda. Although there have been Philbricks in this area since the 17th century (Herb Philbrick of Rye, author of I Lived Three Lives, is a third cousin) Rod comes at this genre as a fiction writer first and foremost.

"The teaching of a moral lesson, or any lesson, is never part of the deal for me, because it tends to get in the way of telling a good tale," he says. "The notion of writing a story set in the time of the Civil War just seemed very interesting to me, and I hope it might be of interest to anyone who has ever noticed that every small town in New England has a fairly large monument to the Civil War dead. Who were these young men? Why did they come from every farm and village? How did they feel about going off to war?"

Spinning seacoast stories

Rebecca_Wentworths_DistractionFor historians like me foraging for facts the Portsmouth’s 400 year timeline provides consistent and nutritious meals. But for hungry novelists with an appetite for history, this region is a smorgasbord of stories just waiting to be fleshed out as fiction. I’ve never seen a comprehensive list of novels set in this region, but it would have to be a lengthy one including the 19th century works of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Sarah Orne Jewett, and other literary lions.

Writer Robert Begiebing told me he loves the discovery process of researching a new historical novel. His latest, Rebecca Wentworth's Distraction, is set in 18th century Portsmouth when the evolving city was a seaport on par with Boston. He likes to mix imaginary characters with real people, but prefers to stay away from famous figures who , he says, may come off wooden. He finds his characters lives and voices hidden in diaries and journals deep in the archives of history collections like the Portsmouth Athenaeum, UNH Special Collections and the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. Begiebing is also professor of writing, both fiction and nonfiction, and director of the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University.

"I recall walking out of the museum library [at Strawbery Banke]," he says, "and into the sunlight after a full summer's day deep in its collections and feeling as if I had struck gold and deserved a lobster roll and chips as a picnic in Prescott Park in the light of sky and water before heading home.  I felt like a kid."

While some research first, then write, Begiebing prefers to research while he’s writing the narrative "right up to the bitter end". That process can take three or four years from start to finish.

Geoffrey_Frost_Privateer_Cover"The good stuff …can't be planned or ambushed," he says. "At a certain point the story begins to take off on its own, and you more or less know when that is happening, but even so, more historical detail and voices can keep sending the narrative in directions you hadn't planned on. The surprises give you a kick and you hope surprise and kick the reader as well."

Sometimes a character can climb right out of the past and move full time into a writer’s living room. Such is the case of Geoffrey Frost who has so far inhabited five novels by E.F.Fender. This series is fashioned after the wildly popular maritime novels by Patrick O'Brian best known from the Hollywood film Master and Commander. Fender also admires the Horatio Hornblower series by E. M. Forster. Fender, who lives in Madbury, has a sixth novel in progress and an endless supply of adventures drawn, he claims with tongue-in-cheek, from an old trunk full of documents he discovered at a local antique store. His protagonist is named for Fender’s close friend, the late Kittery historian Joe Frost, an irascible collector of rare local artifacts and documents.

"There’s never been a nautical series set in the American Revolution," Fender says. "I’m taking my characters and inserting them into actual historic events."

The Geoffrey Frost series, initially published by University Press of New England, begins in March of 1776 and hovers around the Port of Portsmouth. The fifth volume entitle The Lucifer Cypher, centers on the city’s "Christian Shore" and includes a secret Revolutionary War-era two-man submarine being tested in Great Bay. Besides digging into early documents, Fender buys old books, lots of them, and scribbles notes in the margins, and highlights exciting bits with yellow markers. It’s treasonous, he knows, but each writer must find his own method for marrying fact and fiction.

When not writing history novels, Fender is head legal counsel for the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. In 2008 he served eight months as attorney to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, whom he counts as a fan of the Geoffrey Frost series. The first four historical novels set in Portsmouth are now being adapted as e-books for the Amazon Kindle. Even Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, Fender says with authority, likes to read a digital novel on his Kindle between breaks in the action in Afghanistan.



King of the hill

One name shines out in any discussion of historical novels in this region. Kenneth Roberts (1885 - 1957) was a popular columnist for the Saturday Evening Post when he published Arundel in 1927. Roberts dug deeply into the colonial history of his hometown of Kennebunk, Maine, transforming dry history chronicles into stirring action prose. But his well-researched novels did not sell well at first and he grew discouraged. Then, as World War II threatened, Roberts found the public pulse with Northwest Passage (1938), the largely true story of Rogers Rangers, the renowned "Indian fighters" and their fateful march to Quebec in 1759. The story is narrated by the fictional Langdon Towne of Portsmouth, NH.

Kenneth_Roberts_CoverThe adventure begins in Stoodley’s Tavern in Portsmouth and Roberts’ research was assisted by local librarian Dorothy Vaughan. Hollywood transformed the novel into a 1940 patriotic film starring Spencer Tracy in the title role of Robert Rogers. Both film and novel ignored the fact that Rogers, who was married to a Portsmouth woman, later abandoned his wife and became a Tory sympathizer in the Revolution. Stoodley’s Tavern on Daniel Street was later moved to Strawbery Banke Museum under its first president Dorothy Vaughan.

Rogers’ career took off and he continued to write historically accurate books about this region, setting the standard for historical novelists. Lydia Bailey (1947) includes a dark portrait of Portsmouth-born Tobias Lear, secretary to George Washington. His final work, Boon Island (1956) centered on the wreck of the Nottingham Galle.. The shipwrecked 18th century sailors had been driven to cannibalism off the coast of Maine not far from Roberts home.

Roberts won a huge following and ended up on the cover of Time magazine. He was buried in Arlington Cemetery. His Kennebunk home, visible evidence of his success is currently on the market. The 6,000-square foot estate on 60 waterfront acres is being offered at $7.95 million. Roberts writing continues to inspire historical novelists, including Rodman Philbrick.

"I loved his books when I was a teenager," Philbrick says. "When I was about four years old I accompanied my father into the then-existing Paul's Market on Daniel Street, now a bank parking lot. I supposedly asked my dad why the man was wearing the funny hat. My dad's response (or so he told it for years) was – ‘Because he's Kenneth Roberts, the famous author, and he can wear any damn hat he wants, even a French beret.’ "

The following year, when he was five years old, Rodman Philbrick, recalls shopping at JJ Newberry’s department store in downtown Portsmouth. He remembers the tall lunch counter there and the excitement of going to the big city. By sixth grade he was typing his own original stories and mailing them to magazines, although with no immediate success. It’s been a long half-century from Newberry’s lunch counter to the Newbery Honor. But now, finally, Philbrick too is a famous and successful American author of historic fiction. And he can wear any damn hat he wants -- even a French beret.


Copyright © 2010 J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s HISTORY MATTERS column apperas biweekly on the frtont page of Monday’s Portsmouth Herald and is available exclusively online at SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of three nonfiction history books for children from Compass Point Press. The most recent, Striking Back: The Fight to End Child Labor Exploitation, has just been released.