WE SHOULD demand of historical fiction that it be both good fiction and good history. When a historical novel is addressed to children, concessions have to be made to the vocabulary, the historical awareness and the special interests and concerns of children at a particular stage of their education and development. But good writing for children is like good writing for any audience. It ought to stretch our sympathies and extend our understanding, by putting us into strange places and conditions, and teaching us to know them; by putting us in the minds of other people whose reality we believe in and share. What carries us over into belief is the author's power of detailed representation of things physical and emotional; and above all, the author's representation of human motivation, of the processes by which people perceive, grapple with, and respond to the world they live in.
The easiet way to "place" a fiction in history is by alluding to familiar historical personages and events. But if a novel does no more than point to recognizable historical landmarks its history is reduced to clich,e. The real task is to recreate the life of the past from the inside out. The author must of course be aware of the look and arrangement of the world in which the character lives--how the houses are made, where the furniture is, who sits on it. More important is the rendering of the character's perception of these things. We (the readers) will perceive them as strange, and as invested with a special aura of meaning because of their "historicity"; but the character cannot have such an awareness. What we find exotic is to him trivial and ordinary.
The two novels under discussion deal with these problems in different ways and with varying degrees of success. Both are set in a relatively distant and unfamiliar epoch--the late 18th century. Paul Fleischman's Path of the Pale Horse deals with an unusual but exceptionally interesting historical event: the yellow fever epidemic that decimated Philadelphia in 1793-94. The author treats a fascinating historical issue: the relationship of science, superstition and religion as ways of comprehending and dealing with a crisis, in a time when modern scientific ideas still had to contend with magic and folklore. His hero is well chosen to present these issues to us. He is young Asclepius ("Lep") Nye, apprenticed to a country physician, a naive devotee of a "scientific" medicine that is itself still innocent of modern method; and as a child, he is still susceptible to the appeal of superstitious fear and religious interpretations of the catastrophe.
But Fleischman's book is weakened by both novelistic and historiographical flaws. Philadelphia in the plague-year calls for a Dickensian recording, or at least a rendering that gives us the sense of the urban scene--which must have appalled and overwhelmed a country lad like Lep. Instead the setting seems flat and empty.
Fleischman relies too much on allusiveness to place his characters historically. He tells us at the start that a certain wealthy man is revered on a level otherwise reserved "for President Washington, selected saints, and Almighty God" might be going it a bit strong; and the vague reference to "selected saints" seems wrong for 18th-century Protestants.
This inauthenticity of language carries over into the characterization of Lep. An 18th-century boy ought to have stronger reactions to religious ideas. Lep's inner dialogue about the things he sees and feels is psychologically and historically flat. The author's language does not rise to emotional crises; and he >alludes to feelings and issues instead of recreating them from the inside out.
The Colliers' War Comes to Willy Freeman, set during the American Revolution, has as its protagonist a black girl whose father dies in the British attack on New London, Connecticut (1781). Her mother is carried off by the Tories as a prisoner, and Willy must disguise herself as a boy to pass through the lines and reach her mother in New York. The inner life of Willy Freeman is the real matter of this story, which deals with the primary early-teen issues of individuation and separation from parents and parental authority. The issues implicitly correspond to the themes of the War of Independence, which gives the history an emotional resonance. The sexual role-playing Willy engages in also raises questions of sexual identity that are so critical during puberty, and do so in a way that readers concerned with overcoming sexual stereotypes will find interesting. Likewise, Willy's blackness gives her (and the reader) a unique and provocative perspective on the ideological issues of the Revolution--liberty, equality and independence.
The historical settings are recognizable, but not so familiar as to smack of the textbook. The issues are historically valid, but they have relevance for the lives of the book's modern audience. This is a novel that is as much about character as it is about history; and that balance of elements is just right not only for historical fiction, but for novels of any kind.