Historical novelist K J Whittaker takes us on a time-travelling adventure as she selects five brilliant historical novels for young adults.
Why do you think historical fiction is a good genre for young adults to get into?
I can imagine that if you are the sort of person who has been put off history, these are the sort of books that could reignite that spark and interest. If you’ve been a bit bored by having the Victorians endlessly shoved down your throat at school, this might change your mind about history and the way you think about the past!
And what is it about historical fiction as a genre that particularly inspires you as a writer?
I find it fascinating to think that we are all where we are – in a city or in the countryside; by the sea or up a mountain – that wherever you are in the world someone else, perhaps 200 or 2000 years ago, has seen the same place but in a completely different way at a different time.
Your own recent book is set during the Regency period. However, you imagine that Napoleon has won the Battle of Waterloo and that England is under French occupation. So, it isn’t straight historical fiction – it’s historical fiction with a twist and that twist allows you to ask questions of the period.
I was obsessed by Georgette Heyer. She spawned an entire genre. I think she is peerless as a writer of historical romantic fiction, so my next comment is in no way a denigration of her work; but part of her remit is rarely to touch on the dark side of the Georgian period. The more I read about the period the more I realised that any book I wrote should face this dark side head-on. Changing the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo allowed me to examine the darker sides of the history of this period and to explore the repercussions of war on the population.
What do you think we can gain by looking at history in this way – by twisting the facts?
One of the books I wanted to talk about is Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve. It’s not trying to tell the story of the actual events. It’s more a book about at the way in which history is built. How stories build up around a particular set of circumstances or individual. It’s about how the stories that come down to us from history may not actually be the truth of what happened.
We are told at school that history is told by the winners – it is biased. What is really interesting about historical fiction is that these books can ask us as readers to question what we’ve been told. I think that is an important and an incredibly fascinating exercise.
Would now be a good moment to take a closer look at Here Lies Arthur?
Putting this story in Philip Reeve’s hands is exciting in itself. His story telling is so clever. He says himself that this isn’t true historical fiction. And yet the world that he creates is so believable – it’s visceral, it really feels real, grubby and authentic – and it has to feel real in order for us to visualise that there were people living their lives around at the time that these powerful stories were being built up around King Arthur.
Reeve imagines that King Arthur was not a terribly bright man – so the opposite of the legends around him! That he was held in place as king by the people around him who are all much more able than he is. One of the key characters is called Myrddin (who will become Merlin in history). In this book Myrddin is a clever spin-doctor not a great wizard. So many of the glittering, magical tales from the legends in this book have rather more basic and almost sordid origins – they are constructed by Myrddin.
It’s brilliant the way Reeve constructs a story behind the great myths we know today. One of Myrddin’s slaves, and one of the main characters in the book, is a girl called Gwyna, who spends a lot of the book pretending to be a boy. Myrddin enlists Gwyna to help create the Lady of the Lake myth. Myrddin tells Gwyna to swim down through the lake with a sword. He instructs her to wait in the lake until everyone is gathered round and then rise out of the water.
So, we’ve got this glittering myth of Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake but in this re-telling it’s a rather grubbier tale of a slave girl hired by a spin-doctor to pull off a stunt to make King Arthur look more magical than he really was. It lets the hot-air out of the myth – brings it all down to a more earthly, realistic level – and it is great story telling in itself.
It’s a satisfying thought experiment to go along with. I was struck that it might be even more satisfying for a young person, just launching themselves at the world, to consider the reality behind myths and history in this way.
Yes. It’s a bit sad in a way as well, isn’t it? To see the truth behind life and find out that it’s not as exciting as you’d been led to believe.
He’s a master storyteller. So even when he is taking magic away the story remains exciting.
Yes. Underneath this myth-busting there are real characters living their lives. And his beautiful spare writing style makes you feel you are really there. It’s so vivid. And it has to be totally believable for him to pull off the underlying structure of the story. I also think it’s important, particularly at the moment with the rise of fake news, for us all to understand how historical fact can be manipulated by anyone with an agenda.
Your next book is Secrets and Sapphires by Leila Rasheed, which is set about 1910 – an Edwardian setting. It’s a big leap historically from 6th Century AD and King Arthur. Tell me about why you’ve chosen this book as an example of great historical fiction for young adults.
It’s exciting and fun, but I like this book because it is also so much more than just a glamorous Downton-esque story of sparkling dresses and privilege. The Earl of Westlake is returning from India to England under a bit of a cloud of suspicion. We aren’t told exactly what he may have done or been involved in, but there are a lot of people on the boat who are not speaking to him.
Also with him on the boat are his two daughters, Ada and Georgiana. This is your first taste in the book of the notion that for these people reputation was absolutely everything, and that if your reputation was compromised, it could have devastating consequences. For men but even more so for women. Ada is of marriageable age and is poised on the brink of her first social season but there is this unspecified cloud of suspicion over her father. The story is told from the perspective of multiple characters – so you get this very clear upstairs downstairs feeling. Added to which every character has their own drama taking place in their life. There’s a gossipy, messy feel to the way the drama is played out. It’s lively and exciting to read.
Race, gender and class come up amid all the glitter and glamour.
Yes, it’s a good reflection of the society at the time – how it really was. There are characters from a variety of backgrounds – this isn’t a white middle-class retelling of Edwardian England. Issues of Empire and Indian independence are treated with good historical detail and fact. It doesn’t feel overdone and you absorb all this effortlessly. Lady Ada, through her relationship with another character, Ravi, comes to understand that her perspective of India is skewed because she is a part of the colonial system herself. The book is a great mix of well-informed history and gossipy glamour. It conjures the truth of what England really looked like at this point.
Shall we move to The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price?
This is both historical fiction and science fiction.
It’s an amazing hybrid and when I read it, it blew my mind. It’s a time-slip sci-fi novel; it is historical fiction in that the parts that are set in the 16th century feel absolutely real and I believe that they are very well researched. The detail, from the dialect they speak to the politics of Scottish border clans of the period, all feel very authentic. The science fiction comes from the 21st century scientists who are using time travel to plunder that past, there are plans to mine vital minerals from the lands of the past and even to run a kind of historic tourism business.
I love the way Susan Price has imagined the time travel – she set it in a bland office block, so the whole thing is hilariously underwhelming. You can imagine dull plastic strips hanging in front of the time-tunnel. It really made me laugh. When these scientists travel in time they are travelling in one dimension away from our own time and the way Susan Price handles describing this is subtle and effective.
The Sterkarms are a 16th century Scottish clan. If you imagine clan gangsters you’ll be getting close. Like the Peaky Blinders of the Scottish borders. They are currently in a turf war between other rival families. The 21st Century scientists have a distinctly colonial attitude to the apparently primitive clan folk and as a result they dangerously underestimate them.
One of the 21st century researchers is living with the Sterkarms – Andrea Mitchell – and we see the 16th century very much through her eyes. One of the reasons I chose this book as an interesting book for young adults is that, like Here Lies Arthur, it isn’t straight-forward historic fiction. Normally in historical fiction the person who is on the outside, who is in the 21st century, is you the reader. Whereas in this book, we see the past through another set of 21st century eyes, Andrea’s eyes and through her responses to events whilst she is among them. You really get the sense that the past is a different culture. Susan Price really captures that sense of the past feeling a truly alien place – can we ever truly understand these ancient people? It’s a subtle added dimension but it works very effectively. It’s also an extremely pacy read – you will be up till the early hours finishing this book. It isn’t a book that is easy to put down once you’ve got started.
Another cracking adventure from your list is Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman in this book we are treated to high adventure in 18th century England.
The protagonist Caleb’s father is arrested and then his body is mysteriously washed up on a beach. So, Caleb is alone now and goes to live with an aunt he barely knows and so begins the adventure to solve the mystery of his father’s death.
Caleb and his father had run a puppet show. Caleb was good with a needle and thread from mending all the puppets – he is really good at sewing. Tanya Landman uses details like this to reverse gender stereotypes. He takes in sewing work and so this skill is a vital skill for bringing in money for the family.
She is an absolute master of the cliffhanger. It really is a cracking read. I couldn’t stop once I’d started reading.
Oh it’s superb. It is utterly convincing historically and it also feels relevant and modern. It makes you look at the world around you. Tanya creates real drama in her storytelling and at the same time she highlights the inequalities of the time – inequalities that are still relevant today. Particularly the idea that there is one rule for the rich and another for the poor.
It’s also great to be reminded that in the 18th century there were people from a range of cultures and ethnicities living in the UK. Caleb is mixed race – this fact is explicit in this book since he is the main character.
Yes. And, as with the way Tanya highlights inequalities between the rich and poor, she handles race and the cruelty of racial prejudice with great clarity. She doesn’t shy away from these big and important questions – she faces them head on. This is one of the reasons I was drawn to this book and to Secrets and Sapphires. Although fiction, these are also reflections of history as it really was – so these books give a truer picture of what life really was like then. I feel that honest retellings of our history like these are important as well as being great reads. And this leads me on to my next choice.
In this last choice of yours we move on a few years in time after Hell and High Water to England in about 1819 and The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson.
This book plunges you into a technicolour world that you can believe right away. The opening of this book is brutal. A young woman, Mary Wilcox, travelling alone, is viciously attacked. We understand that she has had a child out of wedlock and that she was going home hoping to be taken back into her family. But as we all know that the chances of her family accepting her back are very slim indeed. Her prospects look grim.
Then there is the wealthy Cassandra Worrell – who has taken a tumble from her horse and by chance ends up at the local inn. Here at the inn Cassandra meets a strange young woman, dark skinned and speaking a language that no-one understands. This mysterious woman is in fact Mary who has adopted this new identity as a survival tactic – it is done in desperation. She convinces everyone around her that she is a Javanese princess who has lost her way. This chance meeting with the wealthy Cassandra marks a turning point for Mary. She is taken in by Cassandra’s family who really believe that she is this exotic princess. Well, the mother is totally convinced but there are other members of the family who aren’t so convinced – especially the apparently morally weak brother Fred. There are parallel stories that fill the book with intrigue and the book is told from a range of perspectives.
The author suggests that Mary created this exotic character for herself as a result of the trauma she had experienced – although the details of what exactly befell her are never quite clear.
Yes, she hides her true self behind this fake personality and fake language. She is living a lie. At some point the family are taken in by Captain Palmer who is really a charlatan and a drunk. He convinces the family that he can understand the Caraboo language – he spotted the deception and is trying to take advantage in order to swindle the family and Mary herself.
So, we have a situation where Mary knows he is lying and he knows Mary is lying and so Mary is helplessly drawn into a deeper and more criminal deception.
It is based on a true story isn’t it? There really was a Mary Wilcox who did pretend to be a Javanese princess.
It is and it was all over the papers. So much was said about this woman and this book gives a voice to this woman. I love that we hear her side of the story in this book.
I read that Mary was never prosecuted, nor ever made money out of her deception. In fact Mrs Worrell paid for her to go to America after the scandal and treasured the letters Mary sent back to her. They remained friends. It’s an extraordinary true story.
I love what Catherine Johnson does with the characters. It is brilliant historical fiction in this sense. Nor is anything quite as it first seems. You are forced to challenge your expectations of these characters – ask question of your assumptions. In young adult fiction something I’ve noticed and that I really enjoy is that the characters are more often than not changed by the events they experience. I feel very much that the characters in this book have been transformed by the end. I think it is important that the characters of a story are changed by events in their lives.
Interview by Zoe Greaves
March 7, 2018
This article is re-posted here from https://fivebooks.com/best-books/historical-fiction-young-adults-kj-whittaker/
It's a site on which you can find recommended books of all kinds and you may want to bookmark it.
I re-post this blog here because it recommends The Sterkarm Handshake!