David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U

Is our view of history manipulated by story? One power of story: To present a particular emotional, partisan and one-sided view. When we read a novel we are used to the idea of having a single protagonist as a key element in the story. We empathise with the main character; this is the convention of story.

What happens when we read a story in which the MC is on the ‘other side’?

E.H. Carr is a leading historiographer: He studies how we record history. In What Is History he says that history is a conversation between the present and the past. Therefore we can learn from the past and apply it to the present. In regards to the Aboriginals, for instance, what was seen as an achievement in the past may later be seen as a failure.


Napoleon Crossing The Alps

Is considered one of the great heroes. But the British called him the ‘little corporal’.

This is a British comedy series only about 10 years old. The same attitude towards Napoleon is conveyed, centuries later.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

All history writing is selective, be it fiction or non-fiction. We can look at Greek archaeology for instance and learn things about the Olympic games. Or we can read a book like Dyan Blacklock’s. The past is being continuously reconstructed by the present, and it keeps changing. What we see as definite points of history will continue to be reconsidered as time goes on.

Erik Haugaard, a Danish children’s writer said something like: When you write a story that takes place in times gone past you are free. Your readers will accept your tale more easily due to less prejudice. But you’d think you’d be more limited. You can’t make things up about the past as a setting. Children of the past are freer in historical novels. They don’t need to go to school or stop at traffic lights, so in that sense there is a freedom allowed in historical settings. It was easier to remain unnoticed.

Benedict Arnold acted as an agent and a spy. He argued that he was simply doing his duty as a citizen of Britain. Was he a hero or was he a traitor by not going along with the revolution? Fidel Castro is another historical character who can be considered both a hero and a traitor, depending on which side you’re on. Ned Kelly is a good Australian example. The author of historical fiction has to pick a side or decide these moral questions, even if the aim is remain neutral.

Beagley mentions at this point a book by Christobel Mattingley: No Guns For Asmir. Asmir, like Sadako, was a real person. This one is set in Sarajevo.

Definition of Hagiography

Hagiography originally meant the story of a saint. When we use this word today we’re generally talking about writing which makes out a person from the past was wonderful.

With Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, the author does not take sides, mainly because it avoids the key question: Should the atomic bomb have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? However, indirectly the question is there the whole time. Eleanor Coerr simply gives us the story of a small girl, who begins the story as a healthy school girl keen to make her family proud by running in a relay team. The conversations she has with her mother are fabricated because that was never recorded. Also, the conversations would have been in Japanese. Authors must make up what was not recorded, but include that which was: We all know a bomb was dropped, so that part is not the fictional part. The answer that you come up with regarding the morality of war is your own answer. You are required to make that decision yourself.

Or, is it therefore avoiding the question? Neither child nor adult readers might not be ready to face that one.

Historical works which ask difficult questions

Another book which similarly raises awkward questions is Hitler’s Daughter.  Adolf Hitler is generally seen as a bad person. But what if he had a daughter called Heidi, who he kept sheltered during the war? Heidi spends most of the story waiting for her father to come and visit. He is very important. He doesn’t see her much but shows obvious affection, trying to keep her safe. This is a brilliantly constructed story.

  • I Am David and The Silver Sword (both about child refugees)
  • The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett
  • Diary of Anne Frank about the Holocaust
  • Maurice Gleitzman’s trilogy of Once (2006), Then, and Now
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak
  • Divine Wind by Garry Disher — Set in the seaside town of Broome in northwestern Australia, it opens in 1946, when Hart Penrose—son of a pearl lugger and a race-conscious Englishwoman—begins looking back at his complicated relationship with Mitsy Senosuke, daughter of Japanese immigrants.