Exploring Historical Fiction: Contested Memories and Fresh Starts
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Last month we discovered the historical narrative’s importance. That is, all good historical fiction somehow makes the past relevant to current events. Today we’ll explore what’s called “contested memories.” I’ll again be drawing an example from my very entertaining unpublished manuscript, Bloody Big Dry Blues. (For a recap of my method, click here.)
When looking back through our time-distorted cultural prisms, we either selectively remember or forget. Over time, that creates contested memories, wherein collective society forms misunderstandings. Those myths lead individuals to believe that whatever happened way back whenever was inevitable. But nothing could be further from the truth. Reframing a contested memory has the potential to make good historical fiction great. Here’s how I gave it a shot:
Our historical narrative reconvenes in 1914, when Europe went to war with itself. President Woodrow Wilson declared U.S. neutrality, proclaiming all citizens “must be impartial in thought as well as action.” A majority of citizens wanted to stay free from yet another international massacre. So they were happy with Wilson’s Isolationist policy. But following historian Walter Karp’s first rule? Look at what they do, not what they say.
On flimsy pretext Wilson gave orders to invade Mexico. Not once but twice between 1914 and 1916. The general public expressed displeasure. Karp writes, this “Mexico policy revealed the extraordinary lengths Wilson was determined to go to inflict foreign complications on unwilling countrymen.” In sum, contrary to today’s popular belief? This country’s entry into WWI was far from a preordained conclusion.
Right from the start, Wilson and his Anglophile cabinet invested in Britain’s war effort. As the European War progressed, US economic prosperity became dependent on perpetuating British purchases. Thus US policy perpetuated the war itself. Karp, however, writes, “aversion to joining the carnage, the determination to remain neutral, was…virtually anonymous. Even after the sinking of the Lusitania…The wonder is not that Wilson got his war, but that he even dared to seek it.” Sound familiar?
During the fall of 1916, Wilson campaigned with this slogan:
That assured his re-election. Of course there were skeptics. They were proven right when Wilson again tweaked foreign policy, further provoking war by creating the right to democratized international commerce. And just three months into his second term, he declared war on Germany.
Wilson said: “The world must be made safe for democracy…The whole nation must be a team, in which each man shall play the part for which he is best filled…If there should be disloyalty, it shall be dealt with a stern hand of repression.” Then boom! An outbreak of patriotic fervor! Now the populace welcomed the war as a defensive act, one of national necessity. I cannot emphasize enough how fast this shift in public opinion occurred. This is where Bloody Big Dry Blues hones in.
U.S. newspapers began admonishing citizens to conform and support the war as patriotically as possible.
In Bloody Big Dry Blues I use umpteen businessmen to relay that sentiment:
“Disunion?” “Is a deplorable state for any community to fall into!” “It’s sure death to all progress!” “And do you know what the man who stands in the way of progress is?” “He’s an unpatriotic disloyal traitor is what he is!” “Because the war, it has given us a new vision.” “The ends do justify the means.” “If the method our country’s using accomplishes the goal we’re aiming for?” “It is just for that reason a good method.”
Alas Lieutenant Race Maximus Freeborn’s a freethinking nonconformist:
“The biggest grafters the world’s ever known were fastened on the American people – in the name of war and patriotism. When, I’m always asking myself, will the American people have as much sense as an ostrich? Because this war’s a monster born of hypocrisy that’s endangering civilization itself.”
Deputy Boozer’s reaction to such freedom of speech is all too typical:
“The day for finding flaws has went! And when he said the president’s full of whey, at that, why, I poked him on the chin and kicked his ribs in! Then I knocked him cross-eyed with another punch then nailed him one right where he totes his lunch! And as he tried to run I knocked his teeth out one by one!”
On November 11, 1918, Wilson signed the Armistice with Germany. Thus the supposed “war to end all wars” ended. But like Freeborn always says? “War brings forth in its travail a hideous brood of strife and war, more war, nothing but war.” And he’s right. Because Wilson established an unfortunate Interventionist precedent. For one example just look at all the godawful crap that’s happening everywhere today! The word for it is Jingoism.
Walt Whitman: “At moments of social transition, people are often trying to see the past in order to move forward. Weakly stimulated by the present, we compulsively return to the past, which has the effect of eclipsing the present, which makes us return to the past.”
That quote summarizes why I believe reframing a contested memory is a good historical fiction strategy. Not only will this improve your writing and pique your target market’s interest, you can also demythologize a popular misperception about the past. One that may be troubling you because it’s having a negative impact on our society today. When done well, trumping post-truth instills passion in others and helps instigate a fresh start. And THAT is what makes good historical fiction great.
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