Sunday, February 2, 2014

Is it cheating to read historical fiction?

I hope not, because I have indulged in some lately. My latest enthusiasm is for Robert Harris' An Officer and a Spy, his dramatic account of the Dreyfus affair. I had only a 3 x 5 card's worth of knowledge about it from earlier histories: Jewish army officer convicted of spying, imprisoned on devil's island, evidence proves another officer was the spy, French politics in turmoil for a decade over Dreyfus, Zola accuses officials of miscarriage of justice, Dreyfus eventually exonerated. Harris centers is story on the intelligence officer who is involved in the first trial, shares the casual anti-Semitism of the officer corps, but who discovers the evidence of Dreyfus' innocence and of forged documents used to convict him and then suffers ostracism and imprisonment for challenging his military superiors.

I've never been able to get into the thick volumes by historians on the Dreyfus affair, but couldn't put down this novel. It doesn't tell me everything I want to know about the broader political battles over Dreyfus, but I think I'll remember the outline better as a result.

Most historical fiction brings to life an earlier era, but through invented characters. I enjoy it when an author takes real people and adds missing dialogue and plausible if not documented events. At the National War College, we studied the battle of Gettysburg by reading Michael Shaara's Killer Angels. I think I learned more about our 30th president by reading John Derbyshire's Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream than I ever did in a history book.  On the other hand, I refused to read Edmund Morris' life of Ronald Reagan, Dutch,because he invented characters to tell his purportedly nonfiction story.

One of our best current authors of historical fiction set in Washington is Thomas Mallon, who has written about Watergate, the McCarthy era, and the sad but fascinating Henry and Clara, the story of the young couple who sat with the Lincolns at Ford's Theater. Henry Rathbone, severely wounded by Booth's knife, was troubled for years by his failure to somehow protect Lincoln. In the 1880s he killed his wife Clara and spent his final years in an insane asylum.

Add these to your reading list.

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