Friday, November 15, 2013

A Voice from the Wilderness

A Voice from the Wilderness : The Story of Anna Howard Shaw by Don Brown is a perfect example of that blurred line of historical fiction and nonfiction. It's something I have been thinking about lately as I study picture books and think about my own writing.

Anna Shaw's story is a real one, and a good one at that, but where do you put a book like this? It is a nicely written, easy to read account of a girl who grows up in the pioneer wilderness of Michigan in the 1860's, who later goes on to get an education and fight for women's rights. Brown makes the case that because the difficulties of Anna's young homesteading life helped her grow in strength and will, she was able to face more resolutely the struggles of fighting for women's right to vote.

This is probably true. But since the book was published in 2001, my guess is that writers weren't putting in details of those struggles. That's what Brown's book is lacking for me. The whole thing is a bit sugar-coated. He says her life in the woods was hard, and describes that she and her younger brother had to dig a well (!!) and find food and plant crops in a forest, on their own. But the sense from Brown is that it was no big deal. Anna loved her hard life, and she relished the adventure. 

I have no doubt she did, to some extent, and when she looked back on her childhood and her exploration of her wilderness home, she had some good and powerful memories. But what he describes are things that would be exceedingly difficult for an adult to do, let alone a child!  Based on what I know of children, there is NO WAY any kid wants to go out and dig a well, no matter what century they live in. At least not without a s#&*load of complaining. Which brings me back to my original question? Is it fiction or is it nonfiction? 

Brown has the usual page of facts at the back of the book which explain Anna's life a bit further, and state that he got much of his information from Anna's own autobiography. Obviously the book is based on a real woman's real life. But I wonder about how we are looking back into history and the stories we are telling our children, what we are telling ourselves. 

It's a blurry line between history and story, between truth and telling that truth to our kids. Anna's life had struggles and she fought for herself and for truth her whole life. Maybe that's the point to focus on, because that, if nothing else is real.

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