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Topic: Historical novels that teach history

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Subject: Historical novels that teach history
Date Posted: 10/22/2011 8:24 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,516
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Over in another forum, a teacher asked for recommendations on historical novels that also taught history. I spent some time listing a few books and why I thought they were worthwhile.  As an educator, I'm an entomologist at a large univerrsity, I have a deep interest in teaching young people and, as my hobby is history, I often recommend books on such. Here are a number of books (middle school and high school) that I recommended in the other forum and I would also like to share here.


Fever 1793 by Laurie Anderson

This book received  numerous awards for children's literature. It is an authentic tale of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, which was the capitol of the U.S. at that time.

The primary role is a teenage girl, 16-year-old Mattie, whose single mother runs a coffee house. Her mother leaves just before the fever strikes to visit relatives out of town. The girl and her grandfather, a elderly Revolutionary War veteran, try to keep the coffee house running with help from white friends and Afro-American employees (also friends).

Eventually they try to leave town, as no one is coming to the coffee house or any other establishment, to find her mother.  The book deals with the reactions of the people in Philadelphia and neighboring communities, and the government (town, state and national). It is full of concepts that can be discussed in class. 

I am an entomologist who uses this epidemic  to teach college students how insects affected our history. This book deals with so many issues, political and social, that really happened that it could probably be a true tale.  I recommend it to students in a science teaching course I lecture in.

I suggest that a teacher also get An American Plague by Jim Murphy  that is a Grade 6-10 level history of this epidemic. An American Plague serves as an historical resource to any questions the students might have about the validity of Fever 1793.

Do not confuse it with The American Plague, which covers other aspects of the history of yellow fever.

An interesting concept in the book, that existed for centuries before this epidemic and for well over a 100 years after it, was that  Negros were immune to the disease or had a resistance to it.  Of course, this wasn't true. As a result, when whites fled the town, leaving many to die, it was the local free Afro-American community that provided care to so many, often for no payment.  Then they started dying too.

Later, when the epidemic was over, a returning "journalist" wrote up those in the Afro-American community as greedy, predatory and worse. Other journalists wrote defenses of the Negros and the local Afro-American comunity itself published a defense of their actions during the epidemic. This was the first case of publishing such a document in America.  As a result, these two book are valuable in teaching young Afro-Americans that Negros served important roles in early American history that was not the stereotypical slave role.

Speaking of stereotypical "slave roles," I also recommend the video Filling the Gap which covers the Civil War period. It was filmed in Florida and includes some of my friends. It has received acclaim for depicting how Afro-Americans (free and slave) contributed to our history and economic development as skilled artisans and leaders.  Since this video is sold (I receive no monetary benefit from it) , I cannot list the Web site here, but If you have an interest, please PM me.  Or just go to Google and search for Filling the Gap. It should come up first or in the top results. There are two selections from the vido shown on the site.

April Morning by Howard Fast. 

It is Spring in colonial America, and 15-year-old Adam is feeling his oats as a young man. His father still treats him as a boy and Adam is beginning to have problems in his relationship with his father, who loves Adam but does not know how to show it. Adam has a girl friend that he is very serious about.  At this period of American history, youngsters this age were on the verge of adulthood, so many married young. Adam's father also just happens to be the captain of the local militia. Then late one night, a man rides through town warning the villagers that "The ministy's army is coming." Did I mention that Adam lives in Lexington, Massachusetts? Tomorrow morning, "on the 18th of April in 75," Adam is going to leave his childhood behind forever.  

This is also an excellent video in the Hallmark series. NOTE: Paul Revere and others never said "The Redcoats are coming." It was either "The army is coming," or "The ministry's army is coming."  Colonial Americans initially blamed the British ministers in power  and not King George for the laws made against them.

Alas Babylon by Pat Frank.

What would have happened if an atomic war had occurred in the 1950s?  Pat Frank does an outstanding job of realistically depicting such in this classic which takes place in a small town in Florida.  Life gets turned upside down as the people in that town find themselves cut off from the state and national resources they were used to. They are on their own, even defending themselves against drug addicts without drugs, and outlaws who use force to get what they want. This book comes across as so real you can't classify it as science-fiction. Excellent roles for both whites and blacks, both young and old,  in this book as the political, economic and social order is turned upside down and average Americans take their destiny in their own hands.

Captain Newman , M.D. by Leo Rosten

A wonderful book about the post-traumatic stress disorder problems we hear about due to our current wars in the mid-East, but all the action takes place in a hospital ward in the southwest U.S. during World War II.  The stories of the patients (and staff) are both funny and sad, uplifting and tragic. A wonderful book I have read many times. 

This is also a great movie starring Gregory Peck.

A Walk in the Sun by Harry Brown

Finally, what is it like to be in a war? Especially if you have to make the decisions on who lives or dies. This classic follows an American infantry platoon that lands at Salarno, Italy in 1943. It follows the men as they march a lonely road toward a farm house they have to take. A house sure to be defended by German soldiers. The incidents along the way, as men fight and die, sometimes for no reason, and the stress of command takes its toll on the sergeants leading the platoon. How do men face the knowledge that they may be the next to die, or seeing their friends die.  This is war as really seen by the infantry, and not as seen in the special effects of movies such as  Saving Private Ryan.  

This was also made into an excellent  movie by the same name. Dana Andrews stars but so do many others who were either big stars at that time or who went on to be big stars.

These last two books are outstanding novels about World War II, the war that changed the world, the war that we could not afford to lose. They serve as valuable discussion tools to the story of World War II, and demonstrate what the students' grandfathers and other relatives did for today's young Americans.

All four books are relatively short, 300 pages and less, and easy to read.  The longer ones could be assigned as extra credit. Obviously, you would not use all of them in the same term.

Kim by Rudyard Kipling - A great tale of 19th century India. Kim, a young Anglo-Indian boy, lives on the street. There are wonderful descriptions of Indian life during that time.  Kim later becomes a spy for the British Raj while also serving a Holy Lama who is searching for Budda's Holy River.  Too many lessons in this book to even begin listing them. This is the book I want to live in when I die. 

Also made into a movie starring Errol Flynn that departs somewhat from the book.

Drums Along the Mohawk by Walter Edmonds - A young couple starts their married life in New York's  Mohawk Valley at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The book depicts Indian raids and General Herkimer's famous defense of the Valley.  Many scenes depicting community  cooperation in building, harvesting, medical care and defense. How our ancestors worked hard, lost everything and started in again without government aid.

Also made into an excellent  movie staring Henry Fonda.

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson - Life, death and love during the English War of the Roses.

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabtini - A great adventure depicting life before the French Revolution, giving many reasons why that Revolution occurred and was so bloody.  This was also made into a movie, but I forget who stars.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy - An English adventurer risks his life rescuing French aristocrats during the French Revolution's Reign of Terror. Also a love story of two people married to each other who don't know how much they care for each other. 

Also made into a very good movie starring Leslie Howard.



Last Edited on: 10/25/11 10:13 PM ET - Total times edited: 2
Date Posted: 10/25/2011 6:38 PM ET
Member Since: 2/13/2008
Posts: 662
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I appreciate your thorough reviews.  Thanks!

Date Posted: 10/25/2011 11:27 PM ET
Member Since: 10/2/2007
Posts: 415
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Very interesting! Thank you for the reviews!

Date Posted: 10/29/2011 11:38 AM ET
Member Since: 6/26/2006
Posts: 610
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Thank you!  Linda (the OP of the other post)

Subject: History books- living history/history novels
Date Posted: 12/10/2011 9:45 PM ET
Member Since: 8/6/2010
Posts: 23
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All Through the Ages is an excellent book to find living history books for ALL ages (read aloud and readers).  Book is divided into two sections, chronological history, and geographic history.  Book is also section according to reading level.  Covers ALL of history including history of science. Worth every penny.

Subject: Historical novels that teach history
Date Posted: 12/31/2011 5:00 PM ET
Member Since: 7/14/2006
Posts: 7
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Fabulous!  Thanks for your terrific reviews!

Subject: Add this one
Date Posted: 3/10/2012 7:55 AM ET
Member Since: 2/19/2012
Posts: 17
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Esperanza Rising by Pam Nunoz.  6-8 grade  Rich Mexican girl's family loses ranch and moves north.  She now has to work at menial jobs she would never have considered before as well as deal with all the prejudice against Mexicans during the dust bowl era.  The "Okies" get more pay and better jobs even though Esperanza's friend is a trained mechanic.  Esperanza has to deal with her own prejudices from her former life and being a rich girl.  Also refers to the mass deportations, workers' strikes, etc.  Great historical read for the era.

Date Posted: 3/17/2012 1:38 PM ET
Member Since: 9/22/2010
Posts: 3,516
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North Star Conspiracy by Miriam Grace Monfredo

This story takes place in 1854 when the Fugitive Slave Law was in effect. There are people in Seneca Fall, New York, who cooperate with the law and many who directly or indirectly defy it due to their moral opinions. The action takes place in Seneca Fall, Rochester and New York, New York as well as Richmond, Virginia.

One of the major plots in the novel concerns a young white man from Seneca Fall who helps a female slave from Richmond to escape to Canada, as they wish to be married. Then the hunt is on for both of them.  The other major plot concerns several murders in Seneca Falls that may be related to the deaths of fugitive slaves years before. The major role is played by a female librarian in her late 20s. This is the second book in a very good series that has many historical tie-ins to America.  The Underground Railroad is discussed throughout in this book. Several notable historical men and women made significant or cameo appearances.

Very interesting and enjoyable novel that I hated to see end. Please see the link above for my review.

Last Edited on: 3/19/12 9:28 AM ET - Total times edited: 1