A Historian Writes Fiction

Recently, a simple question turned into a superb opportunity for me to think about how my novels model historical thinking.

I was taking questions about my novels before an audience of seventh graders who had read the first two books of The Snipesville Chronicles. A girl raised her hand. “In the second book, did you ever give a reason why the park was saved after [the main characters] time traveled?”

[Multiple Spoiler Alert]

That gave me pause. I couldn’t remember. I wrote A Different Day, A Different Destiny (The Snipesville Chronicles, Book 2) nearly a decade ago, and while I have re-read it since, I simply don’t think about it very often.  Set in 1851, it takes my middle-school time travelers to industrialized early Victorian Britain and the antebellum South. It’s a complicated plot, and I won’t even try to repeat it here, but one catalyst for their adventure is that, in the present day, a nameless scrap of land in the middle of the historically black neighborhood of a small Southern town is threatened with development and gentrification.

That’s before their adventure in the 19th century. When the kids return to the 21st century, the formerly neglected and nameless land is now miraculously lined with pecan trees, and has just been renamed for a distinguished member of the black community.

When the young reader asked her question, how and why did that happen, I couldn’t for the life of me remember if I had explicitly connected that sudden change with my main characters’ time-travel adventure.

It isn’t like me to leave loose ends, and nobody had ever asked this question before. But I did wonder in that moment if I had pulled a Ray Bradbury, as I like to think of it. In his short story “A Sound of Thunder”, Bradbury’s famous premise was that a time traveler who steps on a butterfly in the prehistoric past causes massive and catastrophic change in human history.

I told my questioner that perhaps I had simply followed my instinct (derived from Bradbury) that any changes in the past could potentially have unforeseen and unlikely consequences in the present. But I also told her that I honestly couldn’t remember what my thinking had been on the park’s transformation, or how I had represented it, and that I would take a look when I got home. 

So I have, and this is my reply.

When I read the relevant part of the book, I immediately remembered: I did give a reason, and it’s explained. However, in the manner of teaching historians (of whom my character Professor Harrower is an extreme example) my explanation isn’t laid out clearly for quick consumption. I simply build a case with textual evidence. The answer isn’t handed to the reader. The final connection is hers to make, or to pursue. Or not, as she prefers. Contrary to how history professors are perceived, the good teachers are less about doling out facts for consumption, and more about modeling how historical arguments are made, while inviting students to participate in drawing their own conclusions in accordance with the facts.

So what is the reason I gave for the park’s unexpected reprieve? Naturally, there’s no simple answer. First, the way that the community thinks about the park has changed drastically. Before my time travelers depart for the 19th century, Dr. Braithwaite, speaking to the city council, presented the green space simply as a place for local children to play, children for whom the nearest official city park was a considerable walk away.  This was my allusion to the insidious effects of historical segregation, although (wishing to spare my readers a history lesson) I didn’t say so directly.

But when the kids return to the present day, to discover that the land is now to be a park, Dr. Braithwaite’s reasoning has changed. He explains that the park “is a traditional gathering space for black people in Snipesville.”

So the park has now developed a status it had not had before. And there’s more. It has also acquired an origin story. They now learn that the land had begun as a pecan orchard developed by Jupiter, an enslaved man who was also one of time-traveler Brandon’s ancestors, and that people in the community had been picking pecans there for more than a century. I got the idea from an unpleasant encounter with a campus cop a few years ago, when I was picking up pecans on campus. I learned that the university (for reasons) had banned the gathering of nuts from around the trees. It offended my British sense of access to land, of harmless foraging, and I had to leave before I risked arrest (which still strikes me as absurd and sad, years later.)

So it won’t be a surprise to you that when I reinvented the park  in light of the time travelers’ adventure, the park had become the focus of black community identity, and had inspired their sense of investment and ownership. Again, I did not explain why, leaving it to the reader to connect the dots, that people will fight for what they genuinely care about. Leaving the reader to draw conclusions is not a good practice for a historian writing history: As a professor explained to me when I was a grad student, you don’t want your readers to draw their own conclusions from your argument. Doing so may not even be a wise move for a novelist. But it is a good practice in teaching, and it is a reflection of how historians work, acting in detective mode, pulling disparate wisps of evidence together to form a plausible narrative.

Still, though, this doesn’t answer the main point of the student’s question: Now that I have reincarnated the park as central to the local black community, which made it easier to save it from development, what did this change have to do with my time travelers? The answer is quite a bit.

Here’s how.

While the kids were in 1851, the new owner of the plantation asked Jupiter why, during the hiatus between his arrival and the departure of the previous owner, a corner of a cotton field had been planted with pecan trees. Jupiter explained that he and his fellow enslaved people had planted the orchard to supplement their diets. It would also gave them an income, by providing them a marketable product they could sell in Savannah (slaves selling their own produce on Sundays for personal profit was absolutely a thing!) However, the owner curtly informed him that the pecans would henceforth either be sold for his own profit, or counted as part of the slaves’ existing food allowance. 

But then the kids change everything. They cleverly arrange for ownership of Jupiter and the other enslaved people on the plantation to pass into the hands of a woman who opposes slavery. They also persuade her to allow Jupiter to manage the plantation, since he is already pretty much in charge as it is, thanks to absentee ownership. What goes unsaid is that she could not, as an alternative, free the slaves, since to do so was virtually impossible under the law in Georgia (although, again, this is not explained, in the hope that readers will look it up or ask!) The implication—and it’s there—is that Jupiter, now in charge, went ahead with his plans for the pecan orchard, although we learn from Dr. Braithwaite that it didn’t bear literal fruit until after the Civil War.

My hope in leaving clues and partial explanations (just as my character of the Professor does) is not to be maddening. It is in the hope that readers will look things up, or even ask me, as this young reader did, although it’s a pity I didn’t have a ready answer for her!

But that’s not a requirement to enjoy reading my work. Since this is fiction, readers are welcome to come up with their own explanations. And the books are written to be understood and enjoyed regardless of the reader’s interest in history, or curiosity to learn more: I write on multiple levels. My main goal as a novelist is to create new worlds, grounded in fact, that you can imagine yourself inhabiting. And also to create many layers of plot, not all of which reveal themselves with ease, because, like the Professor, I just can’t resist challenging you to figure things out for yourself, which always involves gathering as much information as you can.

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