This Will Not Be On the Quiz

The other day, I went to Curriculum Night at my son’s high school, and I happened to talk with some girls in his English class about books. I asked them what they liked to read and I got the answers I expected – Divergent, The Hunger Games – but out of curiosity, I asked, “What about historical fiction?”

One girl wrinkled her nose. “No. Ew.”

I couldn’t resist. “Why not?”

Another girl was more tactful. “You know. School.”

Yes, I do know. And I don’t blame anyone raised on “social studies” and sanitized school-friendly history for that reaction. But if you like dystopian secondary worlds like these girls seemed to, let me tell you something: the best-kept secret about history is that the past is the ultimate secondary world.

You can’t get more dystopian than the rubber plantations in the Belgian Congo where they’d cut off people’s hands and kidnap their families to ensure that quotas were met, or the transportation of petty criminals to a prison colony on the other side of the planet. These things are real, and they give fiction a run for its money every time.

Here’s a little quiz: which of the following are plot summaries of recent YA novels, and which are actual historical events?

* The daughter of a gladiator must marry the fighter who kills her father and captures her dowry bracelet.

* When her wealthy husband dies, a teenage widow must climb on his funeral pyre with him and be burned alive, or else face recrimination, ostracism and destitution.

* During a seemingly unstoppable plague, a city closes its gates and forbids anyone to enter or leave, and any houses in which plague suffers already live are boarded up with the healthy and sick alike trapped inside.

* Girls who reach legal maturity are given a special tattoo that indicates their sexual availability to the entire society.


1 – Dystopian (Girl in the Arena by Lise Haines)

2 – Historical (pre-British India; the practice of sati)

3 – Historical (14th century Milan)

4 – Dystopian (XVI by Julia Carr)

Even if you got all the answers right, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the similarities between the past and fictional secondary worlds are striking. Our shared human past is filled with betrayal and revenge and despair and joy and stupidity, and one of the best ways to access it is through well-crafted, well-researched, engaging fiction.

The best historical fiction challenges readers’ assumptions about what “history” is, and how we in the present relate to people who lived the past. It doesn’t judge the past based on our modern standards, but it renders the past – where women were property and animal cruelty was funny – normal and familiar. It’s the same challenge faced by writers who set stories in other types of secondary worlds, but historical-fiction writers have the additional hurdle of social studies to overcome.

But the best historical fiction tells a good story, too, where characters we care about have to deal with some type of issue that feels relatable. It’s not just a chronicle of the stuff that happened. So much of history is interpretation. The narrative has to take evidence into account, but at its heart it’s still a narrative.

The best historical fiction is out there, and it ain’t social studies. There are echoes of the dystopian and traces of the stranger-than-fiction. There is tragedy and adversity and also hope, because it is human. The best historical fiction may surprise you.


J. Anderson Coats is the author of The Wicked and the Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).  She has a cool surgery scar unrelated to childbirth, she reads Latin, and she’s been given the curse of Cromwell on a back-road in Connemara.

About J. Anderson Coats

J. Anderson Coats writes historical fiction for young adults chockful of name-calling and petty violence. THE WICKED AND THE JUST (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) is about teenagers behaving badly in thirteenth-century Wales.

23 thoughts on “This Will Not Be On the Quiz

  1. Good historical fiction teaches, yes, but more than that it inspires. It reminds us that people are people, then, now and forever, with the same dreams, desires, fears and flaws. It was historical fiction that made a student of history out of me because it made me realize that it was real people making these decisions – cousins fighting over thrones, brothers betraying brothers, people with broken hearts making decisions that affected millions of other lives. The personal WAS the political and that opened my eyes to so much. We have to look back to give us perspective on what is happening today. (MHO). Great first post! Hooray CC&C! 🙂

    • J. Anderson Coats says:

      I think, too, that good historical fiction grounds us. We want to mythologize or demonize the past because it renders it inert somehow, but when we humanize the past, we’re forced to confront it as if it were alive and relevant – because it is, and it has direct and specific bearing on how our world is constantly being shaped and reshaped today.

  2. Ruth Layne says:

    So much of what characterizes Dystopian literature is our fear of repeating the past with bigger guns. I agree wholeheartedly!

  3. hannahkarena says:

    Historical fiction was actually my favorite to read in school, because it was so much more interesting–and went far beyond what I ever learned in a classroom–than the normal history classes. In fact, based on historical fiction books I read, I ended up adding discussions to my high school history classes, things the teachers didn’t even know (and often didn’t believe until I brought in the book and additional researched evidence as proof). For example, did you know that during the Civil War, General Grant gave an order commanding all Jews to evacuate, give up their property and abandon their businesses, because they “violated trade regulations”? My AP US History teacher didn’t, until he read The War Within by Carol Matas (or, at least he read the afterward with all the bibliographic references).

    Historical fiction can be just as EPIC as dystopian literature!

    • J. Anderson Coats says:

      Wow, I didn’t know that either. There’s so much lost and hidden. I think I’m going to have to read that book now. 🙂

      • hannahkarena says:

        There is so much hidden history! That’s my favorite historical fiction, the kind that so unbelievable that you double check it’s true. The book’s a good one!! At least, as my 16-year-old brain remembers it. Enjoy :]

  4. catwinters says:

    Great post, Jillian! I agree 100%!

    “I ended up adding discussions to my high school history classes, things the teachers didn’t even know.” I love this statement, Hannah! I’m a history buff/historical fiction novelist who got bored in high school history classes because the curriculum always made the past so impersonal. Yet I devoured novels in my literature classes because they opened my eyes to the rarely discussed, human side of history. I’m thrilled to hear some history teachers are bringing historical fiction into their classrooms.

    • I really believe that school curricula should be designed in a much more unified way, combining literature and history/social sciences. How can you study a literary work entirely divorced from the world in which it is set? Imagine reading Dickens without understanding Victorian London and Dickens’ own upbringing or Shakespeare without some knowledge of the Elizabethan world. The disciplines enrich each other.

    • J. Anderson Coats says:

      I wasn’t exactly bored in history class in school, but I was dissatisfied because I sensed somehow that I wasn’t getting the full story. I was fortunate enough to have a few teachers that fed me tempting details to encourage me to keep digging. I get that there are tricky politics behind history curriculum, and I suspect a lot of teachers would love to be teaching the good stuff and can’t. But fiction is somewhat less constrained that way.

  5. I can’t recall a single thing about my high school history classes – they were that memorable. But I’ve always loved how good historical fiction creates a world so unbelievably different and yet so accessible – much like dystopian!

    • J. Anderson Coats says:

      Both historical and dystopian fiction, when done well, make me appreciate my tiny cosmos all the more. I like antibiotics and flush toilets and representative democracy, thank you very much.

  6. Jaime Morrow says:

    Excellent point and I couldn’t agree more. I’m continually staggered by new tidbits I hear from history. So much of it is horrifying while other aspects are completely fascinating. I think people might be surprised if they gave historical fiction more of a chance. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this! 😀

    • J. Anderson Coats says:

      It also reminds me how far we’ve come, that we as a society can look at something like chattel slavery and say, “Wow, that’s horrifying,” when there was a time in the not-so-distant past when it was a completely valid worldview.

  7. Jillian, I love that idea that historical fiction renders the past familiar. That’s what’s always so surprising–you’re reading along and suddenly you hit something and think, “How wrong”–but the characters don’t think that at all. Wonderful post!

    • J. Anderson Coats says:

      And when it’s done well, there’s a part of you that accepts that somehow it’s *not* wrong because of this specific context. That’s worldbuilding at its finest right there.

  8. abwestrick says:

    Well said! The line that resonated the most with me was: characters we care about have to deal with some type of issue that feels relatable. No matter where/when a story is set, if the reader cares about the characters, s/he will keep turning pages. When history is not the point of the novel (think: school) but provides the setting in which sympathetic characters struggle toward their goals, it’s all good.

    • J. Anderson Coats says:

      Agreed – the historical setting has to be organic. As soon as it oversteps into teachy-town, it loses its power.

  9. I got them all right and identified each genesis! I love historical fiction, history and dystopia and you’re right, often the lines blur.

  10. […] If you’re not convinced that there are historicals out there that offer as much of a thrill ride as some of the exciting sci-fi and dystopian stories out there, read this great post by J. Anderson Coats over on the Corsets and Cutlasses blog–btw a great new blog for historical fiction fans: […]

  11. […] If you’re not convinced that there are historicals out there that offer as much of a thrill ride as some of the exciting sci-fi and dystopian stories out there, read this great post by J. Anderson Coats over on the Corsets and Cutlasses blog–btw a great new blog for historical fiction fans: […]

  12. […] happened to set it in the Tudor court.  I’ve even riffed on J. Anderson Coats’s idea that history is the ultimate secondary world and detailed how the Tudor court was actually a dystopian […]

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