One of the great pleasures of writing middle-grade historical fiction is introducing young readers to an historical era for the very first time. And one thing I am grateful for is the knowledge that I don’t have to say everything about a particular era because my readers will loop back to this point in history both in their high school course work and in their reading for pleasure. So I am always looking for a Young Adult book or two from the same era as my historical fiction to recommend for my readers as they grow older.
When I wrote Second Fiddle in 2011, it was one of very few books for young readers set during the Cold War. In this book I chose to mention but not dwell excessively on the cruelty of the Soviet Union. But I was delighted to find a gripping and beautifully written story about the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union in the Baltic region: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. It’s a grim story for children at the younger end of middle grade, but for those older readers heading into high school it’s a great way to get a fuller picture of why the KGB was so frightening to my characters and why the Soviet soldier my characters rescued would stop at nothing to prevent the girls from being caught by the KGB.
My newest historical fiction, Written in Stone, is set in the early 1920s, and I believe I’ve found in Cat Winters’s YA book In the Shadow of Blackbirds a story that beautifully sets the scene for the main conflicts in my own book. On the face of it, the stories have little in common. Cat’s story is set in 1918 in San Diego at the height of the influenza epidemic and features a wealthy white teenager who is living with a widowed aunt while her father suffers an unjust imprisonment for his pacifist beliefs. While there she encounters spiritualist photographers who prey on people grieving those dead from the war or the flu by taking doctored photographs of them with the “ghosts” of their loved ones.
This has little to do outwardly with a Makah girl living on her reservation on a remote corner of the Olympic Peninsula, where her family is suffering from the loss of their traditional whaling and struggling to survive both economically and culturally in a changing world. And yet the influenza epidemic and the revenges of the First World War have everything to do with the story.
The influenza epidemic was as devastating in rural and remote communities as it was in the big cities. Half of Pearl’s village has died in the epidemic which occurs five years before the start of my story. Many of the Makah men who volunteered in the war did not come home. Successful traditional whaling requires an eight-man crew of highly skilled whalers, all in one extended family. For thousands of years nearly every extended Makah clan mounted a whale hunt every year. It was a source of enormous wealth and prestige for the whalers. The combined death tolls from the war and influenza made it nearly impossible to mount a crew of able-bodied men. In addition, the naval warfare technology greatly increased the killing power of the commercial whaling fleets of Russia, Japan, and the United States. Before the war a whaling voyage might last one to three years and the ship would kill and process a few dozen whales in all that time. Larger ships and the harpoon cannon made it possible to kill dozens of whales in a day. The whale population in the Pacific plummeted in the 1920s.
On top of those troubles, the rising tide of racism, which included the sweeping anti-German sentiment during the war mentioned in In the Shadow of Blackbirds, also extended to Native American communities. Indians were not even granted citizenship in this country and an opportunity to vote until 1924, and this after thousands of them volunteered for military service. In the Northwest, both Canada and the United States outlawed the practice of giving a potlatch. Both governments seemed to assume the potlatch was a primitive ritual preventing full assimilation of tribes into the “American” way of life. The potlatch had many purposes for the tribes who used them. The one that is of most importance to my character Pearl is their use as a memorial service. Potlatches, then, and even today, are given when a leader of a community has died. It honors the person’s life and provides for the clear distribution of that person’s property. It was also used to settle regional disputes, formalize the bonds of marriage, establish legal adoption of children, and recognize intellectual property, including art, music, dance, and stories. For people who lived in small and often isolated fishing villages it was an important way to maintain social contact and balance the wealth in a region full of economically powerful families. Many Indians in the region were imprisoned for keeping the practice of potlatching alive for their communities.
I love the opportunity a book gives to open a young readers eyes to a past injustices like the outlawing of the potlatch. It’s my hope that both these stories will encourage readers to talk about past injustices and also to reflect on who is being treated unjustly today.
I’m always looking for more books to recommend as a companion read to mine, so if you know of another book set in the 1920s please mention it in the comments.
And if you’d like to be a part of a conversation about historical fiction and the 1920s, Cat and I and two other writers from Portland will be talking about our Gatsby-era books at A Children’s Place Bookstore, Saturday, September 14, at 2 pm. Hope to see you there!
About Written in Stone
Rosanne Parry author of Heart of a Shepherd, shines a light on Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s, a time of critical cultural upheaval.
Pearl has always dreamed of hunting whales, just like her father. Of taking to the sea in their eight-man canoe, standing at the prow with a harpoon, and waiting for a whale to lift its barnacle-speckled head as it offers its life for the life of the tribe. But now that can never be. Pearl’s father was lost on the last hunt, and the whales hide from the great steam-powered ships carrying harpoon cannons, which harvest not one but dozens of whales from the ocean. With the whales gone, Pearl’s people, the Makah, struggle to survive as Pearl searches for ways to preserve their stories and skills.