When History Isn’t the Point
by A.B. Westrick
I’m the author of Brotherhood, set during Reconstruction, but not exactly about Reconstruction. Well, yes, it is, but it’s not. Or let’s put it this way: when I set out to write Brotherhood, I didn’t set out to write historical fiction. The history was one of many elements of the story, and for me, was not the primary one. Not being a big reader of historical fiction, myself, I’ve been surprised (and thrilled) by the number of people who’ve emailed to say they’ve read it and want me to know how much they enjoyed learning about Reconstruction.
Brotherhood is the story of fourteen-year-old Shadrach Weaver, a tailor’s apprentice by day and Ku Klux Klan brother by night. When I set out to write Shad’s story, I wanted to capture the feeling of being stuck in a tough situation. The earliest scenes that I wrote were of Shad pledging allegiance to a gang (the Klan), and fairly soon thereafter, wishing he hadn’t. The history was the setting… the time… the place, not the point of the story, but the backdrop.
When you study the period of Reconstruction, you read the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution. You learn about the end of the Civil War, the political debates going on in Washington, and the rise of the Klan. You memorize facts. Maybe that focus on facts is the reason I always struggled to enjoy history classes, or at least, history the way it was taught to me. It was heady and fact-filled and distant from matters that felt important. For history to come alive for me, I have to connect with the people who lived during the time. I need stories.
In Brotherhood, I focused on the story—on the protagonist’s emotional journey. I wanted readers to cringe when the characters did things they shouldn’t. I hoped readers would shout at them. Engage with them. Turn pages not to learn facts but because they cared about the characters. Along the way, sure, readers would absorb the history. They’d smell it. They’d taste it. The history would come alive. But the compelling reason to read it would be the characters—their desires, their sorrows and the challenges confronting them.
I did a ton of research to get the historical details right in Brotherhood. Then I introduced the details as they became necessary for the protagonist to know or think about them, not as the reader needed to learn them. The distinction is important. When writers try to educate a reader, the story usually suffers. The pace slows. But when writers incorporate details because they matter to a character, the story gets top priority.
My goal in writing Brotherhood was never to educate. Now I hear that teachers are adding Brotherhood to U.S. History reading lists, and if that means they’ll use it to educate, well, great! I hope the book gives students a sense for what it might have felt like to live in the defeated South after the Civil War. But if students run into me somewhere along the way (or send me an email), I hope it will be to tell me that first and foremost, they found the story compelling.
I loved writing this story. I loved learning about the hearts and minds of good Southerners, even those who made bad decisions. I loved glimpsing their regret, and imagining what they’d say if given a chance to apologize for their wrongs. I loved the fact that the genre of historical fiction allowed me to dig so deeply into Shad’s story that a complex era in American history came alive for me. I loved that I fell in love with historical fiction.
A. B. (Anne Bryan) Westrick grew up in Pennsylvania and later moved with her husband to Virginia where she spent hours walking Richmond’s brick streets, wondering how her Southern ancestors had fared during and after the Civil War. Her first novel, Brotherhood (Viking 2013), a Junior Library Guild selection, grew from those wonderings. She has been a teacher, paralegal, literacy volunteer, administrator, and coach for teams from Odyssey of the Mind to the Reading Olympics. A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Divinity School, she received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2011. She and her family live near Richmond, VA.