Historical Fiction by a writer of colour
By Fiona Ross
My first memory of loving historical fiction was when I was a child in Scotland, a book written by a Canadian author. I LOVED L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables with a passion. I read the whole series in weeks and was furious when my parents announced that we were moving to Canada and then revealed we were heading to Ontario, and not PEI.
Lawrence Hill’s The Book Of Negroes easily places in my top ten reads of all time. I was enthralled from the first line, “I seem to have trouble dying.” Ann Y.K. Choi’s coming-of -age story set in 1980’s Toronto, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, is another stand out, likely because those were my own late teen/ adult years, as much as it troubles me to admit that the 1980s are now indeed historical fiction.
One of the other things I love about Historical Fiction as a genre is that it can seamlessly combine with other genres. Historical Fiction can be a romance, a thriller, or even in the case of some recent Canadian books–like The Library of Legends, by Janie Chang–be mixed in with fantasy.
This month, we’re highlighting four more reads that weave the historical with storytelling in fascinating ways.
Historical fiction has the ability to show us critical truths from our past through the power of storytelling, and in doing so helps us understand, illuminate and rise to the challenges in our present and future.
Swimming Back to Trout River, by Linda Rui Feng (Available on Audible Canada)
In the summer of 1986 in a small Chinese village, ten-year-old Junie receives a momentous letter from her parents, who had left for America years ago: her father promises to return home and collect her by her twelfth birthday. But Junie’s growing determination to stay put in the idyllic countryside with her beloved grandparents threatens to derail her family’s shared future.
What Junie doesn’t know is that her parents, Momo and Cassia, are newly estranged from one another in their adopted country, each holding close private tragedies and histories from the tumultuous years of their youth during China’s Cultural Revolution. While Momo grapples anew with his deferred musical ambitions and dreams for Junie’s future in America, Cassia finally begins to wrestle with a shocking act of brutality from years ago. In order for Momo to fulfill his promise, he must make one last desperate attempt to reunite all three members of the family before Junie’s birthday—even if it means bringing painful family secrets to light.
Five Little Indians (Available on Audible Canada)
Michelle Good’s multiple award -winning novel Five Little Indians was also based in fact and the recollections of survivors of Residential Schools. Her touching and at times difficult to read work follows the lives of Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie and Maisie “who were taken from their families when they are very small and sent to a remote, church-run residential school, they are teens, are barely out of childhood when they are finally released after years of detention. Alone and without any skills, support or families, they find their way to the seedy and foreign world of Downtown Eastside Vancouver, where they cling together, striving to find a place of safety and belonging in a world that doesn’t want them. The paths of the five friends cross and crisscross over the decades as they struggle to overcome, or at least forget, the trauma they endured during their years at the Mission. With compassion and insight, Five Little Indians chronicles the desperate quest of these residential school survivors to come to terms with their past and, ultimately, find a way forward.
The Last Exiles, by Ann Shin (Availabe on Audible Canada)
Jin and Suja meet and fall in love while studying at university in Pyongyang. She is a young journalist from a prominent family, while he is from a small village of little means. Outside the school, North Korea has fallen under great political upheaval, plunged into chaos and famine. When Jin returns home to find his family starving, their food rations all but gone, he makes a rash decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, miles away, Suja has begun to feel the tenuousness of her privilege when she learns that Jin has disappeared. Risking everything, and defying her family, Suja sets out to find him, embarking on a dangerous journey that leads her into a dark criminal underbelly and tests their love and will to survive.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton (Available on Audible Canada)
This breathtaking debut, winner of the Costa First Novel Award, is a murder mystery that travels across the Atlantic and through the darkest channels of history. A brilliant, searing depiction of race, class, and oppression that penetrates the skin and sears the soul, it is the story of a woman of her own making in a world that would see her unmade.
All of London is abuzz with the scandalous case of Frannie Langton, accused of the brutal double murder of her employers, renowned scientist George Benham and his eccentric French wife, Marguerite. Crowds pack the courtroom, eagerly following every twist, while the newspapers print lurid theories about the killings and the mysterious woman being tried at the Old Bailey.
The testimonies against Frannie are damning. She is a seductress, a witch, a master manipulator, a whore.
But Frannie claims she cannot recall what happened that fateful evening, even if remembering could save her life. She doesn’t know how she came to be covered in the victims’ blood. But she does have a tale to tell: a story of her childhood on a Jamaican plantation, her apprenticeship under a debauched scientist who stretched all bounds of ethics, and the events that brought her into the Benhams’ London home—and into a passionate and forbidden relationship.
Though her testimony may seal her conviction, the truth will unmask the perpetrators of crimes far beyond murder and indict the whole of English society itself.