It’s History, Not Hzzzz…..

I finished Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy last night and absolutely loved it.

Partly, I loved it because it was sort of like visiting old friends—both main characters and secondary—and learning a lot more about them than I knew before. (The best example: Abbot writes about a soldier named Frank Thompson who was really a woman named Emma Edmondson, and this reminded me of a book that the mom of a friend of mine had been working on several years ago about another woman named Sarah Wakeman who posed as a male soldier, Lyons Wakeman. Imagine my delight when Lyons showed up in Abbot’s book as an object of flirtation for Belle Boyd!).

Partly, I loved it because she wove her threads neatly into the larger tapestry of the Civil War and rekindled my faith that there are more such books to be written—and published (including both the book I’m writing now, and my husband’s manuscript about the Willard Hotel that I fully intend to work over as a follow-up project.).

But mostly, I loved it for the writing. This is the second book I’ve read by Abbot (the other was Sin in the Second City, also riveting), and I was halfway through when it occurred to me that I really, really wished she were 20 years older than me instead of two years younger, because then there would have been a chance her books would have existed when I was in high school and I might have been persuaded sooner that history wasn’t the exclusive domain of two kinds of writers: those who were exceptional wordsmiths but always clocked in at more than 800 pages, or else dry, pedantic, names-and-dates textbook-esque listmakers. I spent a lot of my school years skimming history books and then turning to my parents for the Good Parts version.

Narrative history is a godsend for people like me. I mean, when you get down to it, history is just people running around doing stuff, right? And that’s all stories are, right? I realize you can tell a story well or badly, but I never understood why pre-college history classes were so successful in making stories SO BORING.

When I was in tenth grade, I had a truly awful teacher for World History. She tried, bless her heart, but she had zero control of her class, and I don’t think she had a terribly deep regard for the material she was teaching. About halfway through the school year, she got fed up with the class talking over/under/around/through her lecture and made us all write a paper on Why We Would Not Talk in Class. I was incensed by this, since I hadn’t been talking. (I’d been ignoring her, of course, but I’d been reading, not talking.) I assumed it was busy work and she wouldn’t actually bother to read any of them, so I made myself feel better by writing a terribly snotty and hostile essay about how talking in class is indicative of disrespect, and teachers, even bad ones who make ancient Egypt boring, probably deserve a modicum of respect.

Well. Imagine my surprise the next day when she hands this thing back to me. I open it up convinced that I’m facing suspension, expulsion, firing squad. No, instead it was an apology (which I found a little appalling and embarrassing) and a sincere invitation for me to suggest ways to make it more interesting (which I also found a little appalling). I stayed after class and told her I was sorry for being so snotty in my essay, and one thing led to another and next thing I knew I’d agreed to teach the next class period.

And you know what? I. Killed. It. I went in and talked about conscription, and how all the boys in class only would have had five more years of playtime if they’d lived in those times. I talked about the escape from Elba, the Hundred Days, and St. Helena, and I made it exciting – because it IS exciting! I got applause. I think the poor teacher was a little hangdog at that; I think she was hoping I’d see that it’s not that easy to keep a class of hooligans quiet and contained, but it didn’t quite work out that way. I will also tell you that the guy who sat behind me, who routinely filled in his name and nothing else on his tests, got a B on that test.

(For those of you who love justice, I did wind up being punished for my snotty attitude and essay, just not by the teacher. I went home and told the whole story to my parents, because—obviously!—I needed their help in making sure I had all my Napoleonic facts straight, and they were so outraged on my teacher’s behalf that I wound up grounded. Plus, they didn’t help me prepare, they pointed at the shelf full of books we had about Napoleon and told me to have at it.)

So, yeah. All that is to say I’m a big fan of authors who are good researchers and even better storytellers. I’m fascinated by authors who can latch on to historic footnotes and spin them out into whole books. (This may be why I’m hoping to finish my book before summer and hopefully get a contract and join their ranks before the year is up). And this is why I would love to be Karen Abbot when I grow up.


About arwenbicknell

Editor by day, author by night.
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