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Historical Fiction Authors Don’t Expect Their Characters’ Battles To Appear in Modern Headlines, but Here We Are

What happens to historical fiction when history repeats itself? Author Addison Armstrong discusses writing about the past and seeing it reflected in the present.

Historical fiction authors don’t expect their characters’ battles to appear in modern headlines. Between The Light of Luna Park and The War Librarian, I’ve written stories spanning from 1918 to 1976, and I thought it was safe to assume that the events in those worlds would stay safely confined to the past. WWI? Over. Coney Island baby incubators? Such technology is in hospitals now, where it belongs.

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But the thing about history is that it’s not as historical as we like to believe. This became particularly obvious recently, as the plotlines for both Emmaline and Kathleen’s stories in The War Librarian collided in spectacular fashion in a Fox News article. The headline was this: “US Navy chief takes woke books off the reading list.”

In The War Librarian, Emmaline is a WWI base hospital librarian in 1918 France. She works for the American Library Association providing books to soldiers, but there are dozens of texts she’s forbidden to distribute. Among them are German nationalist books, books on socialism, pacifist arguments, and even memoirs by WWI soldiers.

58 years later, The War Librarian’s Kathleen is part of the first co-ed class at the Naval Academy, where she is accused of prejudicing “the good order and discipline of the armed forces” through criticism of a world in which female (and ethnic minority) students were harassed and abused.

And now, another 44 years after that, the admiral of the Navy has removed several books from the Navy reading list after pushback last year from Republican congressmen. These books include Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, which has sold millions of copies, and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which is a book of such prominence that it has been cited in legal decisions.

Historical Fiction Authors Don’t Expect Their Characters’ Battles To Appear in Modern Headlines, but Here We Are

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The naval connection immediately made me think of The War Librarian, and the nature of the books removed from the list put me in mind of some of the pamphlets the government banned 100 years ago in the era of war librarians. One such text was W.E.B. DuBois’ “Open Letter to Woodrow Wilson,” which decried the treatment of Black Americans in a nation of Jim Crow laws and restrictive voting policies. If librarians were to find this letter in their collections overseas, the expectation was that they would destroy it. Ovens at the American Library in Paris were used for this exact purpose.

And now, over a century later, other books by American people of color are being criticized and withheld from our troops. Admiral Gilday’s removal of books from the recommended reading list, admittedly, is not a ban on the books themselves–but neither was the recommendation of them a requirement that they be read.

What does it say about us as a country that we are dealing with the same issues today that we dealt with a century ago? That both W.E.B. DuBois and Michelle Alexander write about Jim Crow 100 years apart?

Before I wrote The War Librarian, I couldn’t figure out how the same organization behind a massive push for books for soldiers was censoring the books they were allowed to read. By the time I’d finished writing it, my characters had told me the answer. Both providing books and banning them stemmed from the same core belief: that books, and words, have power. That they matter.

Historical Fiction Authors Don’t Expect Their Characters’ Battles To Appear in Modern Headlines, but Here We Are

One character in the book puts it this way: “He saw books–ideas–as so much more dangerous than weapons of war.”

Obviously, many of our congressmen feel the same way. But as Admiral Gilday said last year—before the books disappeared from this year’s version of the list—“exposure to varied ideas improves critical thinking skills” regardless of whether the ideas are ones the reader agrees with or not.

Without exposure to a variety of ideas, and most especially those from groups that are underrepresented in mainstream American media outlets, ideas do not evolve. Perhaps if soldiers had been allowed to read DuBois’ letter about Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander would not have had to write about the new Jim Crow 100 years later.

And perhaps, if we encourage people to read Alexander’s book instead of banning the very suggestion of it, another author won’t have to write about the new new Jim Crow in another hundred years.

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