For our first Why I Love guest post for 2009, we are very pleased to welcome Sarah Johnson from Reading the Past. I cannot tell you how many books have been added to my TBR list solely from visits to Sarah's blog. Thanks so much for agreeing to guest post Sarah!
It was the family tree that first caught my attention. I was nine years old, thumbing through shelves of books that RIF had brought to my elementary school. Janet Lunn's Twin Spell was one of the novels I chose to take home, and what an engrossing tale it was. I found myself returning again and again to the genealogical chart in the final pages, fascinated by how the family relationships essentially told a story in themselves.
Twin Spell introduced me to Jane and Elizabeth, identical twins living in present-day (1960s-era) Toronto. One day, as the novel goes, they spot an old, tattered doll in an antique shop window and feel an inexplicable connection to it, as if it was meant to belong to them. They name the doll Amelia, a name which they somehow know suits her. When they bring Amelia along to their elderly Aunt Alice's house, they begin seeing visions from the past through the eyes of an earlier set of twins—girls who owned a matching set of twin dolls that looked just like Amelia might have, when she was brand new. How Jane and Elizabeth research their and Amelia's connection to these girls from long ago, as well as to the mysterious “Hester,” forms the heart of this deliciously creepy mystery.
Since then, I continue to seek out family sagas whenever I find them. Sagas are my favorite historical fiction subgenre, and nothing sells me on a novel faster than the presence of a family tree! Most readers pick up Anya Seton's Katherine because it promises an unabashedly romantic, historically-based, star-crossed love story set amid the pageantry of the medieval English royal court. I, however, grabbed it as my choice for a 9th grade book report exclusively because of the genealogical chart on the endpapers. It showed the Tudor and Stuart monarchs' descent from Katherine de Roet, the humble knight's daughter who, as Seton wrote in her author's note, fulfilled the ancient prophecy of “thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.”
For me, historical fiction has always been more about people than facts and dates. While I can't tell you on what exact date the Battle of Naseby was fought, and I struggle to understand the finer points of Civil War military strategies, I can rattle off Queen Elizabeth II's descent from William the Conqueror without giving it a second thought. (Jean Plaidy's Plantagenet Saga was my guide, naturally.) Among much less useful bits of trivia, I could also detail the proper reading order of Philippa Carr's Daughters of England series and explain the mother-daughter relationships depicted therein. I grew up addicted to Catherine Darby's 13-volume Falcon Saga and traveled through American history with Katheryn Kimbrough's 40-volume Saga of the Phenwick Women. I love reading about traditions that pass from generation to generation—the "secret diary" theme in the earlier Carr novels, for example—and secrets from the past that return to haunt the present.
In historical sagas, the family relationships among the characters form the bare bones of the story. Add in a well-rendered historical setting that suits them and the plot, some juicy drama and intrigue, family squabbles, a little romance, and maybe a ghost or two, and I'll have all the ingredients for a leisurely, entertaining read. The geographic setting and era doesn't matter much, and I'm as happy reading sagas about fictional families as I am about historical ones. Lengthy tomes don't bother me either, since if the novel's a good one, it just gives me more time to spend with the characters. Sagas, especially those that involve multiple generations or which appear in multiple volumes, give readers the opportunity to view how life continues to unfold throughout the march of history. In addition, the characters' ongoing relationships with one another and with their historical milieu make me think about my own place in history, and about those who came before me. (I'm an amateur genealogist as well, of course, but I know better than to discuss my ancestors in public unless asked!)
During 2008, I thoroughly indulged myself with Kate Morton's The House at Riverton (early 20th-century England) and Padma Viswanathan's The Toss of a Lemon (20th-century India). See p.2 of my publisher's “best of” lists for the year to find out why I enjoyed them! I'm grateful for Valerie Anand's return to the literary scene with her Exmoor Saga (The House of Lanyon and The House of Allerbrook). For some reason, I have a soft spot for sagas set in 19th-century Louisiana, such as Lalita Tademy's Cane River, Elizabeth Shown Mills' Isle of Canes, and Gretchen Craig's Always and Forever. When you think about it, even Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendour, one of my favorite books, can be considered a family saga of sorts. Just look at the York and Lancaster chart of descent from Edward III, and the history practically unfolds from there.
Trendspotters will tell you that family sagas have fallen out of favor, but I believe there will always be a market for well-told novels in this subgenre of historical fiction. In addition to the titles I've mentioned above, look out for Beverly Swerling's four-volume series beginning with City of Dreams, Jonis Agee's The River Wife, and anything by Edward Rutherfurd. As for me, I'm about to delve into Winston Graham's Poldark series for the first time. Judging by its ongoing popularity, I’m sure I have a wonderful reading experience in store.
Sarah Johnson, a longtime reader of (and advocate for) historical fiction, has been an editor for the Historical Novels Review since 2000. She is the author of Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (Libraries Unlimited, 2005) and its forthcoming sequel, Historical Fiction II (pub date 3/30/09). She blogs at readingthepast.blogspot.com and will happily recommend new historical novels until you politely ask her to stop.