If you were a kid in America in the 1970’s, July 4th, 1976, was the biggest deal in the world. That Sunday marked the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the glorious capstone of America’s Bicentennial year. I vividly remember festooning the house with flags and watching President Ford’s speech from Independence Hall in Philadelphia on our old black-and-white TV. As the sound of the Liberty Bell rang from two thousand miles away, my sisters and I gathered on the front step at high noon to bang out “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a toy piano.
My other indelible memory of that year is of my mother reading John Jakes’ The Kent Family Chronicles, also known as “The Bicentennial Series.” John Jakes, a relatively unknown writer from Chicago, was tapped by Doubleday to write a series of books to tell the story of the founding of America. The first book hit the streets in 1974 with the jaw-dropping title of The Bastard. It told the story of Phillippe Charboneau, the poor illegitimate son of a French innkeeper, who through a series of improbable events ended up in Boston in 1775. Caught up in the tide and tumult of Revolution, Phillippe embraced the cause of liberty, changed his name to Philip Kent, and founded a fictional family that would manage to be involved in just about every momentous event in American history from the Alamo to the Civil War to the Johnstown flood.
Jakes’ books were full of strife, romance, and struggle; they had body doubles, crazy villains, and plenty of suffering and sex. They also unabashedly celebrated the American experience. The 8-volume “Kent” series sold over 50 million copies; Jakes’ follow-up book, a Civil War saga called North and South, sold over 10 million copies, was made into a TV miniseries, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In 1993, Jakes earned a second Pulitzer nomination for his immigrant saga Homeland.
A generation later, Jakes’ success is hard to imagine. In the eyes of big publishers, historical fiction about American topics is all but dead. At a time when non-fiction biographies of America’s Founding Fathers are frequently on the best-seller list, we are told that nobody wants to read fiction about American history, certainly not about American men. In the historical fiction genre, we now shy away from sweeping stories of the American experience and retreat to time travel, Tudor England, and romantic tales of somebody’s wife/sister/daughter/mother/
Aunt Hilda. So what has changed?
For one, I think a generational change has taken place in the reading public. A few years back, history-based fiction like Jakes’ The Kent Family Chronicles and Howard Fast’s April Morning and Citizen Tom Paine were snapped up and devoured by the “greatest generation,” who saw themselves in the struggles of characters battling for liberty over the Old World forces of evil. Many people had been through Depression and war; many were still close to the immigrant experience depicted in best sellers they loved, like Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man or James Michener’s Centennial. People loved the idea that America was special; they still believed in liberty and democracy as a wonderful, ever-evolving experiment we could all be a part of.
Boy, have times changed. Nowadays, cynicism reigns. What began with the disillusionment of Vietnam and Watergate has reached its fruition in the post-911 world, reinforced by decades of historical revisionism in the halls of academe. To many readers, the founding sagas and frontier tales of the past seem ethnocentric and hoary. Rightly or wrongly, many people no longer feel like America is so special. In a world of constant and sometimes discouraging change, we are struggling to hold on to the thread of the American story.
It seems to me there is all the more need to tell that story, in a way modern readers can relate to. The reading public is hungry for heroes—perhaps not the swashbuckling heroes of John Jakes’ day, but real, flesh and blood heroes who fight, laugh, and bleed along with the rest of us, who dare to do great things, and more importantly, dare to fail. This is what we are going for in our books To the Ends of the Earth and The Fairest Portion of the Globe – Lewis and Clark not as cardboard heroes, but as real men.
|Sister's Mary and Liz Clare writing as Frances Hunter|
In 1976, John Jakes’ books depicted the greatest generation’s view of what it meant to be an American. In 2010, we see a more imperfect union than we saw back then. We are bruised and sometimes battered; our heroes are not square-jawed and intrepid but raw and real. But with all their flaws, they are just as worthy of celebration. Publishers, wake up. By picking up the thread, by telling the story, fiction writers can help readers discover America – and their own American experience-- all over again.
Frances Hunter’s new historical thriller, The Fairest Portion of the Globe, has been praised by critics as “invigorating” and “wonderfully exciting,” and was “urgently, wholeheartedly recommended” by Historical Novels Review. (Reviews http://franceshunter.
wordpress.com/latest-reviews/) . Her first book To the Ends of the Earth, earned a “highly recommended” rating from Library Journal, won the Independent Publisher “IPPY” Book Award silver medal, and was a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year.
Thanks to Frances Hunter we have one copy of The Fairest Portion of the Globe to giveaway.
- contest is open worldwide
- leave a comment telling us about why you do or don't like to read about US history and your email adress (one entry per household)
- contest closes 15 August at midnight GMT.