Friday, July 30, 2010

Guest Post: Frances Hunter on Rediscovering America (includes giveaway)

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 . 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.


  1. No need to enter me (I have a copy already) but I really enjoyed this post! I remember the celebrations of July 4, 1976, pretty well... my parents gave me a small flag of my own, and I ran up and down the neighborhood waving it around. Can't imagine such a thing happening today. I wish publishers would wake up as well!

  2. I am not an American but I think that Hollywood has ensured that people worldwide have been immersed in American history, even if it is usually not quite correct !

    I always like to read a good book on a historical theme so please enter me in the giveaway.
    Thank you.

    Carol T

    buddytho {at} gmail DOT com

  3. I'm a devoted fan of historical fiction, both medieval English and American. I love the "romance" of the genre, and the added bonus of learning a bit of history along the way. This spring I was privileged to see the magnificent sculpture of Lewis and Clark on the grounds of the Missouri state capitol, and immediately added Hunter's novels to my wish list. I'd love to win this book.

  4. No need to enter me as I've got this book sitting on my shelf waiting for me, but I wanted to comment. My mother-in-law recently gave me the entire Kent Chronicles series, so those are waiting for me as well!

    I love reading historical fiction set in America, but there seems to be so little of it, so I started the American Historical Fiction group on Goodreads in the hopes that we readers could band together to discover all of those buried treasures out there. So far, so good, and we scope out new and upcoming releases for each other, too.

    To me, American history just feels so real compared to books I read set in medieval times or regency London, etc. American history is fascinating and considering how young our country is compared to others, what Americans have accomplished is all the more awe-inspiring. The colonial and Revolutionary periods are my faves to read and study about. My husband is a Civil War reenactor, so I get a healthy dose of that time period, too!

    I really enjoy the Frances Hunter blog. Thanks for all of those period details!

  5. Thanks Lady Q (and others -- keep these great comments coming!). We will definitely be checking out the American Historical Fiction group on Goodreads. That's wonderful.

    And oh, you are in for such a treat and wild ride with the Kents. Our mom re-read that series at least three times, and I treasure the dog-eared paperbacks of hers (she passed away last year). Good memories of a passion for reading, historical fiction, and her country.

  6. Thanks for the chance!

    As I'm from Europe, I know little about the American history, only the main events, so it's all very interesting for me.

    spamscape [at] gmail [dot] com

  7. My mother was so into the 1976 bicentennial that she painted my brother's room red, white, and blue and knitted everyone patriotic afghans.

    As an American history teacher it seems all I do is read history - got to love what you do.
    I haven't read this - please enter me.


  8. Thanks for the flashback. I'm dating myself, but I was already an adult (a young adult) in 1976. Let's not forget TV's "Bicentennial Minutes" every evening for the year leading up to July 4, 1976.

  9. I love American history--I'm such an old fuddy duddy I even still like the stories of great moments and the great men who made them. But what I like even more are the stories of the ordinary people on the sideline, who jumped in or were forced into the events we are all familiar with. The person who happened to walk down a Boston street and get caught up in the Boston Massacre...the woman who decided to work in an ordinance factory in WWII. These are the stories that remind us that history is always happening, and we are a part of it whether we own our place in it or let it roll over us!

    Would love to be entered: hyalineblue079 at yahoo dot com. Thanks!

  10. Wow, Deb -- Bicentennial Minutes! Yeah, I remember those! They were great!

    In my fifth grade class, we made a bicentennial quilt, and were each assigned a president. We sewed his profile onto the quilt, embroidered his signature, and of course did a report. Everyone wanted to do Kennedy. I got Martin Van Buren. I still have a soft spot in my heart for "The Red Fox of Kinderhook."

  11. I'm trying to think of something deep and intelligent to say but the only thing I can come up with is that I find the history of this country fascinating and unique -- the bad as well as the good. I also think that you can't know where you're going until you know where you came from -- and that drives me to read and love history, not only of the USA but other countries as well.

    With that said, I'd love to win this book!!

  12. I enjoy American history - in fact I'm currently reading a book about colonial Jamestown. I think because I didn't enjoy it in high school I'm making up for that now.
    thanks for the giveaway.
    kaiminani at gmail dot com

  13. Does anyone else remember watching the mini-series adaptation of "Centennial" on TV? I was a child (non-American) when it ran - just checked on IMDB - in 1978, and adored it.

    Among American novels of historical fiction, I can highly recommend James Byrne Cooke's The Snowblind Moon. Set in the wintry Wyoming of 1876, the story brings together an army scout, a (female) ranch owner, a Sioux chieftain, and many other vividly portrayed frontier characters to depict not only the tragic clash between westward migration and embattled Indian tribes, but the various individuals on all sides who strove to, as the back blurb sums up "reconcile peace with freedom and dignity".

    No need to enter me in the giveaway.

  14. No need to enter me, gang. I'm dropping in to say thanks for the e-mail. I've got this posted at Win a Book for you.

  15. Long before John Jakes, Elswyth Thane wrote her bestselling Williamsburg series which begins with Dawn's Early Light, set in Virginia just prior to and during the Revolutionary War. If you have not read this series, you should definitely hunt it down at your library or via ILL. She is my all time favorite author (perhaps even more than Anya Seton and Dorothy Dunnett).

  16. As I am from Sri Lanka I would love to learn more about American history. My knowledge is sketchy to say the least.

  17. Ok, lets see if Blogger loves me today?
    I tried 3 tmes yesterday

    I love this period of history in the creationof America. The Inspiration, motivation, passion and visions are enthralling. The weaving of fact amongst fiction can also show, therefor teach us about the very best within us.

    Please enter me into this

  18. I love love love reading about american history....historical fiction is my fav...I like reading about that time because in my mind I can just imagine it happening and it could have been one of my relatives in a situation like that

    ykatrina at hotmail dot com

  19. I love reading historical fiction, especially novels about Medieval time and Renaissance.I think now it's time to spend some time reading about American history.

    Great giveaway! I'd love to be entered.

    Please count me in. Thanks.

    avalonne83 [at] yahoo [dot] it

  20. I'd love to be entered in the drawing for this book -- historical novels are my favorite way to experience history -- and American fiction is lovely because there's a chance I can visit the locations featured! (Being in Boston is an especial treat for that!)

    thank you for the giveaway!

    thesibylqueen at

  21. I love reading and learning about American history because it's so available to me. In books and places to visit.
    Theresa N

  22. I like to read about American history because I have forgotten a lot since I was in school (45 years ago) and I like to see how books capture what has happened since then.

    lkish77123 at gmail dot com

  23. I love reading American History because it reinforces my belief that humanity is full of hope and good deeds and compassion, and that those things must occasionally come together to defeat the evil and darkness in the world. So far, America has risen to the task every time. I read about our history with a deep hope that it will always be that way.

    Please enter me in the giveaway for this great book. Thanks!

    safoga at gmail dot com

  24. My love for American history started out early in elementary school. Not only did I love the Little House series of books, but I loved learning about historical figures in class. Like Betsy Ross. So fascinated with her, my mom made me a costume and I was her for Halloween that year! And in fifth grade, I randomly picked Kit Carson to write a short report on. I was thrilled. (I know...what a geek, you're thinking!). Later on, I became more interested in European history, but I still had a love for American history. Historical fiction like Gone with the Wind and Chesapeake kept my interest in the teen years. Now, I've enjoyed books like Soul Catcher by Michael White and Widow of the South by Robert Hicks (although have not finished it yet). American history will always hold an interest for me. It's my counry of birth and I'm proud of that!

    Thank you so much for the giveaway! I would love to read this book.


  25. Michelle, we are cut out of the same cloth! I got interested about 5th grade, read tons of books about American presidents. My big favorites were FDR and Truman. I was immersed in modern American history for some years before getting the "hook" into early America from Lewis & Clark.

    Chesapeake was a great book, one of Michener's best. Our family is from that area, and we always used to tease my mom about her ancestors being "Turlocks"!