Random Thoughts: Change, Primary Sources & Other Stuff

Posts Tagged ‘Historical Fiction

Under_Wide_Starry_SkyUnder the Wide and Starry Sky is compelling historical fiction about the life of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny.  Based on extensive research of primary sources, the novel takes us around the world, chronicling a life of adventure, love and friendship. We meet an array of intriguing and accomplished people throughout Europe, North America and the South Pacific where Stevenson was buried on the island of Samoa. I was fascinated by much RLS wrote in his short life and the unique life Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson lived in the Victorian age. Also a writer, she published a book based on the diary she wrote during a voyage to the South Pacific. After Stevenson’s death she devoted her time to promoting his legacy.

Author Nancy Horan used eight published volumes of letters, Stevenson’s papers and Fanny’s unpublished letters as her chief source, but read and used countless others.  I always go to primary sources to do the real research, because I want to get it right and draw my own conclusions.   Excerpts from diaries and real letters are included. Horan followed the couple’s  “footsteps by visiting many of the places they lived in the U.S. and Europe. . . different landscapes and cultures exerted powerful influences on both of them, so it was useful to experience those places.”

I reconnected with a favorite childhood book, Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses through the novel. As I read I pictured the brown patterned cover, tattered pages, illustrations, and how I wrote my name in the front cover. I knew its exact location on my bookshelves. Revisiting the book was not disappointing. The second half of my book has fewer worn pages. Most likely I never completed many attempted “re-reads.” A short poem is a favorite.

Rain
The rain is raining is all around,
It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea.

The forward describes Stevenson’s childhood illness and dependence on his nurse Cummy, who also has a role in the novel.  Nancy Horan imagines the adult Stevenson defending his interest in writing for children to his friend Henley, a critic and writer.

When I suffer in mind, stories are my refuge; I take them like opium.. . . . Frankly, it isn’t Shakespeare we take to when we re in a hot corner, is it? It’s Dumas or the best of Walter Scott. Don’t children, especially children, deserve that kind of refuge? Even it’ poetry.

In a later chapter the fictional Stevenson recites The Land of Counterpane a  poem about the power of imagination.

Land_of_Counterpane

When I was sick and lay abed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day . . . .

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
Complete poem

A Child’s Garden of Verses was the first book of poems for children told through a child’s world. Multiple digital editions are available through the Library of Congress. My favorite is Scribner’s 1895 edition From the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. View poems and illustrations online or download a PDF.

Childs_Garden_Verses_songs
References
~ Horan, Nancy. Under the Wide and Starry Sky Ballantine, 2014
~ Stevenson, Robert Louis, A Child’s Garden of Verses, World Publishing 1946, illustrated by Alexander Dobkin.
~ Stevenson, Robert Louis, A Child’s Garden of Verses, Scribner, 1895.
~ Songs from A child’s Garden of Verses.  Poems   paired with music by Natalie Curtis.
Wa Wan Press, 1902
How can I Use Primary Sources with Elementary Students?

I can remember the time I spent in this state park. We had to work at Plainview in the cannery. I enjoyed very much the landscape surrounding us. The trees, the rocks. It was similar to Germany.
Ernst Kohleick, former POW, 1974.

A major character in Chris Bohjalian’s Skeletons at the Feast is a Scottish prisoner of war working on a family estate in Eastern Germany as Russian forces are invading at the end of World War II. German internees are employed on a farm during an episode of the British detective series Foyle’s War. Both situations renewed my interest in learning more about the German POW camp at Whitewater State Park in Southeast Minnesota, a short distance from my home. Housed in a former Civilian Conservation Core barracks, POWs worked on area farms and in canning factories. They were paid a minimum wage so they could resettle in Germany after the war. Friendships developed between POWS and county residents, including some of German descent. Some POW returned to the area in the 1970’s to revisit the former campsite; some oral interviews were recorded.

German_POW

Wounded German prisoners being loaded aboard a United States Army transport plane at an advance air base in North Africa (Library of Congress)

Camp Whitewater POWs were from North African and Normandy campaigns. Whitewater was one of 20 POW camps in Minnesota and a “branch” of the Algona, Iowa base camp. On Veterans Day an area television station broadcast a video featuring the camp setting, an interview with the park naturalist, and historic photos.

 

A tornado destroyed the Whitewater camp barracks in 1953 leaving few visible remains. There are, however, primary sources about camps in Minnesota and other states available in digital collections.  A comprehensive starting place is The Library of Congress State Memory Collections Portal.  One Minnesota Reflections artifact is a Letter from Alois Sauer to Henry Peterson in Moorhead, Minnesota. Sauer shared fond memories of his time at in Minnesota:

AloisSauer_1The time I lived in America, especially on your farm, was the best of my life. I learnt [learned] this, when I came as a prisoner from the U.S. to France. What a contrast! In the U.S. we had plenty to eat and the people were so good to us, and there in France we met only hunger and hate. And when I returned at home the conditions were not much better. Our food-rations were and are still today terrible small, and I often wanted to have only a small amount of the foods I got in the USA.

More resources

German POWs, treatment of POWs and unlikely friendships between POWS and civilians are timely classroom topics!

Historical fiction suggestions

  • Bohjalian, Chris. Skeletons at the Feast. Crown, 2008. For older readers.
  • Greene, Bette. Summer of My German Soldier. Puffin Modern Classics, 2006. Story of a young Jewish girl in Arkansas and a German POW. For middle level readers
  • Dallas, Sandra. Tallgrass. St. Martin’s, 2007.  Weaves the story of an unlikely friendship between  internees at a Colorado Internment Camp and a beet farmer’s family throughout the book. A parallel plot is the anti-Japanese behavior and attitudes of other community citizens. Upper middle level and senior high readers.

Primary sources offer exciting possibilities for all content areas
Learn how to find and use primary sources in your classroom!

 

housegirlTara Conklin’s House Girl is a popular book club book and appropriate for high school students. The historical fiction novel tells the story of Lina, a contemporary New York attorney working on a slavery reparation case. Through her work she discovers connections between art, a client, and a slave. As Lina begins her research she compiles a list of the slaves, making a comparison chart of the harm they received.  Several names caught my eye.

The familiar names were drawn from  Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, an AmericanLukeTowns Memory collection of more than 2000 first-person accounts. These interviews were collected as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930’s. Take a look at Luke Towns, a centenarian, born in Georgia in 1835.

When I read historical fiction I am always curious about the author’s source.  These primary source interviews clearly tie in with the novel. They support the study of slavery,  inquiry, and reading/understanding/comparing informational text

Conklin cites the slave narratives and other collections  in her list of sources.  There are countless primary resources to complement The House Girl and movies such as Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 11.07.29 AM12 Years a Slave.  For starters,  The Emergence of Advertising in America collection has powerful, thought-provoking flyers from slave auctions. Voice from the Days of Slavery from the Library of Congress American Folklife Center has recorded interviews of former slaves.

Primary sources like these offer engaging learning opportunities for  classrooms. Learn how!

Images: Luke Towns selection from Born Into Slavery: Slave Narratives From the Federal Writers Project and The House Girl, p 75

We have all asked students  “What interests you?”   What interests you often the toughest part when beginning a research process.   If we’re passionate about a topic, or perhaps only interested, the “information finding” process is fun.

What are the facts behind the novels “A Flickering Light, and Absence soGreat? by Oregon author Jane Kirkpatrick?  Kirkpatrick based the historical fiction novels on the life of  her grandmother, Winona, Minnesota, photographer  Jessie Gaebele, and her grandfather, photographer FJ Bauer.   She relied on interviews with family members and  primary sources including family letters, photos and diaries to gather information for her novels.  She researched the Winona County Historical Society archives, read other historical accounts and examined city directories in Eau Claire, Wisconsin where Jessie also worked.

As I read the novel I kept turning to the map of Winona in the early 1900’s to see the locations of the homes, businesses and photography studios mentioned in the books. Curious about the real places described I drove around Winona to see what is in those locations 100 years later.   The  homes are intact; the studios have been replaced by new structures.  The Winona historic newspaper archives provided glimpses of advertising for the FJ Bauer and Polonia Photography studios.

Polonia Studio

Polonia Studio ad, Winona Republican Herald, March 8, 1913.

My search of the American Memory collections yielded nothing about or by Jessie Gaebele, but I did a photo of Lake Winona and Sugarloaf similar to one Jessie took.  The author’s website provided additional information and photos not included in the book. It was a  wonderfully fun treasure hunt inspired by an interest in Winona, primary sources and photography.    What interests you?

Learn how you can use primary sources to locate resources that support books you enjoy or books your students read.
Teaching with Primary Sources, Online Course Information: http://www.uwstout.edu/soe/profdev/primarysources.cfm

Register Online: http://www.uwstout.edu/soe/profdev/register.cfm


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