American Girl: A Personal History with Historical Fiction

I’ve always been a bookworm. From the time I could read, I read incessantly. That’s probably an overstatement. Let’s just say that I read a lot. I’ve also always been kind of smug about reading. One of my few memories from first grade is getting upset when my teacher – a yellow-haired and yellow-toothed woman with a face full of visible capillaries who I heard later might have been an alcoholic, though I’ve never bothered to confirm that – told me I was not yet allowed to take chapter books out of our Catholic school’s small library, even though I was reading them on my own. I wanted badly to be the first person in my class to take out chapter books from the library. I ended up being second, or maybe third. At age six, this was my great shame. Not being allowed to publicly check out chapter books in front of the rest of my class. Didn’t they know I was so advanced that I was already deep into reading the very important American Girl series? Eventually, every girl in my class would read these books. But I was the first. Or, more likely, one of the first. And, I knew, I loved these books the very best. They were mine.

Actually, Kirsten was mine. Meet Kirsten was the first American Girl book I read and I knew after the first two chapters that we would be friends. Kirsten Larson is a young Swedish immigrant who, along with her family, journeys across the Atlantic to New York and then on to Minnesota, which we know is the place where all of the Scandinavian immigrants settled. On the top bunk of the bunk beds I shared with my younger sister, by the light of one of those lamps that clips on to your headboard but is always kind of lopsided, I hungrily read Kirsten’s story. It felt like I was there with her. As she sat on a Manhattan stoop, tired and separated from her family, she thanked a stranger who gives her water in a tin cup. “Tak,” I said to no one, except possibly my tiny, sleeping sister with her blonde bowl cut and feety pajamas, who probably heard me reading to myself and thinking aloud more than I realized. I grieved with Kirsten after her best friend, Marta, died of something called cholera – a new word! – while on a steamboat on the Mississippi River. I rejoiced when she and her family reached Minnesota and she finally becomes a true American girl.

I read all of the Kirsten books. (And of course, got the doll, which I cherished and dressed and talked to, and eventually ruined by unbraiding its hair and trying to brush it.) Thanks to my eventual unfettered library access and my parents’ ability to keep me supplied with all of those paperbacks that I had to own and not borrow, I read most of the other American Girl books available at the time. Of course I loved them. They were popular, relatable stories about girls who were just like me. But it was the difference between us that really drew me in. These girls lived in another time. And when I read along with them, so did I.

Because of Kirsten, I developed an obsession with immigration. Specifically Ellis Island era, though I would read almost anything as long as it was about foreign people coming to America and set well in the past. It was because of this that a librarian recommended Journey to America by Sonia Levitin, which led to my very major obsession with the Holocaust.

A seven-year-old girl in Catholic school with an insatiable thirst for YA novels about the Holocaust. That was me. I couldn’t get enough. (There are a lot of reasons for this and, just to be clear, none of them are that I agreed with those who perpetrated the Holocaust.) I read Journey to America, about a young German Jewish girl who escapes to the U.S. with her family, probably twenty times. As the years passed, I read any book I could get my hands on. From the acclaimed Number the Stars to a memoir written by a Hungarian survivor called Upon the Head of the Goat. Even though my friend and fellow Holocaust novel devotee, Caitlin, would give me good tips on what to read next, there are only so many books. Eventually, I had to branch out and read about other times and places, though I would totally still read any new book I found about Europe during World War II, as long as it wasn’t primarily about soldiers or fighting.

I was good at reading lots of books, but I was really good at reading historical fiction. So I set out to read any novel about any period that interested me. I was still young when Scholastic started publishing the Dear America series, which blew my mind. Essentially American Girl books for an older set, they were fictional diaries of girls living during important American times, like my girl Remember Patience Whipple, who traveled on the Mayflower and lived in Plymouth Colony. I liked this book mainly because I knew that I have Puritan ancestry and I used to imagine that Remember Patience Whipple was my ancestor. Which is I guess the sort of thing a fourth grader spends her time thinking about.

I advanced. In a few years, I started reading Ann Rinaldi, who it seemed wrote roughly one million books, also all about girls living during important times in American history. (She actually wrote at least one Dear America book.) I read every book this woman published up until probably 2001. There was a darkness, an edge, in her stories that I liked. They seemed real to me. I suppose that’s why I was drawn to historical fiction in the first place. These made-up stories could have really happened.

Once I entered high school, I didn’t have as much time to read. I still read as much as possible outside of my classes, but something drew me away from historical series and toward literature I deemed more serious. Of course, some of those books were set in the past. (Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which I loved because, when I read it at age sixteen, it consumed me like no other book had in years. And also because I was a nerd who attended high school in the early 2000s.) They just weren’t genre, which is how I’d come to see “historical fiction”. Similar to science fiction or fantasy, set apart from regular fiction in the bookstore like a bunch of squat, often terribly titled stepchildren. (Except anything historical is just included with regular fiction. I know that.)

Historical fiction – genre historical fiction – became a guilty pleasure. How many romantic and suspenseful Philippa Gregory novels did I burn through in all of my hours pedaling away on a recumbent bike in my university’s gym? Probably too many. I was a history major, so in my mind I was balancing out all of my required actual reading, much of which made me sleepy and hurt my brain. JK, even when they hurt my brain, I fucking loved reading most of my actual history books. And I know that my childhood devotion to historical fiction had so much to do with my academic interest in history.

Once I graduated from college and started working, reading for pleasure became a huge part of my life again. One of the books that had the biggest impact on me as a writer, reader and person that year – also, in life –  was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Her novel’s imagining of the rise of Thomas Cromwell bowled me over. The book is literature in the highest sense of the word, but I got the same pleasure from it that I’d felt while reading historical series as a girl. Wolf Hall made me rethink historical fiction: it could be something that I actively liked, rather than something I liked in the past when I didn’t know any better.

Since then, I wouldn’t say I’ve read too many books that could absolutely be classified as historical fiction. The sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, is another excellent representation of the genre and of fiction writing in general. And I just finished Nicola Griffith’s Hild, which is the fictional story of St. Hilda of Whitby, a seventh century figure we know little about apart from her role in the conversion of England to Christianity. The book is extremely well-researched, with beautiful prose. It felt like reading a fantasy novel without any magic or mythical creatures. But it was very solidly historical fiction.

In the process of writing this, I’ve come to realize what an impact this not very genre-y genre has had on me. Historical fiction, from the beginning, has inspired me to be curious, which I think is one of the best ways to be. Not being curious is a waste of humanity’s best natural asset. My curiosity has shaped who I am: a person who loves history and literature and, more broadly, absorbing facts, sharing and hearing opinions, reading too much, and a whole lot of other things. And I hope that person is a better one than if, two decades ago, I didn’t read Meet Kirsten in my top bunk all on my own.

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3 thoughts on “American Girl: A Personal History with Historical Fiction

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