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Regional Advisers recommend…Historical Fiction

Well-researched historical fiction can be an excellent way of boosting your subject knowledge and encouraging your students to read around their subjects. Here, some of our new regional advisers recommend their favourites.

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer maps the transition of a house throughout three key historical periods in the ever changing Czechoslovakia. The house goes through the Second World War, and also Communist rule, mapping the happiness and despair of individuals during these periods. This is one of my most favourite works of historical fiction as it is lays out the horror and despair that comes with War and Communist rule as well as giving a profound insight into the lives of the individuals concerned.

Mawer’s book is a fantastic read and I would recommend it to anyone who teaches 20th Century Europe, but to all historians it is an engaging and enjoyable read.

Nicola Barthorpe, Regional Adviser for the North West

For anyone teaching the Russian Revolution I highly recommend Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore.  It begins with the drama of revolution in St Petersburg 1917 and then later tells of Sashenka’s life in Moscow 1939 during the terror. I couldn’t put it down and my year 12 class read this during the summer before we started the course to give them a ‘feeling’ for Russia and the excitement of the course we would be studying. Some students have also gone on to read ‘One Night in Winter’ by the same author because they enjoyed Sashenka so much. There is lots of opportunity to use extracts for Yr 9 or GCSE but I wouldn’t give them the whole book!

Sally Burnham, Regional Adviser for the East Midlands

I am not normally a huge reader of historical fiction, however I was quite struck by Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil. Whilst not an historical novel in the usual sense, it is a story which deals with issues of writing about such a horrific event. The book received incredibly mixed reviews when it was released, and continues to be extremely controversial. However, the issues which it wrestles with are ones which we, as history teachers, have to address each and every time we deliver lessons about the Holocaust. The novel is both dark and disturbing, but mainly for the questions it makes us ask ourselves. Whatever you think of it, the book will certainly make you rethink how and why you approach the teaching of one of the most infamous events of the Twentieth Century.

Alex Ford, Regional Adviser for Yorkshire and Humberside

Predictable perhaps, but I have chosen Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. They are incredible books based on extensive historical research and meticulous attention to detail ; they bring the sights, sounds and smells of Tudor London to life and present thought provoking alternative views about Thomas Cromwell (traditionally the ‘baddy’) and Thomas More (the ‘goody’). If you saw the excellent TV series there is much more in the books!

Andy Harmsworth, Regional Adviser for the South East

My recommendation is Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz.

Born in Budapest in 1929, the author Imre Kertesz was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and freed from Buchenwald in 1945. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002. His novel ‘Fatelessness’ was published in 1975 and tells the story of Gyorgy Koves, a 15-year old Hungarian Jew, during the year he is imprisoned in Auschwitz and then Buchenwald and Zeitz. The book is written from the perspective of young Gyorgy whom the reader follows on his ‘journey’ from his parents’ home in Budapest to the initial arrest and deportation to the camps, and back to his hometown again after he has been freed at the end of the war. Gyorgy, unlike the reader, does not know about the Holocaust and so we encounter each stage in the story through the innocent and puzzled eyes of a 15-year old boy, who tries to make sense of what is happening around him. This means that we listen to Gyorgy trying to understand and then explain the logic employed by the doctor on the ramp at Auschwitz. Gyorgy even notes his disagreement with some of the doctor’s decisions whom he thinks too generous. The author does not judge or dwell on the horrors, but describes the surprising capacity of Gyorgy to adapt to new circumstances and the almost constant waiting and boredom, the painfully slow passing of time. This is what makes this novel so disturbing and unique in its perspective on the Holocaust.

Julia Huber, Regional Adviser for London

I picked up Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman with nostalgic excitement – like many others, wanting to feel the same weaving of powerful narrative and emotive characterisation I had remembered from my first reading of To Kill a Mockingbird as a teenager. I didn’t get to it early enough not to be slightly ruffled by the underwhelmed and disappointed reviews that compared Watchman so unfavourably to Mockingbird, such as these.  In the end I agreed – it wasn’t the same literary masterpiece, the dialogue wasn’t as powerful and the last third had me skipping quickly to the end, rather than savouring every word.

However, I couldn’t help but feel that those who were emotionally disappointed by the book – particularly the perceived failings of Atticus and the distance between him and his daughter that emerge during the novel – were failing to appreciate the ways in which Lee had managed to tap in to some of the complexities of Southern, small town America at the height of the civil rights movement. Jean Louise (Scout) was returning home after years of living in New York, where she had been exposed to ideas and norms that were foreign to her old neighbours and family. This captures the ways in which America was changing unevenly during the middle of the 20th century. The tensions caused by sit-ins, bus boycotts and other peaceful protests in nearby towns had disrupted an unequal but stable equilibrium in race relations in Maycomb was disruptive to the lives of everyone – and I think, as a history teacher, that it is important to recognise that progress is not smooth or immediately perceptible. Lee isn’t standing in opposition to the aims of the civil rights movement to say this. And, most controversially and importantly, I didn’t agree with those who cried foul at Atticus’ racism – it may very easily have been possible for him to defend an innocent black man on the principle of truth in the 1930s, when white superiority wasn’t under threat, and then to feel uneasy about wholesale changes in society thirty years later. In these very critical senses, Watchman enhances rather than dulls Mockingbird’s message about racial dynamics in modern America.

Izzy Jones, Regional Adviser for London

My favourite is Dominion by CJ Sansom. I discovered the author through his Shardlake series, which was recommended to me by someone on the admin team at school. I worked my way through all of the adventures of the Tudor hunchback lawyer, enriching my knowledge and understanding of the justice system under Henry VIII and enabling me to provide better context for the GCSE Crime and Punishment study.

Although to topic dealt with in Dominion is completely different, it is as meticulously researched which is really important to me when I’m choosing historical fiction to read. A counterfactual novel set in a world where Britain capitulated to Hitler early in the Second World War, I particularly enjoyed the alternative fates of members of the government presented by Sansom, including Churchill on the run and leading the resistance. It provided some excellent insight into British politics in the interwar period. As a bonus, Sansom includes an explanation of how he crafted the story and where he took artistic licence. I couldn’t put it down!

Sally Thorne, Regional Adviser for the South West