Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Learning Facts from Fiction

I am a late convert to nonfiction – that conversion story, which occurred in college, is one I’ll save for another time. Up until that point, however, I had learned--and I continue to learn--many of the facts that I have retained in my life while reading fiction.

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus is an excellent example of the kind of fiction I love that has taught me a great deal about factual situations. This book lays bare the ideological chasm that existed between East and West during the 19th century, through the riveting adventures and subsequent transformation of a real person: Manjiro or, as he came to be known in America, John Mung.

Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief helped me imagine what it might be like to live in a small town in Germany and to hide a Jewish friend from the Nazis—ordinary people living through an extraordinary time.

In Go and Come Back, Joan Abelove transported me to a small village on the Amazon where the villagers held a different perspective on life—and a vocabulary to reflect that experience. The novel inspired me to think differently about modern society’s attitudes and values.

Set in contemporary Iraq, Walter Dean Myers’ Sunrise Over Fallujah taught me more than news reports ever could about the approach to warfare and peace-keeping in the Iraq war. Coupled with his Fallen Angels, set in Vietnam where the author served as a soldier, these two books paint a full portrait of modern warfare and its toll on those who are party to it—whether they be soldiers or civilians.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly taught me about life in a small Texas town at the turn of the 20th century, when Darwin and the Church and the start of the industrial revolution were all influencing family life across the country.

For Heart of a Samurai, Preus culls from her extensive research the details of what the whaling ships were like, what the men ate, the conditions of the ship and the attitudes on land, which were often more provincial than those of the men at sea, naturally. The author even includes reproductions of John Mung’s drawings.

But in order to fill in his emotional life, she imagines his thoughts and conversations, which makes the book a work of fiction. What an amazing way to introduce to young people this era and the cultural history of East and West.

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