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FICTION OR NON-FICTION?

There are readers who love fiction; there are readers who seek only nonfiction; there are readers who gravitate toward memoirs. Now, there are also crossover genres -- books categorized as narrative or creative nonfiction, as well as historical fiction. Some readers are open to any form and some recoil from certain forms. Fortunately, there is a variety of published work in all forms, so every reader can find what he or she prefers.


Controversy arises, however, when the truthfulness of horrific events is the issue. Which form does justice to representing true horrific historical events and teaching readers what transpired during those dark days? Can all forms, including fiction, accomplish this?

Recalling my school years, I remember the novel Red Badge of Courage when I think of the Civil War and All Quiet on the Western Front when I think of World War 1. Clearly, fiction is my preferred form - both for reading and writing.

There are arguments for and against fiction as a tool for presenting the facts about wars and genocides. The cons focus on the fact that a work of fiction is not literally "true" since the characters and dialogue and perhaps some of the events are "made up." The argument for nonfiction contends that the people and events being written about are "real."

There is such a thing as emotional truth, however, and I think fiction wins at that. When a reader can relate to a character and feel what that character is experiencing, the reading experience becomes so much more meaningful. I compare the effect of fiction to that of a movie. Through sound and visuals, a film evokes an atmosphere, as good fiction can do. And through the depiction of a character, a film, like well-written fiction, can stir emotions of sympathy, hatred, or fear.

I ask myself why I don't recall the nonfiction in school textbooks but I do recall -- quite vividly -- the novels that are set during those difficult times.

Some of the answer lies in style. Writing style for nonfiction, especially in textbooks, tends to be straightforward and dry. A listing of facts is, to me, not an engaging read. It is easily forgotten -- after the test.

Today, however, many nonfiction writers employ writing style that borrows from fiction and makes the event or person seem immediate and interesting. I think of The Boys in the Boat, which tells the story of the American Olympic team that competed in 1936 Nazi Germany, by Daniel James Brown, as an example. The individual American athletes become real to the reader as their backgrounds and personalities are fleshed out. Therefore, this nonfiction book provides more than the actual facts of the competition. Readers find it easy to relate.

Often, the use of writing style that is similar to fiction turns the nonfiction book into what is called creative or narrative or literary nonfiction. An example of this would be Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. This book introduces readers to a real person, an Italian boy living through the Nazi occupation during World War 11 who finds a way to work for the Italian Resistance while ostensibly working for the Nazis. The story of this real person, whose fascinating and incredible life make for a compelling story, draws us in not only because of the events in it but also because the book is written as if it is a novel. We are carried along with the main character on his dangerous adventures. The author uses dialogue and description which make the story come alive. Although the author did get to interview the man at the center of the story when he was elderly, much of what the author includes had to be the result of his imagination. This is not wild imagination but imagination informed by the facts he uncovered.

Another such work would be the famous Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally. In this book as well, it is indisputable that the facts are correct. It is the writing style that makes them emotionally powerful and memorable. It allows the reader to identify with characters and feel various emotions.

In writing that deals with the Holocaust, authors of all types of books do research. Writers of memoir and nonfiction, we all know, must do research. But writers of fiction do so as well. I encourage people to sample books in all the categories, as there is value in each form. Many works that deal with the Holocaust are memoirs written by people who lived through and suffered through this period and they provide a solid record of events. Some memoirs, however, are not first-person memoirs as they are written by children or grandchildren of the survivors.

Memoirs play a pivotal role in keeping the stories of the Holocaust alive as they show readers what real people actually endured. In fact, a number of the interviews I conducted for my blog highlight memoir authors who have written of their parents' or grandparents' experiences. These books are the result of diligent research and interviewing on the writer's part, as well as a strong belief in the importance of the story. In some cases, the actual people who lived through the Holocaust can appear in schools and speak to children about their ordeals. This certainly enhances the effect of the memoir in question. Today, with the aging and passing of the generation of survivors, the children of survivors who now visit schools and speak at other venues aim to keep the Holocaust real to children in order to influence their attitudes toward cruelty, hatred, and prejudice.

The challenge facing writers of memoir is the question of subjectivity. It is difficult to remain objective when writing about people one knows and loves. It is natural to wish to present an idolized picture of that individual, especially since that person has been victimized and has undoubtedly displayed courage in order to survive. Remember, however, that the purpose of a Holocaust memoir is to get the story out there, on record, so people know what happened. The accuracy of the narrative is what is important. Readers get a first-hand account of unbelievable brutality as well as bravery and dedication. If that is achieved by casting the main character in one light, that must be accepted in order for the memoir's goals to be achieved. What is not crucial to the story is not needed.

There are indeed many, many books out now that deal with the Holocaust. I have heard people ask why there are so many such books, in all forms. In response, I point out that the trauma it engendered has not left us but has been passed down and is still a part of many people's lives. For those who inherited this trauma, examining it and bringing it to light are necessary in order to make sense of our lives. Writing about it also helps to show how we share so much with other minority groups who have been persecuted and how history, unfortunately, repeats itself. It therefore connects us to one another. Considering the frightening rise of hatred and violence today, the lessons that should be learned from the Holocaust are too important to forget.

Also, remember that the Holocaust lasted many years and affected many countries, so there is a great deal of information about it. Readers' knowledge of the scope of the Holocaust is surely expanded by books that take place in countries other than Germany, Austria, or Poland. City of Thieves by David Benioff and The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean are both novels that take place in the Soviet Union during the war. A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell takes place in Italy and follows a Jewish refugee family seeking safety there to escape the Holocaust. It is also a novel. I believe I learned more about the rescues in Italy from this book than from any nonfiction I've read.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is an amazing novel that takes place in occupied France during the war, which brilliantly manages to get readers to sympathize with both a French girl in hiding and a German boy in the German army. It reminds us of our humanity.

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles teaches us, through the character of a French librarian, about the American library in Paris and the occupying Nazi reaction to it. Both are moving and extremely interesting. Another fascinating work of historical fiction is Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin, which tells the story of a real person, an American woman who was married to the manager of the Paris Ritz, a prestigious position in pre-Nazi Paris. When the Nazis invade and the Gestapo sets up its headquarters in the Ritz, her life changes horrifically.

Tatiana de Rosnay's novel Sarah's Key also takes place in France and shows us what the roundup of French Jews was like. In The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, we follow a Hungarian as he is caught up in the Holocaust in his country.

There are a number of well-known novelists who have written extensively about characters they have created or discovered who deal with the Holocaust. Each novel highlights a unique situation, and much can be learned from them. They are works of fiction, but they are based on intensive research into events and people's lives at the time. In most cases, they are categorized as historical fiction.

These writers and their books would be too numerous to mention, but a few of them are: Pam Jenoff (The Woman with the Blue Star, recently released Code Name Sapphire, among others), Kristen Hannah (The Nightingale), Martha Hall Kelly (Lilac Girls and recently released The Golden Doves), Kristin Harmel (The Room on Rue Amelie), and Kate Quinn (The Alice Network and The Huntress, among others). The variety of topics these novels explore include spy networks, hiding in sewers to escape roundups, the saving of pilots parachuting into Nazi territory, and an American's efforts to save victims.

So, so many marvelous works of literature! I have selected a few of my favorites to recommend but the list could go on and on. Instead of bemoaning the abundance of books on this topic, let us celebrate the desire and perseverance of the authors by reading a selection that appeals to each of us.

Three recent releases that I personally value are novels that deal with other types of Holocaust trauma. One is Lila by Rose Ross, a novel based on a true situation involving two girls born in a Displaced Persons Camp to survivors and then immigrating to the United States, where their differences and rivalry come to a head. The trauma passed on to the next generation is beautifully explored in this novel.

The Takeaway Men by Meryl Ain follows twin sisters who are survivors immigrating to the United States and dealing with the problems unique to immigrants who hope to forge a new life and leave Nazism behind.

Another is Once We Were Home by Jennifer Rosner, which examines the lives of hidden children -- Jewish children hidden with Christian families to save them from extermination who, in some cases, do not remember their real parents or even know they are Jews. The tension between the Christian community and Jewish families for "ownership" of these children after the war is not well known. It created a different kind of trauma that is little understood. As more and more information about the Holocaust comes forth, we are given so many opportunities to learn about not only the events themselves but the aftermath, still playing out today.

My own exploration of next-generation trauma in the writing of my novels (Escaping the Whale and The Whale Surfaces) has benefited greatly from my readings, many of them named above. While I have read and appreciate many memoirs and works of nonfiction, from which I have learned so much, it is fiction that claims my heart. It is through fiction that I have not only learned a great deal of factual information (that I can actually remember!) but also learned to understand human beings. We are all human and none of us knows how we would react to some of the situations others have faced. While I believe that reading anything about the Holocaust is valuable, I personally find that the beauty of fiction is its ability to emotionally connect me with a character, which provokes thoughts on many related matters.


I strongly encourage all of you to examine some of the novels I have recommended, even if you have previously tended to dismiss fiction as a waste of time because it is "not true." And absolutely, delve into the plethora of memoirs and nonfiction works that deal with Holocaust experiences as well. I am confident that expanding one's reading list on this topic, through all forms of literature, will prove to be a worthwhile endeavor.

2 Comments


techteach
May 13, 2023

Thank you so much for encouraging to read your excellent and informative blog. I have 4 new books on my TBR list now. I am looking for how I can subscribe to your blog.

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Pamela Burke
Pamela Burke
May 12, 2023

So thoughtful and helpful! I'll read some more of your recommendations here with new appreciation for the different purposes and approaches of each style. Thanks for providing such rich context for understanding my reactions to what I read!

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