My Favorite Historical Novel
October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
For evoking another time and place, though, the best thing I’ve ever read is probably Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It.
—Pete Dexter, author, Paris Trout
Favorite historical novels (why stop at one?):
Fair and Tender Ladies, by Lee Smith. History of one Appalachian valley’s people in the twentieth century. This is about as moving a work of literature as has ever been written.
George Garrett’s Elizabethan cycle— Death of the Fox (Sir Walter Ralegh), The Succession (James I and Elizabeth), and Entered from the Sun (murder of Christopher Marlowe)—gives a complete, complex world.
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West. Nineteenth-century U.S.A. and Mexico, with killers.
I love these books.
Middlemarch is historical; so is Absalom, Absalom! (Northerners probably think the South is backward because so much of Faulkner is historical.)
Kit Reed, Cry of the Daughter. The old South, beautifully.
Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.
—Annie Dillard, author, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Living
Three historical novels have affected my writing:
To Have and to Hold by Mary Johnston. (When I was in my early teens. Even then it occurred to me that the lot of a redemptioner was not so wholly different from that of a free woman entering wedlock. The beginning of my novel Erie Water is evidence of its lasting effect on me.)
The Virginians by Thackeray, which I read in college for the first time and which seemed to me then the best of his novels.
The Crossing by Winston Churchill, which was the first book to give me a notion that I too might write stories about America.
And then I would like to name a book I am just now reading: Burden of Desire by Robert MacNeil, which I admire for the skill of its writing, its sensitivity (a rare commodity in our modern version of literature). The conception of a historical catastrophe giving shape to the lives of a wide spectrum of characters is in the great tradition, though the coloration is entirely MacNeil’s.
“Faulkner knew, perhaps upon instinct, that the best historical novels are those in which past and present talk with each other.”
—Walter D. Edmonds, author, Drums along the Mohawk and In the Hands of the Senecas
We read Ole Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth in Miss Durrin’s class at Bowling Green State University, nine miles down the road from Waterville, Ohio—which, in case you want to know, is ten miles from Toledo. It was the first great historical novel I had read, and unforgettable. The year was 1939, long ago, but still bright in my mind, for it was at the end of a swirling decade of uprooting from the placid life of Cleveland and going back to the farm (my father lost his job twice). Nothing like the starkness of Giants , but farm life in the bleak flatness of northwestern Ohio, once known as the Great Swamp before it was cleared and drained, was hardly interesting and therefore reminiscent of Rolvaag’s South Dakota. My grandfather, a broad-shouldered, bearded man, born before the Civil War, had helped with the clearing.
One could go on, but I must say that Giants in the Earth suddenly showed what I was seeing in lesser form on the Ohio farm, and then, to make it the more memorable, in two or three years the idyll of college life was broken by another starkness that Rölvaag would have appreciated, World War II.
Years later my wife and I spent a couple of days in a hotel in Northfield, Minnesota, and I drove around the little campus of St. Olaf College and thought of Rölvaag, who, having escaped his native Norway, taught there so many years. By then it was almost too late to sense what St. Olaf had done to help Rölvaag find himself and describe the hardness of American history in the nineteenth century. By then the softness of our lives was almost obscuring the past.
—Robert H. Ferrell, distinguished professor of history, Indiana University