Poisoned arrows

I go through phases, like everyone. For years I read little but travel writing and history, and very happily too. I’ve never quite emerged from that phase. I can admit to a 1980s feminist fantasy phase, a brief flirtation with sci-fi, a metaphorical affair with crime, and even my interest in contemporary fiction comes and goes (but then, so does contemporary fiction). I’m also one of those odd people who read poems – like, for fun.
On a plane I’ll read almost anything. Even The Da Vinci Code.
Although I write historical fiction, I don’t read it much because it’s often awful – perhaps I hang about the intersection of histfic and literary fiction.
But at present I’m reading a great deal of kids’ historical fiction, to see how it’s done – in case I haven’t got it right – to see what everyone else is doing, and to recapture the joy it brought me when I was 10 or so and hung out at the Nunawading Library every Thursday evening (Fridays we had fish and chips – not sure which was best).
Oh and also I bought a stack of out-of-print books at a school fair in Napier and it’s taking a long time to work my way through them: you’d be surprised how many of those lovely slender Puffins you can fit in a box – or three.
Why bother writing about history for young readers?
In the latest Literary Review, Andrew Roberts rants about the teaching of history in the UK, and with reason. “In recent surveys,” he tells us, “nearly three-quarters of 11- to 18-year-olds did not know that Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar was Victory [this in the middle of the anniversary celebrations]… Fewer than half of 16-24-year-olds knew that Sir Francis Drake was involved in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, with 13 percent thinking it was beaten by Horatio Hornblower.”
That Horn, eh? He can do anything.
More worryingly, only 45 percent of Britons “associate anything at all with the word Auschwitz”.
This brings me to me latest reading list, because when I re-read books such as Cue for Treason that I read when I was ten or so, it is blindingly obvious that we no longer have access to the assumptions that an older generation could safely make about the historical knowledge of their readers.
When I read to kids in schools, we talk a lot about pirates and the sea and history. In some schools, the kids have no idea where the Mediterranean is, that Italy looks like a boot, what on earth a Napoleon Bonaparte might be. I should say that in Australian schools, with so many Italian and Maltese kids and almost everyone learning Italian, the geography is more familiar – but not necessarily the history.
Now, I’m not one of those people who decry modern teaching methods, and I’m perfectly aware that there might be more urgent things kids have to learn that Napoleon’s life story.
The point is that when we write historical fiction now we have to spell out every little thing, or give background impressions where once the background existed clearly in the readers’ minds. I find it sad. And spelling out every little thing can be the death of historical fiction. I hate wading through potted histories of the world wars or suffragettes in the first chapter, and I’m sure kids do too.
It’s the same with language, although for a different reason. It’s clear when you read fiction for kids written before, say, 1980, that there’s a quite specific assumed readership of middle-class children – especially in British fiction – where the author can rely on a certain level and type of education. The rest of us just had to keep up.
Perhaps now we write books that are more accessible to more kids, but there’s a fine line between that and dumbing down, which has the effect of treating every child like a moron.
I’ve just read two books by Penelope Lively, with sprightly crisp writing, a fine English humour and wonderful characterisation. I remember reading A Stitch in Time when I was a kid: last week I read the Carnegie-winning The Ghost of Thomas Kempe and The House in Norham Gardens, both a breath of fresh air and both happily still in print.
The House in Norham Gardens, when published in 1974, was aimed at readers 11 to 14. Now, thirty years later, it would probably be pitched at Young Adult. It’s a complex, sophisticated coming of age story in which nothing much happens except inside the protagonist’s head. That’s where the history lies, too. She slips into second person point of view and out again, slips through time and across cultures and through delicately shaded states of mind.
And also there are lots of spears and a New Guinea shield, which is always a good thing:

“In no other house, thought Clare, in absolutely no other house, could you open an old trunk and be confronted with a large bundle of bows and arrows…
Clare, putting the tray down on the table by the sofa, thought: I am the only person I know who has spears on their walls instead of pictures.”

Some of them even have poisoned tips.
One of the other houses in the world with spears and bows and Highland shields is mine. It started with a bundle of poisoned arrows, went on to adzes and eel traps and it hasn’t finished yet, although it’s all bundled up in storage in Melbourne at present, because I didn’t have the stomach to try to get them through NZ Customs when I moved here.
So I grew very fond of Clare and her elderly aunts in our brief acquaintance, and increasingly fond of Penelope Lively and her sharp mind and flawless prose.
Oh now I’ve gone on too long. Boring, sorry. I’ll have to discuss the other books later.

3 thoughts on “Poisoned arrows

  1. Not at all. I haven’t heard of that Norham book at all, sounds terrific.The Auschwitz thing is upsetting – my children have mentioned how surprised they are at the ignorance of their peers on their way through high school, on this. Usually it is triggered when the school shows Schindler’s List, around Year 10. Really all they have to do is get all Year 7s to read Anne Frank – but what it also suggests, very disturbingly, is that NO ONE at home talks about it, or watches anything on telly about it (hey, they knew who Hornblower was.)

  2. The strange thing is, there’s actually a lot of criticism of the “Nazification” of history teaching – especially in Britain, and the suspicion seems to be that kids just don’t understand it out of the context of history. It just seems like an amazing, horrendous story. A fiction. And that’s scarier.What John Howard’s been saying lately is an extension of those discussions, although his – other people’s – response seems rather too simplistic. Bring back date learing by rote, they say. That’ll fix ’em. It’s not as easy as that and the world’s not as simple as that either.People don’t talk about the Holocaust with kids because it’s emotionally hard – and yet on the other hand you have these endless documentaries and huge publishing industry about the Reich. I’m not critical of that, in fact I am one of those who watch and read a great deal of it. But where does it all go?

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