Top ten reasons why historical fiction is better than history:
- #10: There is no history in the real world. (Be honest: has knowing or not knowing the date of the Peloponnesian Wars had the slightest impact on your daily life?)
- #9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2: Lies, damn lies, and history. The pyramids (mostly) were not built by Hebrew slaves. There was no wooden horse at Troy. Columbus didn’t ‘discover’ America. The Pope isn’t infallible. George Washington didn’t chop down a cherry tree (plus he didn’t particularly want to revolt against England). Abraham Lincoln would have cheerfully not freed a single slave if it meant preserving the Union. Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon, Bill “What Intern?” Clinton, and Donald “Grab them by the pussy” Trump lied to Congress and, well, pretty much everyone. Iran didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. The Devil didn’t actually make you do it. Nor did [insert your deity of choice/social media influencer/preferred news source]. And Elvis is (probably) still dead.
- #1: Although humans appeared in history about 200,000 years ago, the earliest written records are only about 6,000 years old. That means that 97% of human history is unrecorded. Most of the other three percent could probably have stayed that way too.
So I hated history class. Hated it. I didn’t care about which order British monarchs or American presidents showed up in. I have absolutely no daily use for dates of wars or names of treaties. Basically, I loathed any form of history that forgot that the biggest part of the word is “story”.
And that’s why I love historical fiction and even biographies, where any historical facts you accidentally absorb are part of human stories and human reality. Those lessons from history that we’re doomed to repeat if we forget them? They aren’t about dates or treaties, they’re about the stories of real people and what happened to them.
An outstanding recent example is Ailish Sinclair’s stunning new release, Fireflies and Chocolate.
Fireflies and Chocolate by Ailish Sinclair
Elizabeth craves adventure… excitement… love…
For now though, she has to settle for a trip from her family’s castle, to the port in Aberdeen, where her father has promised she’ll be permitted to buy a horse… all of her own.
Little does she suspect this simple journey will change her life, forever. And as she dreams of riding her new mount through the forests and glens of the Manteith estate, she can have no idea that she might never see them again.
For what lies ahead is danger, unimagined… and the fearful realities of kidnap and slavery.
But even when everything seems lost, most especially the chance of ever getting home again, Elizabeth finds friendship, comfort… and that much prized love, just where she least expected it.
Set in the mid eighteenth century, Fireflies and Chocolate is a story of strength, courage and tolerance, in a time filled with far too many prejudices.
My Review: 5 stars out of 5 for Fireflies and Chocolate by Ailish Sinclair
Some time after moving to Scotland, I happened to meet with a group whose Jewish families had settled in the north of Scotland generations ago. I asked how that happened, and one lady said her family had been migrating to America, after investing almost everything they owned to book passage. When their ship had a stop in Scotland, they were told they’d arrived, as evidenced by people speaking English there. Of course, they discovered the deception, but by then that ship had literally sailed, leaving them near-destitute in Scotland. With no other choice, they made the best of things, settling in small villages and building new lives. I laughed at what I thought was an amusing, if improbable, tale. Until I heard it again. And again. In fact, it seems to be the main origin story for many, if not most, of the Jewish families in the north of Scotland.
Apparently, this kind of deception wasn’t new. A century earlier, over six hundred children and young people were kidnapped from the streets of Aberdeen and sold into indentured servitude in the American colonies, while city officials pocketed the proceeds and congratulated themselves on their novel solution to the homeless problem.
But if official history has ignored their story, how can you make sure it doesn’t disappear? Like the Banana Massacre by the United Fruit Company, which could only be told in a fictionalized version such as Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, or like Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s 400-plus character “intro” to modern times, Ailish Sinclair uses fiction to deliver historical fact.
When we meet sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Manteith, she’s a lonely young girl living in the north of Scotland. Although her father is the lord of their castle, their family fell apart when her young brother died. Her mother retreated into a world of mental illness while her father buried himself in the political machinations of the Jacobites seeking to return Charles Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie” to the thrones of England and Scotland.
But Elizabeth doesn’t care about politics. Effectively abandoned by both parents, she dreams of the exotic drink—chocolate—she once had on a trip to London, of the magical bugs called fireflies that lived in far off lands, or even of meeting her true love. All that is about to change.
As a birthday treat, Elizabeth is going to Aberdeen to choose a new horse. But when she’s assaulted, kidnapped, and forced onto a ship heading for the American colonies, she realizes her old life is over. Thanks to the physical isolation of the Manteith estate, the emotional isolation of her dysfunctional family, and to her rank as a member of the gentry, Elizabeth’s life has been sheltered and lonely but safe. Now she’s confronted with almost every type of evil, deprivation, and cruelty, along with natural disaster and danger.
Saved from despair by friendship with fellow prisoner Peter, she finds the strength to make it to the new world, where they are to be sold at Philadelphia’s slave markets. The story follows Elizabeth over the next four years, as she encounters racism, misogyny, greed, and despair, but also finds friendship and even a family.
Author Ailish Sinclair weaves many strands into this history. There are actual historical characters from Peter to Ben Franklin. Racial prejudice is a foreign concept to the young girl who has met few people in her life, and none from other races, so Elizabeth forms her new family from all those she encounters—slaves, fugitives, idealists, wealthy planters, and scholars.
I’m in awe of the research that went into building Elizabeth’s worlds, from Scotland to America. There’s just enough dialect in character’s speech to give a flavor of their accents, and I loved hearing words from my life in Scotland, as well as from Highland history. But most of all I loved watching as Elizabeth claims her emerging character as a strong woman and staunch friend, but also as a girl whose romantic dreams meet the reality of romantic love.
I absolutely have to comment on the writing itself. Not only is it lyrical and descriptive, but Ailish Sinclair has a gift for showing us a world instead of telling us about it. She weaves symbolic strands through Elizabeth’s story, like the fireflies and the chocolate she dreams of in Scotland, experiences in America, and realizes what they can—and cannot—accomplish in her life. Or like the onion the young Elizabeth uses to make her last dinner in Scotland, her first dinner in America, and her final decision between the two.
As an American now living in Scotland, I found Fireflies and Chocolate offers a rare look at the sometimes uncomfortable history we never learned in school. Author Ailish Sinclair takes the stories of real life characters and believably intertwines them in Elizabeth’s experience, while never losing sight of her main goal: telling a roaring good story with all the romance, danger, and dawning strength of character you could ask. But Elizabeth’s story also puts the ‘story’ back in ‘history’ with an unforgettable coming of age tale for both a young girl and the new world she claims as her own.
If you’re looking for a beautifully plotted story which draws you in and has you racing for the finish—while googling for more information about all the new views of history—then Fireflies and Chocolate is for you.