‘Even as he felt his throat try to puke up his heart’

If you read the New Yorker or you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard of the magazine’s 20 Under 40 issue. I’ve been making my way through the stories, and ZZ Packer’s “Dayward” really grabbed me, perhaps because it’s historical fiction, and my novel-in-progress is also set in the past. Or perhaps because–well just because.

I’d gotten to paragraph four before I realized the story was set in the post-Civil War South (“Two years free, Lazarus was hoisting himself up a pine like a runaway”). Writers take different approaches to weaving history into their fictional works. Books like “Sea of Poppies,” and a lot of the more “popular” (excuse the scare quotes) historical fiction, pile on the historical details. I think a lot of readers, especially history buffs, like their historical fiction strong on the history. Many people like to feel they learnt new facts while also getting a good story.

Other novelists go light on the historical detail. “The Known World,” “The General in His¬†Labyrinth,” and Packer’s New Yorker piece take this approach. Though historical setting is integral to these works, their minimalist approach to creating a historical world enables them, I think, to speak eloquently toward contemporary, even universal, themes. (Racism, poverty, and the yearning for a better life; imperialism and growing older; coming-of-age, family, and escape.)

I don’t think one approach is better than the other, but as a reader and a writer I favor the latter. When a friend’s wife heard I was writing a historical novel, she said, “You must really like history.” Um, no. I don’t love history. Don’t hate it either. But it’s a means of saying what I want to say, rather than a passion.

The beauty of Packer’s piece is how she gets into the emotions of her 15-year-old main character. Stuck up a tree, needing to save his younger sister from the vicious dogs sent after them, he thinks

It was all his fault that they were in it like this. Ever suspicious of a God who hadn’t spoken to man, woman, or child in more than a thousand years, he nevertheless sent up a pinprick-brief prayer, even as he felt his throat try to puke up his heart.

Ah, if I could write one image that vivid in my entire life, I’d be happy. Reading as a writer, I found Packer’s writing intimidatingly good. (Self-improvement resolution of the day: Turn feelings of intimidation into aspiration.) Reading as a reader, I found the story ignore-your-toddler-until-he-starts-whining-and-then-feel-annoyed-at-the-guilt-that’s-keeping-you-from-getting-to-the-end good.

It’s good to see historical fiction in the New Yorker. Not because that’s a mark of approval from the powers that be (literary historical fiction has been in vogue for quite some time now), but because I do like a good dollop of history with my fiction from time to time.


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