My heart has been shaped by novels as much as by circumstance.
As a child, thanks to my mother, schoolteachers, and our school and town libraries, I read vast amounts of fiction and nonfiction. These precious books introduced me to the lives and struggles of all sorts of people in America and around the world. Through reading, my heart filled and expanded. I held those powerful stories and their authors in high esteem.
Margaret Atwood, in her essay collection Negotiating with the Dead, writes that the reader brings alive the story—what she calls the “score for voice”—by reading it. The fiction I loved became a part of me in part because I’d been its instrument.
I love to sink into a story as into a bath. I yearn for depth and subtle understandings and find them often in my favorite fiction. Novelist Alexander Chee explains here why he wrote a historical novel: “I longed to dissolve into someone else, to put on a powdered wig, a crinoline, and vanish into the past. And that is just what I did.” I don’t crave the powdered wig or crinoline, but the vanishing part? Yes. I love to be taken up by voices unlike those of anyone I know.
For readers as well as writers, the source of these voices can be mysterious. When I had the pleasure of interviewing Valerie Martin, she spoke of her remarkable novel Mary Reilly, which retells the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the voice of the maid. “I guess Mary Reilly’s voice was the strangest to come by,” she said, “because it really is so completely different from anybody I know” (Glimmer Train, 2006).
I continue to seek certain things in storytelling, whether in the form of books, movies, music, or art: intimate access to characters challenged by their circumstances and communion with the sensibility that created them. The kinds of stories that move me most bring us close to individuals who want something badly, yet live in the grip of antagonistic forces they can’t control.
There’s no doubt that reading made me a writer. Some of the novels I’ve worked on were formed under the influence of books I’ve loved. In his 2015 essay “Influence Looming,” Matt Bell writes, “Every so often, a book comes into your life that . . . changes you in the reading. We all have life experiences that we cannot move past . . . , but there’s a corresponding experience that sometimes happens when we encounter great literature, where a book becomes a place we have been, a life we’ve lived, as emotionally real as the places we’re from and the days we’re awake in the world. A memory lingers of its plot or its images or the structure of its sentences, and if you’re a writer, then one way to deal with that lingering is to try to write your way out. . . . [I]n that way, being a writer is always about being a reader first.”
A desire to write can be in part a desire to save people and places in time from being forgotten. Historical novelists may feel this impulse—not only to create powerful and previously unheard voices, but also to reanimate people and locations that no longer exist as they once were.
Fiction written about times past, or written long enough ago to be about settings that no longer exist as they were, has brought me unexpected, powerful understandings. These books were a chief reason I read incessantly as a child and a teenager. I could fade into a different time and place and way of life, yet feel connected to the people in some magical way, time traveling, forgetting my circumstances, emerging changed.
Many of my favorite works of historical fiction have a strong female character, wise to the limits placed on her sex, persistent and honest. When people don’t know much history, they think people were completely different in the past; they think the oppressed didn’t know they were oppressed. My study of history has taught me that many did; some still don’t.
You may think the idea of being left out of history is relatively new, but consider this line from Thomas Brown’s Urn Burial, published in 1658: “Who knows whether the best of men be known, or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot than any that stand remembered in the known account of time?” No doubt the sentiment can be found much farther back, as soon as people started recording the past. Any account is preferential. Historical fiction gives women a chance to be remembered.
The historical novels that have affected me are innumerable, but the ones whose impact I still remember from early reading include a trilogy set in medieval Norway called Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset; June Rachuy Brindel’s Ariadne, in which the last queen of matriarchal Crete witnesses the patriarchal takeover; and Christa Wolf’s Cassandra, a story of the fall of Troy by the daughter of its king, who has both the gift of prophesy and the curse of never being believed. Later, I loved The Color Purple by Alice Walker, whose main character, Celie, grows to wisdom and maturity on a journey we experience through her letters; The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, which brings biblical stories to life through the voice of Dinah; Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, a fictional autobiography of a young girl who becomes a geisha in Kyoto before and after World War II; the aforementioned Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin; Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks, which tells of the year an actual English village shut itself off to avoid spreading the plague within; and, also by Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing, which tells of the first Native Americans to attend Harvard, from the point of view of a young woman who, as a servant there, advances herself by listening in on lectures.
Oh, there are so many more, books I remember and books I don’t.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a favorite I re-read recently. I was surprised by how radical and feminist it is. Hester endures trials that make common assumptions fall to pieces—the admired minister is a hypocrite and sinner, the old doctor is a sadist who slowly kills his patient, those who revile her claim religion as the source of their moral superiority when she is a far better person than they. Hawthorne’s wish for better relations between the sexes is undisguised: “Women . . . came to Hester’s cottage, demanding why they were so wretched, and what the remedy! Hester comforted and counselled them . . . She assured them, too, of her firm belief that, at some brighter period . . . a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.”
Many of the stories that changed me focus on a small number of people against a wider situation of broad significance, including hardship in agrarian families (John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth), prejudice and persecution (Toni Morrison’s Sula and The Bluest Eye, Richard Wright’s Native Son and Black Boy, Ralph Ellison’s The Man Who Lived Underground, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Elie Wiesel’s memoir-novel Night, Anne Frank’s diary), and war (Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage). The stories I’ve seen my daughter loving, from elementary school into high school, also tell of people who want something badly yet live in the grip of forces that push back hard, such as Cynthia Kadohata’s Weedflower. The forces are big—including the effects of extreme prejudice and disaster—yet the stories are intimate. Such stories forge a bond with those who apprehend them. The individual becomes an emblem of a larger phenomenon, and through that individual we understand in our bodies: this is what this situation means when it’s lived. Such a story expands our hearts. For love of these books and so many other kinds, I’ve given much of my life to reading, writing, and helping others tell powerful stories.
So many novels have had indelible effects on my heart. I learned what it might be like to be almost every kind of person through these acts of imagination provided to me by authors, and my capacity for empathy grew and grew. I encourage you to think of the novels that have helped make you who you are—and to honor them.
Janet Benton began writing early and has worked hard to give books a central place in her life. Her debut novel, LILLI DE JONG, is the diary of an unwed Quaker mother in 1883 Philadelphia who decides to try to keep her baby. It was one of LIBRARY JOURNAL’s and NPR’s Best Books of 2017 and a semifinalist for the Goodreads Choice Awards. Janet’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. She holds an M.F.A. from the Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst and a B.A. in religious studies from Oberlin College. Her family history has made her highly aware of the power of the mother-infant bond and of the need to stand up for outcasts. After working at magazines, newspapers, and publishers and teaching writing at four universities, she began The Word Studio (www.thewordstudio.us) to offer workshops and mentoring to writers.