Monthly Archives: June 2014

Why I Write About the Past


 I think I was in the fifth grade when I read my first two historical novels—Irene Hunt’s Across Five Aprils and Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Though it would be another ten years before I fully realized it, these two stories, set during the Civil War and centered around young male protagonists, launched a lifelong love affair with history and historical fiction.

But I am not an historian. My path in this regard is far less academic than it is empathetic. There is something in the study of history that is—for me, and I believe for others—more personal. Hunt’s Jethro Creightonn and Crane’s Henry Fleming were as real to me as the children in my classroom. And now, decades later, I remember them as I remember those same children. I experience them as a part of my childhood, and this phenomenon of memory has somehow become true for just about everyone who ever lived. As I read about the past, it is no longer past. History seems not an “other” to me, but an interest that lies primarily in myself and my own time.

This is what I believe historical fiction does for us, a harmony in which I hope Song of the Jayhawk strikes at least a single note: it connects us to the lives of people who came before us. And in doing so, in writing and reading about the past, we find wisdom and solace, a frame of mind that both humbles and emboldens us. The library in which I work greets each of its visitors, etched in stone above its entry, with the phrase “He who knows only his own generation remains forever a child.” If that is true, then I believe that it is the study of history, and the enjoyment of historical fiction, that we find growth and maturity.

Writing this novel, and conducting the research to do so, has been both a personal journey and a discovery of the world. And in anticipating more novels in this series, I am excited by the prospect of continuing that journey. It never ends. I feel my great-grandparents within me as I write, and the life of Irish immigrants in territorial Kansas. I feel my Maness side, back to the cabins of the Appalachians, where it is raining and the hounds are restless. I feel my Baumann side, and western Missouri, and all the lives they touched, as well as those who touched them . Flowing through me, within me, swirling around like a tempest of memory as I walk through my life.

I can only hope, and pray, that at last this whirlwind has spilled out onto the pages of this book.