How long ago does a book have to be set to count as historical fiction? It’s one of the questions that makes historical fiction slippery to define. Some might argue that the Vietnam War is too recent to count. Some might put the dividing line at the 1970’s or even 80’s. And indeed, there are fewer examples of more recent historical fiction, but it’s still interesting to explore.
To appeal as historical fiction, the details of a book’s setting and plot should anchor characters’ behavior firmly in a time that is different from the writer’s present or the reader’s present. One of the ways that can be done is to tie to a major historical event, one that the writer and the reader might not have experienced.
Tying plot and setting elements to major historical events helps make a recent history story work as good historical fiction. While a teen or tween reader might not remember the 1980’s, the details of the time period don’t always share the dramatic change that creates the sharp contrast between then and now that makes historical fiction so appealing.
The Fire-Eaters, by David Almond (Delacorte 2004, 224 pages), is set in a coastal England town, anxiously watching news of the growing hostility between the US and the USSR, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s. Bobby is a young teen in a tense family, forging friendships with a circus fire-eater named McNulty and a young illusionist named Ailsa Spink. His father, a WWII veteran, is suffering from a mysterious illness that is putting a strain on his family. Viewing the events of American history through Bobby’s British eyes and context contributes to the distance-across-time feeling of Bobby’s world that makes this work as historical fiction.
Under the Sun by Arthur Dorros (Amulet, 2004, 224 pages), tells the story of Ehmet, a 13-year-old boy and his experience during the war in Bosnia. He is separated from his parents, and trying to travel through the war-torn country to find his way to a village where children have made a peaceful place for themselves. Although I haven’t read it, reviews make it look promising and well-researched, a fit for middle-grade readers.
Framed more as a time travel novel, Stuck in the 70’s is also a historical novel evoking the 1970’s as a historical frame. It’s more about pop culture than major events, but the level of detail makes it work.
Novels dealing with the aftereffects of 9/11 are starting to emerge. Is that too soon to be historical fiction? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, it is definitely recent and immediate history, especially for teens growing up in New York. However, for a younger teen, or a teen living far away from the city, books about the impact of September 11th might offer the appeal of historical fiction, a way to understand and bridge the emotional gap.
Love is the Higher Law, by David Levithan (Random House, 2009, 176 pages) traces the way 9/11 has an impact on an ensemble cast of teens. Panic, love, loss, and the immediacy of how their lives are interrupted in these interconnected vignettes take readers to the day itself. Jasper’s parents are in Korea, calling him frantically to know he’s okay. Claire has to go get her brother from school. Peter has to find his way back to school, as everything happens around him. (Teen readers, but read with caution, in case it’s not historical enough yet.)
Backtracked, by Pedro Alcantara, is primarily a time travel novel focused on fifteen-year-old Tommy, whose subway ride rockets him back in time in a coming-of-age story. As the story begins, Tommy is mourning the death of his older brother, a fireman who died on 9/11. Dealing with his grief, he ditches school to ride the subway. And then a subway trip takes him backward in time, offering a glimpse of a younger New York. This is more of a time travel novel, offering that shift in perspective, than it is a recent history novel.