Historical fiction invites us to experience the exotic and the unknown while confirming our common humanity. I do not believe that human nature has changed much over the centuries, and it is possible to identify with the emotions, passions, and fears of men and women long dead.
But the past is also uncharted territory; it is like visiting a country where we do not speak the language. What did these people believe? What superstitions did they share? What demons did they see lurking in the dark? We want to be transported back to that foreign country, and we want the historical novelist to act as our translator.
This is what good historical fiction does, what these five novels do. The authors allow us to empathize with their characters, to care deeply about their fates. But we never forget for a moment that they are not our neighbors, not ourselves, for their expectations and ethics and boundaries are not ours. Their lives are firmly rooted in alien soil.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
As many of you know, we usually feature a book around this time on the program. And sticking with our look back theme, we called up Sharon Kay Penman to ask her about some of the best historical fiction she's read this year. Penman is herself an author of historical fiction. Her latest book is called "Lionheart." It's about Richard I of England. And unsurprisingly, 2011 featured a lot of historical fiction set in merry old England.
SHARON KAY PENMAN: Well, as far back as I can remember, the Tudors have been hogging the limelight.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: Which, I guess, leads us to your first pick, which is by Margaret George. It's the book called "Elizabeth I." Why'd you pick that one?
PENMAN: Well, I think Elizabeth is the only good tutor to be honest. And this is Elizabeth in her autumn. And Elizabeth must have been a great challenge for her to right because this was a very enigmatic woman. We know a lot about Elizabeth, but I'm not sure that we know Elizabeth the woman herself. And I think that Margaret makes great progress toward bringing her out into the limelight so that we feel by book's end that we know her.
RAZ: Your next pick, this takes us back a few several centuries earlier. It's "The Dovekeepers" by Alice Hoffman, who was on this program talking about the book. And it's about the Jewish rebels at Masada.
PENMAN: This is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful books I've ever read. The story of Masada, of course, is a great tragedy. I think most people are somewhat familiar with it. And the whole time that I was reading this book I was caring so much for the characters that she'd created and I found myself dreading the end of the book thinking, oh, am I up to reading this because I knew that it was going to end in a terrible tragedy. And it was amazing what she was able to do. She stayed true to the history of Masada and yet she still managed to give her readers hope. It was not like, you know, running into a wall. And I think that's probably one of the reasons why she's one of our best novelists.
RAZ: The next novel that you recommend also has a real-life figure in it. It's based on the life of the first Native American to attend Harvard. The book's by Geraldine Brooks and it's called "Caleb's Crossing." Tell me about that one.
PENMAN: This was a surprise for me, because I'm embarrassed to admit I had not read any of Geraldine Brooks' novels up until now. And it's not as if she was flying under the radar.
PENMAN: She's a very well-known writer. She's an Australian writer. And I am now looking forward to being able to read all of her earlier books. "Caleb's Crossing" is just remarkable. She takes us back to 17th century Massachusetts. And she brings into focus the religious bias that existed then and the strain and the stress that was bound to occur when you had a clash of civilizations, in this case the Native Americans and the Puritans, the colonists.
Caleb is a fascinating character in himself, but I think that the most interesting character in the entire book is Bethia, the minister's daughter who becomes a very close friend of Caleb's. This young woman has a soaring intellect and an absolute hunger for knowledge, and yet she is not allowed to feed that hunger because she is simply a woman. So, I think any of my female readers who read this book will come away thinking: Thank God that they didn't live in the 17th century.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: Yeah right. The book is "Caleb's Crossing" by Geraldine Brooks. The next book that you chose is maybe a little bit pulpier than the others. And I don't want to discount it. It's by Bernard Cornwell, who we've had on the program. He's a great writer. This one's called "A Death of Kings," and it's actually the sixth book in a series about Saxon England. Was it difficult to jump into the series at the sixth book?
PENMAN: I was concerned about that actually. I thought, well, if I can read this book and follow it and if it reads as a standalone to me, then that would be true for the audience as well. And I found that he pulled me in from the first page. This is an absolutely wonderful book. Unfortunately, it was too good because after I finished it, I had then to go back and read the first five books in the series.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PENMAN: Real life came to a screeching halt. And if my editor happens to be listening, I want her to know that if I miss my deadline for "King's Ransom," I'm blaming it all on Bernard Cornwell.
RAZ: All on Cornwell. Cornwell, yeah.
PENMAN: So (unintelligible).
RAZ: Another book you picked is "The Paris Wife." This is by Paula McLain and it is set against a well-worn, well-known backdrop - Paris in the 1920s.
PENMAN: This is really an unusual book in that I think some people might not see it as historical. There's always an argument as to where the cutoff point is for that. But, to me, she was writing about a bygone age - as you say, the Golden Age in Paris in the 1920s. And I think she did an amazing job bringing it to life. In some ways, it may have been more challenging for her because she was writing about people we're more familiar with.
I mean, most of us, of course, were not lucky enough to have met Ernest Hemingway in person, but we're very familiar with the man. Yet, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald - she has some very well-known people in this book. And yet I think that the person who will linger in the readers' imagination most in memory is Hadley, Hemingway's wife. Perhaps because she wasn't as gifted as they were, she was more like the rest of us.
RAZ: "The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain. Sharon Kay Penman, let me ask you a question as a historical novelist yourself. What do you look for in other historical novels? Do you need evidence that the author really spent a lot of time researching the period in getting it right?
PENMAN: I do, absolutely. But then I'm obsessive compulsive about things like that. I feel that historical novelists owe it to our readers to try to be as historically accurate as we can with the known facts. Obviously, we have to fill in the blanks. And then in the final analysis, we're drawing upon our own imaginations. But I think that readers need to be able to trust an author.
RAZ: That's Sharon Kay Penman. She is a connoisseur and author of historical fiction. Her latest book is called "Lionheart." And you can read more about her picks on our website, NPR.org/books. Sharon Kay Penman, thank you so much. And happy holidays to you.
PENMAN: Oh, thank you. I appreciate your giving me the opportunity to be here today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.