“Inspired by a true story.” These were like magic words to me as a teen reader. I loved reading about real historical figures and events, but nonfiction never kept my interest. So most of my knowledge of history came from historical novels. As a teen I couldn’t get enough of novelized versions of kings’ and queens’ lives, of wars and tragedies, and whatever else I could find.
I still love historical fiction, but I have since learned that you can’t take everything you read in a historical novel as historical fact. Yes, I did learn this the hard way. Yes, it was embarrassing at the time.
Fortunately, these days there is plenty of nonfiction about historical people and events that don’t read like a textbook. I assure you that I have actually managed to occasionally glean some facts from reliable sources on occasion, but I am particularly delighted when historical fiction brings the reliable sources to me by way of back matter that differentiates fact from fiction. Audacity by Melanie Crowder is probably the best example of this that I have found. It’s a novel in verse that fictionalizes the life of Clara Lemlich, a union activist in the early 1900’s. The book is extremely compelling even without knowledge of Clara Lemlich’s life, but the historical notes and interview with Lemlich’s descendants at the end of the book add to the power of the story. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction from this era.
Then there are the books that introduce me to bits of history that I didn’t know about before. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez is set around the time of the 1937 New London school explosion, which I hadn’t known about before, but it is primarily the love story of Naomi and Wash. It is perhaps the most powerful teen novel I’ve read in a long time, but note that it has been referenced as a book that is very likely to make you ugly cry. Read it with caution. But definitely read it.
I have yet to read any of Ruta Sepetys’ novels, but they are in my queue. Her new book, Salt to the Sea, is a meticulously researched fictional account of a little known maritime tragedy during World War II. It sounds like a book the teenage me would have loved, and frankly, I’m more than a little intrigued by it now. Learn more about the book and the event is is based on here:
In the year 1900, photographer Edward Curtis traveled from his home in Seattle to Montana to witness a Native American Sun Dance, which he and other members of the expedition believed would be the last event of its kind, ever. Anne Makepeace writes about the effect this had on the man in her book Edward Curtis: Coming to Light:
“If some Indians believed that the camera could capture one’s soul, at this Sun Dance in 1900 it was Curtis’s soul that was captured. This vision of a passing world would change Curtis’s life, uproot him from his home, and send him on an Odyssean journey that would consume him for the next 30 years.”
I personally did not know the name Edward Curtis until quite recently when a colleague talked about a recently published biography of him, but some of his photographs were familiar to me. His haunting photographs of Native Americans around the country in the early twentieth century have become iconic. You can see many of them on display at the Minneapolis Central Branch of the Hennepin County Library from now through January 6th in an exhibit called “Beauty, Heart and Spirit: The Sacred Legacy® of Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian.” Photographers take note of the November 15th event at which master printers discuss Curtis’s ahead-of-his-time printing techniques.
I have yet to see the exhibit myself, but I’ve been reading about Curtis’s life:
While his work was not without controversy, it remains a significant legacy. I know I can’t read about the dedication and empathy that Curtis put into this project without thinking about what might capture my soul in such a way.
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First of all, the library staff have responded to my suggestion, which makes me feel pretty good. :)
The Central Library in downtown Minneapolis is open seven days a week. I wish more locations were open on Sundays and Mondays, but I’m quite grateful that there is one I can count on for my Sunday and Monday reading needs.
Speaking of the Central Library, it really is a cool building. There is even a children’s book about the construction of the new library that came out in 2006. You can get a free tour of the library on weekends. I have yet to do this myself. If anyone wants to take the tour sometime, let me know so I can join you. :)
The Central Library celebrates Minnesota’s rich literary history in its auditorium. Each of the chairs in the auditorium has a name of a Minnesota author on it. I, of course, love this connection to the community.
An actor plays Gratia Countryman in an old library building at a local arts festival in 2010.
Perhaps the coolest reason to like HC Lib is its history. Gratia Countryman, in particular, is a notable figure in Minneapolis history as the first female director of the Minneapolis Public Library and the founder of the Hennepin County Library. She was a strong advocate for women’s rights, and she was active in various organizations in the Twin Cities. If you have an opportunity to catch a performance by a Minnesota Historical Society player, do it. Ms. Countryman is a fascinating historical figure that deserves wider name recognition.
I recently attended the opening celebration of the exhibit, which featured commentary from library figures about the nature of public service in Hennepin County (particularly in light of the current government shutdown) and the future of libraries in Hennepin County. The exhibit will be open the same hours as the Central Library, so you can view it seven days a week through September 30th.
Explore how Minneapolis Public Library and Hennepin County Library have worked together to achieve the vision of Gratia Countryman, who said,
“The public library is an institution so pliable that it bends to every growing need of community life; so susceptible to social needs, so eager to render all possible service, that it must by virtue of its own nature reach out beyond the city borders.”
How has your public library responded to community needs? How do you wish it would respond?
In honor of Women’s History Month, I posted on Books in Bloom about a few picture book biographies that feature little-known women who defied the women’s role of their day. One of these women in particular stood out to me: Maria Sibylla Merian. In the picture book biography, I got the basic gist of her life. She lived in the late 1600’s, and she chose to study and draw butterflies at a time when people generally believed that butterflies came from the devil. It was common at the time for women to draw or paint flowers, but Merian blended art and science. She was so fascinated by the process of metamorphosis that was not satisfied with superstition. I was so fascinated that I went in search of more information. I learned that this woman, now all-but forgotten by history, has been referred to as the “Mother of Entomology.” She further defied cultural norms of her day by leaving her husband and traveling to Suriname as a ship’s naturalist. Kim Todd writes of Merian in Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis,
“The willpower needed to forge a path where none existed before must have been overwhelming. She gave a nod to expectations, but then sailed straight through them as though they were ripples and not tidal waves.”
This is exactly the sort of woman I want my daughter to know.