In the High Peaks

Friday, February 7, 2020

Storminess and Historical Fallacies in Nonfiction and Fiction

Due to yesterday's ice storm, today's snowstorm, and tonight's howling winds, we will certainly be losing power, and I always feel I want to post something before the internet is blown away. The ice accumulated on trees and wires yesterday and last night, and after the snow accumulation today and the winds, branches and trees are falling.

I'm still listening to Dutch Girl as I knit, and I continue to come across inaccuracies that make me think I'm going crazy. The author, who is reportedly known for his investigative journalism of historic subjects in the 20th century, wrote that Anne Frank and her family, after spending time at at a camp in the Netherlands, were eventually sent to Auschwitz.

This is true.
BUT Margot, Anne's older sister, and Anne resided in Auschwitz (Poland) for only two months. Their mother remained in Auschwitz after her daughters' departure, as did their father (though husband and wife were not together). Margot and Anne were  transported to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in Germany. Margot and Anne spent many more months at Bergen-Belsen than  they ever spent in Auschwitz. In discussing Margot's and Anne's deaths, the author never mentions Bergen-Belsen. This omission leads the reader to conclude that Margot and Anne died at Auschwitz, which is absolutely false. The Frank girls lived and died under the conditions at Bergen-Belsen, which have been extremely well documented.
On top of that, we have the fact that the author stated that Unity was the youngest Mitford sister. This is also false.
Well, naturally, I fault the author, but you know, in truth, I fault the publisher more.
All works of history and biography have customarily been fact-checked, or they used to be. But today, it seems that many publishers have relaxed these standards.

I've been finding a few glaring errors in works of historical fiction lately as well.
Last month I started reading The Huntress by Kate Quinn. Perhaps you know her most well-known novel The Alice Network. I set the latter aside after fifty pages because I didn't feel the presence of authentic historical detail.
Somehow or other, perhaps idiotically, when I was desperate for captivating reading material while I was recently laid up, I downloaded The Huntress, largely because it had  starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal.
I cannot tell you how disturbed I was when Quinn's protagonist equates the German Iron Cross with the Nazi swastika. This conflation occurred several times within ten pages. I was horrified and couldn't believe my eyes! These two iconic emblems of 20th century German history to be confused!One assumes that when an author specializes in a historical time period, they have studied the period thoroughly for a period of time and, in addition, are extremely well read within that historical era. In Kate Quinn's case, I must say that this is patently untrue. This error felt like fingernails scraping on a chalkboard for me, and into the trash heap The Huntress goes! Do the historical novelists of 2020 believe they don't need to be specialists of European history in the 20th century if they write fiction about it? I ask you.


  1. Wow, I can't believe so little research was done that the author thought Unity was the youngest of the six Mitford girls. She was the fourth in fact. I know I have an advantage in that I've read Debo's two books and her book of letters to and from Patrick Leigh Fermor, but even so. If you're going to put something in a factual book you should try to get those facts right.

    I have Anne Frank's diary on my pile for a reread this year. It will distress me but it's nothing compared to what happened to her and her family.

    1. Hi Cath,
      I am counting you my personal expert on the Mitfords, after the all the reading you've done, letters and all.
      I'll suggest that you read the unredacted version of Anne's diary, which was published after her father's death and which included material that he felt was unseemly. This content adds so much to a more complete, well-rounded picture of who she was a person, and as a developing adolescent. I found on my reread of this version in the early 2000s that I was uplifted by her writing and her spirit.

  2. Not knowing a lot about history, usually I would not even notice historical inaccuracies in fiction or nonfiction. But it does seem like authors should get it right, for that very reason.

    I hope the weather has not played too much havoc with your life there.

    1. The ice storm turned to snow storm wreaked havoc on our area for three days. Then, sigh! We got our phone back, then internet, then electricity. We are lucky to have a generator to help us heat the house and give us cooking and light. But do I ever hate being cut off from everything else! It's these darn ice storms we've been having, which we NEVER used to get. Did I hear someone say "climate change?"
      I have noticed in the past ten years that I do not like historical fiction about WWII because young to middle-aged writers miss so much. This is not their fault at all. They are not old enough to have spent a lifetime reading the works of people who lived through that era.
      But historical accuracy is another matter altogether, in my mind. I had the feeling, just the feeling, mind, that Kate Quinn woke up one day and said, "I'd like to write stories about WWII. That was an interesting time." Whew. Best wishes!

    2. I suspect she thought there might be a bigger audience for WWII fiction than for her (well reviewed although I haven't read them) books about ancient Rome! I am with you (in fact, I wrote a long response to this post and wonder if I forgot to click publish) and think that many of those writing about this time frame do not appreciate all the dimension of the period. Judith, I forget if you have read two of my favorites - While Still We Live by Helen MacInnes and the Williamsburg novels by Elswyth Thane?

    3. Although I have thoroughly luxuriated in the reading of MacInnes's novels in the distant past, I don't think I have read While Still We Live. Thank you so much for the suggestion! I will definitely look it up and try to get it. And I'm sorry to say I have never heard of the Williamsburg novels. Going to look them up now! Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know about them. The WWII historical fiction issue has been bothering me for the past 5-6 years. I would like to devote more space in future blog posts to writers currently doing a great job of research and writing.

  3. Very frustrating, indeed. My book club back in NY is reading The Huntress this month... think I'll send them a quick email.

    Also wanted to let you know I started reading Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead yesterday. Borrowed it from the library after reading your recent post... really good so far!!

    1. Hi JoAnn,
      I found Drive Your Plow to be fascinatingly quirky as well as a solid statement on several topical issues. The last few chapters nailed my excellent opinion, and I wish you happy reading!

    2. JoAnn, By the way, are you still participating with your book club, from a distance? You were (are) so lucky to have them.

    3. Judith - I'm still on the email list for my book club in NY and hope to attend a meeting or two over the summer. In the meantime, I've joined a library group here in FL and am happy with it so far. A couple of new friends have also been talking about us forming a neighborhood group... I'm all for that! We'll see how it all plays out.

    4. How nice that would be to have a local book group in Florida! I do hope that it all works out for you. And I hope you find you are able to get together with your "old" group over the summer. Best of both worlds.