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Interesting Women: Historical Fiction Writers of My Youth

Books! Books were the window from which I looked out of a rather meager and decidedly narrow room, onto a rich and wonderful universe. I loved the look and feel of them, even the smell. I’m still a book sniffer. That evocative mixture of paper and ink and glue and dust never fails to bring back the twinge of excitement that came with the opening of a new book.

Libraries were treasure houses. I always entered them with a slight thrill of disbelief that all their endless riches were mine for the borrowing. And librarians I approached with reverent awe–guardians of the temple, keepers of the golden treasure.

This quote by Zilpha Keatley Snyder in her autobiographical essay might as well stand for me as a kid. Libraries were a haven, when I could get to them; before I was twelve, it meant depending on the adults for a ride, so it happened seldom, but after we moved I could walk to the little branch library at least once a week.

On this hot summer day, I’d like to salute these women who were influences on me as a small kid. These were all women, and their books hold up for me now, which I can’t say for a lot of my childhood faves. No surprise, as they were all award winners and are still (or again) in print.

I discovered Snyder’s books during my early teens, in the mid-sixties. They weren’t favorites, but I liked them enough to keep looking for her name. The ones she wrote in the seventies, especially Below the Root,  became my favorites of hers, fantasy of the sort I loved, with flying, intriguing cultures, mysterious giant trees—and a series, rare for those days. I have always loved long arc stories.

In her autobiography, Snyder talks about why she wrote for kids:

Writing for children hadn’t occurred to me when I was younger, but nine years of teaching in the upper elementary grades had given me a deep appreciation of the gifts and graces that are specific to individuals with ten or eleven years of experience as human beings. 

You could sense this respect for young people in her characters. They were believable kids, but she deftly wove the adult-to-be into them in the same way that, later in life, I recognized in the kids I taught. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of the person to be in my students.

But the relationship between reader and writer is, first and foremost, skinless–and that’s why it is often so strong.

 Eloise Jarvis McGraw said this in a 1983 interview at an Oz convention (she wrote one of the canon 40 Oz books, and was a lifelong Oz fan), the context being the relationship between writer and reader. The interview is mostly about fan mail pre-internet, but farther down are some lovely words about people for whom her 1958 book Mara, Daughter of the Nile,  was a strong influence.

The book caused one woman to become an academic in Egyptian history. Another fan reread the book hundreds of times. And it wasn’t only female fans who loved it, or found it inspiring.

It certainly was inspiring for me. Mara, a slave girl, exhibited fierce agency in a world tough on girls. I, unlike many of her readers, was not particularly enamored of ancient Egypt, but this book did get me passionately interested in historical fiction, and thence, history.

Only I wanted something more.

The Perilous Gard.  By Elizabeth Marie Pope. A Newbery Award winner, this historical novel takes place at the end of Mary Tudor’s reign, at an English manor house, with a dangerous connection to a hidden world.

That book has had a tremendous impact on writers young in the seventies—I’ve seen traces of its take on the fair folk in so many fantasies written a decade or two later.

I met Pope once, in 1977, in company with Diana L. Paxson, who had studied under her at Mills College. We sat by the fire in her cozy little cottage on that beautiful campus, and talked long about history, romantic history, fiction, writing. Also about fanfiction—she told us two fanfiction stories based on Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles.

Her first book, a light romance featuring ghosts,  has sections set during the American Revolution. After The Perilous Gard, she never published another book, alas; she had two more ideas, the fourth one exciting her far more than the third, but she felt she had to finish that third one before she could write the next. I am so sorry that didn’t happen. Her health was frail—she’d been hit by the polio epidemic in the fifties.

I’ll never forget her stories of going to college, a rarity for women in her day; she shared a room with her sister, and when the sister entertained her young man, Pope (expected to be chaperone) would sit in their tiny bathroom annex, crouched down with her manual typewriter on the toilet, working away while the other two had a measure of privacy in the dorm room. When she told that story, I was a twenty-something, thinking, Now that sounds like a writer.

What was in the air during those mid-fifties? My theory is that the smog and cigarette smoke were so terrible, and the political and social scene so claustrophobic that these writers all turned to escapism—but that’s the probably distorted view of a kid at that time who reacted badly to all these things. The constant patriotic assemblies and rantings, the bomb drills and fear talk about the “commies” and A-bombs, the choking air made me want to escape.

And I wanted more history and magic.  The Witch of Blackbird Pond  seemed to promise just that! At first I was disappointed that there was no actual witchery in that book set in colonial Connecticut, but the story was so compelling that I read it again a few years later, and was able to better appreciate it and its delightful romance.

These books all gave me a decided taste for well-researched fiction that truly evoked that other time and place.

Elizabeth George Speare, the earliest born of all these (1917, 1915, 1927), won many awards for her historical fiction. In the NYTimes Book Review, she wrote in 1961:

I have chosen to write historical novels, chiefly, I think, because I enjoy sharing with young people my own ever-fresh astonishment at finding that men and women and boys and girls who lived through the great events of the past were exactly like ourselves, and that they faced every day the same choices, large and small, which daily confront us.

She attended Smith College, and got a Masters in Boston before teaching, marrying, and having kids; like many writers, she had an interest but no time until those kids had grown.

All four writers’ works are mostly still in print, their books still good reads in spite of the passage of time and the gained life experience of readers. And so their books are there to be found in libraries by another generation who, like Zilpha Keatley Snyder, wander there to discover treasures—and maybe who will be inspired to write their own treasures.

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4 thoughts on “Interesting Women: Historical Fiction Writers of My Youth”

  1. I remember devouring Mara and Blackbird Pond. Wonderful female leads in a period that lacked many of them.
    Now I’m going to have to find them and reread …

  2. I still have copies of Mara and The Perilous Gard! — but I would question your comment that Elizabeth Pope only published one book. I’m pretty sure she’s the same as the author of The Sherwood Ring. Not quite as good as The Perilous Gard, but still quite enjoyable (and I have the two of them next to each other on the shelf).

    1. I went back to see what I wrote, and I see my meaning was not clear: I meant she never published another book after The Perilous Garde. I’ve fixed it to reflect that! Thanks for pointing that out–indeed I knew she’s written another, which I read in fifth grade. But it was The Perilous Garde that has such a tremendous influence on a lot of writers growing up in the seventies.

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