Sunday, October 26, 2014

Historical Goofs, and Other Stuff that Spoils Historical Novels: Pam Jenoff's "The Winter Guest"

I think I read my first historical novel when I was eight years old; certainly, by the time I was nine, I had graduated to reading adult historical novels, such as those by Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer. From these and other great novelists working in this genre, over the decades I have learned what makes a historical novel convincing -- whether it's something as weighty as Wolf Hall or a slight historical romance -- is that its characters and situations must feel authentic and true-to-life and the author must be spot-on accurate in their presentation of the historical facts. 

Occasionally, I run across an egregious example of a book that violates both of these. The winner may be Carolly Erickson's The Favored Queen, a novel about Jane Seymour, Henry VIII's third wife. Erickson likes to write what she refers to as "historical entertainments" (translation: novels with no connection to historical truth whatsoever), so perhaps I shouldn't have been terribly surprised to encounter a scene in which Anne Boleyn is stricken with sweating sickness while shut up in quarantine with Catherine of Aragon, Jane and the other court ladies, at which point, Catherine's chamberlain tries to stuff her body out of the window and into the moat in order to protect the rest of them from contagion. Yes, really. Oh, and Queen Catherine saves her. Yes. The icing on the cake in that little gem? Henry's favorite term of endearment for Anne Boleyn is "puffball". Okaaaay.

bookcover of THE AMBASSADOR'S DAUGHTER by Pam JenoffIt gets tougher when looking at Pam Jenoff's novels, however. She's not offering up historical entertainments, but historical fiction -- and historical fiction set against important events in the recent past (such as the Versailles Treaty negotiations that ended World War I and paved the way to World War II in The Ambassador's Daughter) and the Holocaust, as in the just-published The Winter Guest

The former is a more tedious read, but at least it doesn't distort historical facts and ask you to imagine six impossible things before breakfast. It does involve a willing suspension of credulity -- how could Margot Rosenthal, its heroine, have traveled to England from Germany to sit out WW1 as enemy aliens after the outbreak of that war? -- but its major flaw is simply that Margot is a rather silly young woman. Presumably she's not obtuse, and yet she fails to realize just how bad the bloodshed was on the Western Front. Similarly, although her father is now involved in the peace negotiations, she displays an astonishing lack of judgment and awareness, chattering away about the gossip surrounding the conference at a louche Left Bank cafe among people she has just met (with predictable consequences...) She's a passive character, whose main interest simply seems to be her struggle to reconcile her growing romantic interest in a young German officer who is party of the military delegation to the Versailles talks with her engagement to marry a young man she hasn't seen throughout the war, a family connection whom she realizes she neither knows nor loves.  

bookcover of THE WINTER GUEST by Pam JenoffLove stories -- especially historical romances -- work best when they are about more than just a young woman agonizing about the man she loves and how to be with him. Especially when the backdrop is a time of high drama. That's particularly true of Jenoff's latest book, The Winter Guest, whose heroine, Helena Nowak, is at least a tougher and more resilient young woman. It's Poland, still early in World War II, and a soldier has literally fallen out of the sky near the Nowak family cottage. Helena -- who, along with her twin sister Ruth, is caring for their three younger siblings -- almost literally trips over him. True love follows, quite rapidly.

Here's my big beef with this book. As Sam Rosen, the soldier, makes clear later on, this is the winter of 1940/41. (He refers to war between Hitler and Stalin as still being in the future.) In other words, it is at least a year before America became involved in the war. And yes, it's clear that Sam is an American soldier, serving in the US forces and not in the British army. (Moreover, the Polish resistance keeps talking about the Americans coming to save them.) How can I trust an author who has an American soldier running around occupied Europe a year before American forces would even have been doing any such thing? Spooks, sure, but not soldiers. And Sam isn't a spook, he's a soldier. Moreover, he's a soldier who says he can get Helena's young siblings onto a "kindertransport" train from Czechoslovakia to safety. Trains that stopped running in 1939. What on earth? 

I can accept that Jenoff glosses over the traumatic details of life in occupied Krakow -- Helena seems remarkably emotionally unaffected by the sights she witnesses at a hospital that is the victim of an SS Aktion and in which she is nearly caught up, relative to her emotions for Sam and her sibling rivalry with her resentful twin, Ruth. It's tough, but it's possible. After all, Jenoff's mandate is to write a romance; to tell a captivating story. 

But it should also be a believable one. And to start off with dates that don't match what is historically feasible, and wrap up with a twist that is beyond the bounds of all probability (revealing it would be spoiler-ish, I'm afraid) is just too much. 

And so, sad to say, I have turned the final pages of my last historical novel by Pam Jenoff. There are plenty of other writers out there doing precisely what she is, just as well or better, without twisting the facts or creating implausible situations or heroines. It's the facts that bother me most. Lots of readers won't bother with extensive histories of, say, the Tudors, and that's just fine. But that makes it all the more important that novelists ensure that their readers don't end up thinking that "puffball" was a real Tudor-era term of endearment...

I received an Advance Review Copy of A Winter Guest from the publishers via Amazon Vine, and of The Ambassador's Daughter via NetGalley. Both novels are published by Harlequin.

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