“There’s a fundamental belief that the human heart hasn’t changed that much…”

November 22, 2013 @ 9:31 am | Filed under:

Year of Wonders by Geraldine BrooksThe historical fiction course I’m taking at Coursera continues to delight me, and this week’s Geraldine Brooks seminar on her plague novel, Year of Wonders, pretty much knocked my socks off. The professor, Dr. Bruce Holsinger of UVA, posted a long excerpt from what was also my favorite part of the seminar–Brooks on how she writes characters from other eras, how she forms their consciousness.

“And as a foreign correspondent in the contemporary world, I would hear people all the time saying, ‘They’re not like us.’ One side saying about the other—white South Africans about black, Palestinians about Israelis—‘Their values are different, they don’t love their kids, they’re willing to sacrifice them, they don’t have the same material needs that we have,’ and it’s all BS in my view. You know, the sound of somebody keening for a dead child, is exactly the same, no matter if they’re in a…New York apartment, or an Eritrean refugee camp. There’s a fundamental belief that the human heart hasn’t changed that much. … At a time when you couldn’t expect to raise your kids, when death was ever present, there would’ve been a different approach to loss. But I don’t think it felt any different, I don’t think the emotion of loss felt any different, and I don’t think hatred felt any different, and I don’t think love did. And so, that for me is, where you start, with believing that human beings have these strong emotions in common. And that, that is more crucial to shaping consciousness than the furniture in the room. So, that’s my conviction about historical fiction, and it … drives everything for me.”

There’s more, well worth the click-through. And if you sign up for the course (free), you can watch the videos. Such a treat to hear smart people talk about their work. Author Jane Alison’s seminar on her Ovid novel, The Love Artist, was also fascinating and thought-provoking. I haven’t yet watched the Katherine Howe videos (The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane)—greatly looking forward to it. Dr. Holsinger’s lectures have captivated me, to a one. Lots of peeks at rare first editions from UVA’s special collections library (swoon) and really excellent, meaty discussion of various historical fiction novels in their own historical context: Tale of Two Cities, ClotelAnna Katharine Green‘s detective novel The Forsaken Inn (new to me, and the genesis of a subgenre, historical mystery). Dr. Holsinger even has me wanting to give James Fenimore Cooper another shot, which is saying something.

Looking forward to upcoming seminars on Mary Beth Keane’s Typhoid Mary novel, Fever, and Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride.

Plague, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction

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15 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. tanita says:

    I have a hard time understanding how people would think that certain other peoples or ethnic groups don’t love their kids the same. OBVIOUSLY, God made them different. Less HUMAN and all. WHATever.

    Your class sounds SO, so fab. I wish I had a better handle on my time right now; I SO want to take it. (Sans children and pets, and I have no handle on my time. HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE???) Hm. Maybe it’s time to re-prioritize and just give it a shot…

  2. sarah says:

    I enjoyed the conversation about this at Facebook (and hope it will be ongoing). To repeat what I wrote there … hopefully more concisely! … as someone who has spent most her life reading and studying history, which doesn’t make me as expert as Geraldine of course … I would say that the feelings were no doubt the same but the thoughts were different. The cultures and experiences which shaped those thoughts were different – in some cases radically so. Concepts of relationships were different. Lifestyles, expectations, spirituality, and beliefs were different. Surely this inevitably changes one’s perception of one’s feelings. So grief over a dead child may be leavened by the certainty they are in heaven, or by the numbness of it being the third dead child in three years, or by the way one’s society manages grief. I actually do see this kind of thing in my country where English social norms about grief are contrasted with Maori ones. The feelings are the same (to varying degrees) but the whole approach to it is very different and each side finds the other’s a bit strange really.

    Sorry to have gone on, I love the subject and could discuss it all day. History + anthropology = heaven on earth.

  3. monica says:

    can you post a reading list from that course? Historical fiction is my favorite genre, and i am always looking for quality titles- there is a lot of twaddle in that department. but i read that stuff too, because i am a sucker.

  4. selvi says:

    “like” for Sarah’s comment above. Very interesting.

  5. Melissa Wiley says:

    Here’s a link to the conversation on FB mentioned above: https://www.facebook.com/melissawiley/posts/10151748417791596

    It’s a public thread so you can see it even if we aren’t friends there. But for heaven’s sake, friend me! 😉

  6. Melissa Wiley says:

    Selvi, it gets so tricky because I know some folks here are not Facebook people. And others, I know, would not be inclined to do a face-to-face Hangout (tho I could promise to show up in my pajamas to set you all at ease)… 😉 Written venues can be challenging (tho also satisfying) because it takes (for me at least) more time/effort to craft a written comment on a book. But that way does give you the advantage of needing no set time, and no limits on how many may participate.

    You can do groups at GoodReads, too–that might be a possibility.

    Of course right here in the combox is always a possibility, though I see your point about the advantages of threaded conversations.

    As for IRL, Erica, that is a very generous and appealing suggestion! 🙂

  7. Melissa Wiley says:

    Monica, the titles mentioned above are the primary texts, but there are other suggested readings discussed in some depth in the lectures:

    Waverly (Sir Walter Scott)
    Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka
    Jurji Zaydan’s The Conquest of Andalusia
    Jicoténcal (anonymous)
    The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela
    Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom
    The Death of Virgil, Herman Brock
    Gone with the Wind

    For most of these the syllabus calls for reading a small section, such as a single chapter, though reading the whole book is encouraged for those who are interested.

  8. monica says:

    Thank you!! I have my new library list now!

  9. selvi says:

    It sounds like a Hangout is your favorite choice. But it could easily be combined with other modalities. Perhaps one of the participants (not necessarily you) could write up some “favorite take-aways” from the discussion and you could post it on your blog or some other written forum where others could chime in. I’m guessing you will have more than 10 who want to participate anyway, but not everyone will want to appear on video.

  10. Melissa Wiley says:

    You know, you’re right. And actually, the feedback I’m hearing suggests that more people are interested in a written forum (perhaps here on the blog) for book discussion than the Hangout idea anyway. But perhaps a Hangout every two or three books for those who’d like to drop in and chat would be fun. Hangouts don’t have to be recorded for broadcast if people prefer not to.

  11. Melanie B says:

    I was going to make the same suggestion: why not do both. Hangout for those who can and written format for those who can’t or who prefer not. Also, Dom tells me that Hangouts on Air can broadcast the conversation to a larger audience. So more people could listen in or watch later. I’m not sure if that would be valuable at all, but it might be worth thinking about.

  12. Melissa Wiley says:

    Melanie, yes, Dom’s right! I’ve done a Hangout on Air twice, I think? Once when I interviewed Quinn Cummings for GeekMom (and I learned in that one to make sure the light isn’t going to change on me midway through), and once when I was a guest on #parent.


    It’s a terrific interface—you have your Hangout with however many people, and it broadcasts live to YouTube so people can be watching as you’re chatting, and there’s a chat window where people can chime in with questions. And then afterward, it’s got a permanent home on YouTube.

    But of course a public broadcast means participants will be conscious of eyes upon them. 🙂 I get the impression folks here might be more comfortable with a private hangout. But I’m open to either!

    When I wrote this post, I wasn’t expecting it to lead to the creation of an actual book club! But I’m delighted by the level of interest you’ve all expressed, and I am totally game for giving something a go. I think I’d like to start by trying a discussion here on the blog (seems easiest, since we’re all here—and we’ve done that before, of course; I’ve opened up plenty of books for discussion in the past), and then perhaps we can try a Hangout for some face-to-face conversation for those inclined.

    Thanks, all of you, for your enthusiasm!