Saturday, August 27, 2011

Recovering our history through fiction

With reference to Freedom Come by Jean Goulbourne 

Carlong Publishers (Caribbean) Ltd.

History textbooks usually just give facts and information which many children find boring.  Historical fiction, on the other hand, can make those facts come alive and be quite entertaining.

Hidden behind the scenes in the history texts are events ranging from fascinating and awe inspiring to scary, depressing and sometimes comedic. Wars and conquests, romance, inventions, crusades, slavery and so many other topics provide rich material for the storyteller. It’s people who make history. Authors of historical fiction make those hidden scenes come alive. A single incident or experience could be expanded into a novel by building up the background of events leading to it, and the resulting consequences.

Why haven’t we done more storytelling about our history in the Caribbean? See previous post Historical stories in Caribbean children’s books    for some ideas on this.

Historical fiction can fall into two categories:

1. The setting is historical but people and events are entirely fictional.Time travel stories tend to do this e.g. there was a war, or a natural disaster at a particular time in history, but the story doesn’t dwell on the known historical characters or events. Sometimes an obscure fact in history can be taken out and expanded into a story.

2. Both setting and characters are factual with the author imaginatively expanding on aspects of the events – it could have happened, and this was probably what was happening behind the scenes that history records.

Writers of historical fiction need to remember that:

Plot must be clear and not railroaded by historical details

Historical details must be accurate

Characters must come alive

Illustrations must be relevant to the time period.

Obviously, research is a key for the writer of historical fiction who needs detail to make the story believable. The elements which make for good story are as important as the factual information – especially the use of sensory details. How did things look, taste, feel, smell and sound. These are very important challenges for the writer wanting to make the story come alive.

The author of Freedom Come, Jean Goulbourne, studied and taught history and evidently called upon her scholarship in writing these stories for children.

It isn’t often that we see slave children in stories or even in accounts of slavery. The more striking stories in Freedom Come are about slave children.

The author gives us a glimpse of what it must have been like for children in this era. In the story Cimarron! Cimarron! Goulbourne shows us two young boys taking a break from work (feeding the pigs) to play a little. The bookkeeper on the plantation catches them at play and whips them soundly. We feel the frustration of a way of life which has Alrick, the protagonist, threatening to take his life. Luckily for him, his father, who had escaped to join the free Maroons some years before, returns and rescues him and his mother. They safely escape to a better life in the mountains with the Maroons

Slaves on way to sell produce at market from  Freedom Come

In a gloomier tale, The Whipping, another slave child, this time a girl,  escapes through death. However, the author presents death as preferable to the slave life. In death she is welcomed by her ancestors and we get a feeling that she will be now at peace. This is a gripping first person story with details that make the slave experience come alive in personal ways. The death scene is presented as a celebration.

“There on the sands of a large and wonderful land was a crowd of black people; and the drums were beating and they were dancing; men and women, boys and girls; and the waves washed the shore and the drums beat and the trees waved their branches; and the drums beat and Ole Granpus came out of the crowds and into the sea and his hands were held upwards, welcoming me,and I knew. This was Africa. This was home.”

It is said that many slaves believed that death would carry them back to their home in Africa.The beliefs and superstitions of the slaves are skillfully woven into this story which is mostly about how the slaves themselves interacted with one another in this terrible dehumanizing era.

Slavery was an extremely harsh way of life and it is difficult to use it as a setting for children’s stories since so many of the experiences of the slaves were so painful, physically and emotionally and, no doubt, the kinds of experiences we would like to shield our children from. This collection of stories is meant for the 10 to 12+ age group.

Other stories in this collection deal with the experience of a Taino boy helping his village to celebrate with a feast to which he contributes wild ducks which we watch him catch, Taino style. Another story deals with boys in Port Royal, the famous city of the pirates. The boys learn, first hand from Peter, an old pirate, about one of the more famous raids carried out by the buccaneers -  the raid on  Panama City.  The last story is about the heroic journey of a boy who helped to carry a message to Daddy Sharpe (now a National Hero) on the eve of the Christmas Rebellion in Montego Bay, which helped to hasten the end of slavery.

All the stories bring the history of their era alive. Jean Goulbourne has won many awards and acclaim for her literary skills as a poet and storyteller. The poetic influence can often be seen in the language of her prose. This book is a very useful supplementary reader for students of our past.

Freedom Come was a runner up award winner in the 1999 Vic Reid Award for Children’s Literature, a competition hosted by the National Book Development Council of Jamaica.