J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Seeing Fiction as Fact

The dust jacket for Stephen Krensky’s Hanukkah at Valley Forge refers to it as a “fictionalized version of a poignant historical anecdote.” That acknowledges how Krensky had to invent or reshape some details, but it also implies that there was solid historical documentation to begin with. The note about sources I quoted on Monday carries the same message. Yet the story has very little foundation at all: no contemporary support, no version predating the mid-1900s.

There’s a lot to like in Hanukkah at Valley Forge. Greg Harlin’s artwork is glowing, with striking visual contrasts between the wintry nighttime at Valley Forge and the sun-soaked Israeli desert. Krensky’s text makes Washington a human rather than an icon (while still taking advantage of his iconic status). By using our common memory of the Revolution, the book brings new energy to explaining the Maccabees’ revolt against the Romans, and thus brings out the original meaning of Hanukkah, before gifts, dreidls, and gelt. But it’s a fable using a historical figure, not a historical account.

The Library of Congress has catalogued the book under various categories of Fiction (e.g., “United States -- History -- Revolution, 1775-1783 -- Juvenile fiction”). But in most libraries it will be filed in the special “Holidays” section, where the line between fable and fact isn’t so clear.

People concerned about that distinction have a good reason to worry. A Boston Globe article on the book’s publication last December said:

Through his research, Krensky said, he believes that his fictional book fits in with the character of what is known about Washington and could have been true.

In his author’s note at the end of the book, Krensky writes, “This story . . . is based on facts, but the tale itself must be taken on faith.” He cites an unsubstantiated secondary source as the basis of the book.

This is disturbing to Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and author of the landmark book American Judaism.

Sarna cautioned that there is no factual basis for the story, and in the interest of historical accuracy, he expressed concern that this tale, which is turning up on websites, will be mistaken for fact.
Reviews of Hanukkah at Valley Forge show that people were impressed by its supposed historical basis. Publishers Weekly’s starred review said the book’s creators were “Basing their story on a true incident (explained in an endnote),...” Roberta Rosenberg at BlogCritics.com wrote, “Sound far-fetched? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Based on the diary entries of Louisa Hart,...” Childrenslit.com reported the author’s note “specifically details the facts on which the informative and inspirational story is based.” Booklist said the book is “appropriate for both history classes and religious groups.” I wonder if those reviewers would have had the same response to the book if they hadn’t accepted the Valley Forge anecdote as basically factual.

As a children’s book from a major publisher bearing awards and good reviews, Hanukkah at Valley Forge will now pass that anecdote on to a new generation. Its version of the tale will probably become the canonical account, driving away most of those competing versions. Children will hear this story presented as based on solid fact—which means they’ll take it as fact. And, as I discussed in my paper on “grandmothers’ tales” of the Revolution, when we grow up believing certain stories, our minds tend to cling to those stories in adulthood, regardless of the evidence for or against them. They become part of how we see the past.

TOMORROW: Heritage versus history.

1 comment:

Dana Huff said...

I have really enjoyed this series on this particular book. I am glad you took the time to examine the sources. I think this is one of those stories that people kind of want to be true because it makes such an interesting story. It's unfortunate that, as you say, many people will not take the time to examine its historical accuracy. I am imagining some well-meaning elementary school teachers using it in classrooms and teaching a generation of children that Washington celebrated Hanukkah with the Harts. Hopefully, your series will make a difference. This reminds me of the cherry tree story we all swallowed for years.