History - A novel approach to the past

15th February 2013 at 00:00
Nothing helps historical facts stick better than a good narrative

To many children, history can be a bewildering parade of facts, many of which are not intrinsically interesting. But that doesn't prevent history-based films and TV dramas from being perennially successful. Historical fiction, too, continues to sell well to adults and children.

Historical fiction ought to provide the reader with an exciting, enjoyable story. But it is also a great tool for increasing the reader's understanding of a particular era. Just as a good history teacher engages the brain and the heart, historical fiction is uniquely placed to connect with the reader's emotions.

Caroline Lawrence's hugely successful Roman Mysteries books give readers in Years 5 and 6 far more than facts about what it was like to live in Roman times.

And Robert Harris presents older readers with a gripping thriller in Pompeii, which also shows the workings of Ancient Roman patronage and the Romans' sophisticated technology.

A generation of young readers will be familiar with the First World War through Michael Morpurgo's modern-day classics War Horse and Private Peaceful. I learned all about the Sikh soldiers who fought on the Western Front - something I was previously unaware of - from Bali Rai's fascinating novel City of Ghosts. Rai expertly portrays the fraught relationship between colonists and their subjects and pulls no punches in his depiction of British arrogance and brutality in India.

Undoubtedly Stalin, the NKVD and the purges hold a grisly fascination, but Travis Holland's The Archivist's Story lets you feel the cold pit-of-stomach fear of a police clerical worker and former academic about to fall victim to Beria's secret-police thugs. Likewise, Francis Spufford's very readable Red Plenty depicts the post-war optimism of Soviet Russia, when the survivors of the Great Patriotic War really felt they were on the verge of creating the utopia that their revolution had promised. If you want to understand why millions of Russians, good people with good intentions, supported the Bolshevik regime, then Spufford's reimagining will enlighten you.

Celia Rees' Pirates! brings fresh insight to a well-ploughed furrow and does a fantastic job in letting the reader know what it was like to be a girl in 18th-century England, sent off to the Caribbean for an arranged marriage after her father dies. Kevin Crossley-Holland's Bracelet of Bones brilliantly depicts the position of women in the Viking world, not to mention many other aspects of this fascinating and misunderstood culture.

The best historical fiction shows you a world you did not even know you might be interested in. I read James Clavell's Shogun when I was 21, and although some might dismiss it as an airport potboiler, it is a vivid introduction to 16th-century Japan, in all its beauty and cruelty. Chris Bradford does a similar job for younger readers with his Young Samurai series.

The best historical films do all this too, of course. But fiction has a depth that a two-hour film will never possess. I have never felt sad when a film ends, no matter how much I have enjoyed it. But when I have spent several days reading a brilliant book, I often feel a real sense of loss when it is finished.

Paul Dowswell is author of Auslander and Sektion 20, about teenagers living under totalitarian regimes, and Eleven Eleven, set on the final day of the First World War

What else?

Bring Michael Morpurgo's War Horse to life in your class with a pack from TES partner The National Theatre.


Take your pick from a variety of lesson ideas with Pocketfrog's scheme of work on Morpurgo's Private Peaceful.


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