History 420 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer - Using Historical Fiction to Teach History

Poster about historical fiction


Historical fiction posterIntroduction: If we pay attention to what teachers across the nation are saying, we have reason to be optimistic. Our students are reading!!! Despite the fact that they have access to an incredible array of apps, games, and online videos, young people are still reading - and many are doing it the old fashioned way, with printed books. And why are they reading? Because it is fun - it lets them explore other worlds, go on wild adventures, and learn about a relatable character that makes them laugh and cry. And sometimes they read because, as Sherman Alexie has written,

"... they believe ... that books - especially the dark and dangerous ones - will save them ... I read books about monsters and montrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life. And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don't write to protect them. It's far to late for that. I write to give them weapons - in the form of words and ideas - that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what if felt like to bleed." Sherman Alexie, "Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood," The Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2011.

Now we have some ingredients for a recipe that will most likely get many of our students to read and to actually like reading. But because we are history teachers, we also have to get them to actually like reading HISTORY. Today, we will talk about one of the best tools to make this happen - historical fiction.

Discussion Goals:

  1. To define and understand historical fiction.
  2. To discuss and debate whether Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is an example of historical fiction.
  3. To learn about historical trauma and stereotypes and how they contribute to a better understanding of Alexie's book as historical fiction.
  4. To explore the many reasons why historical fiction is important to use in K-12 classrooms to help students better understand history.

Goal #1: To define and understand historical fiction

Methods Discussion: Think/Pair/Share. Please spend 2 minutes writing down your definition of historical fiction. Then, turn to your neighbor and take 3 minutes to come up with a mutually agreed upon definition. Be prepared to share it with the class.

Once we have come up with a definition upon which we agree, let's compare it with a definition and description of young adult historical fiction that was specifically created by the website "Read/Write/Think":

"The genre of historical fiction ... includes stories that are written to portray a time period or convey information about a specific time period or an historical event. Usually the event or time period is about 30 years in the past. ... In historical fiction, setting is the most important literary element. Because the author is writing about a particular time in history, the information about the time period must be accurate, authentic, or both. To create accurate and authentic settings in their books, authors must research the time period thoroughly. They must know how people lived, what they ate, what kinds of homes they had, and what artifacts were a common part of their lives. Historical fiction quote

Historical fiction books—whether they are picture books, transitional books, or novels—may have characters who are either imaginary or who actually lived during the time period. Settings also may be real or imaginary. The plot events may be documented historical events or they may be fictional. If they are fictional, it means that the author created the events for the telling of the story. The fictional characters, settings, and plot events must be portrayed authentically as if they actually could have happened."

Or what about this descriptive definition - "History tells us what people do; historical fiction helps us imagine how they felt."

Discussion Questions:

  1. Using both of these definitions and those we created, do you think Alexie's book an example of historical fiction? Why or why not?
  2. Can a semi-autobiographical novel also be historical fiction?
  3. If setting is the most important literary element in historical fiction, does the setting of this book feel accurate and authentic? Why or why not?
  4. Does the book adequately reflect the time period in which Alexie is writing?

Goal #2: To discuss and debate whether Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is an example of historical fiction

image of Shrman Alexie as a child

Discussion Questions:

  1. In the Podcast you listened to, Alexie states that “the reservation was created as a prison, as a rural concentration camp where Indians were supposed to disappear and die. And in the book, Junior says, “Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move onto reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear.” 
  2. On page 11, Alexie writes, "Seriously, I know my mother and father thad their dreams when they were kids. They dreamed about being something other than poor, but they never go tthe chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams."
  3. On pp.34-47, Junior and Mr. P get into a heated discussion. Mr. P says about teaching on the reservation, "I didn't literally kill Indians. We were supposed to make you give up being Indian ... We weren't trying to kill Indian people. We were trying to kill Indian culture." This is, of course, the language of late 19th and early 20th century boarding schools - but it is suggested that it was still the language used in reservation schools just a few decades ago.
  4. Does Junior’s desire to leave the reservation challenge the common media portrayals of Native Americans?  Do you think his critical comments about life on the reservation are
  5. Arnold leaves Wellpinit for Rearden because of the quality of education he can receive at a white school exceeds that he was receiving at a reservation school.
  6. What evidence did you find to explain why you do or do not think this book is a good example of historical fiction?
  7. This book is banned from many school across the nation. 

Methods Discussion: Editorial Understanding. Newspapers and magazines - as well as radio and television - use editorials as a method of offering educated opinions about an often controversial topic. In mid-2011, The Wall Street Journal was caught up in an editorial debate about young adult literature - including historical fiction - and whether or not it was "too dark." On this NPR broadcast - "The Dangers, Values of Dark Teen Lit" (June 14, 2011) - we can hear a bit of the debate which was begun by Meghan Cox Gurdon who complained about the "depravity" and "hideously distorted portrayals" of contemporary YA literature - http://www.npr.org/2011/06/14/137174977/the-dangers-values-of-dark-teen-lit. (roughly begin at 2 minutes into podcast and finish at 10:55) Gurdon's attack prompted a response from Sherman Alexie, "Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood."Editorials

So, we are going to listen to part of the NPR broadcast and then read Alexie's response to Gurdon. When we are done, the following questions will be addressed:

  1. How and why are these two items - the radio broadcast and Alexie's article - examples of editorials?
  2. What do you think is the best way to teach students to read and to critique editorials?
  3. What do you feel was the "bottom line" of Alexie's editorial argument? Do you think he provided evidence in his editorial to support his argument? Please provide some examples.
  4. Do you think he provided evidence to support his argument in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? Evidence?
  5. Do you agree with his assertion that millions of teens read "because they are sad and lonely and enraged?" Why or why not?
  6. Do you think reading dark YA literature makes them more sad, more lonely, and more enraged? Or does it give them what Alexie argues, "...weapons - in the form of words and ideas - that will help them fight their monsters?"
  7. Do you think you will choose to use either Alexie's book or other controversial, dark historical novels in your own class? Why or why not?
  8. If you do plan to use such controversial reading, how might you prepare your students? Their parents? Your administration?

Goal #3: To learn about historical trauma and stereotypes and how they contribute to a better understanding of Alexie's book as historical fiction

Before we talk about historical trauma, we need to see this very disturbing video of Andrew Windy Boy, a Chippewa Creek Indian, who attended two different boarding schools. This was his 2008 testimony - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDshQTBh5d4Photo of Andrew Windy Boy

Discussion Questions:

          1. After watching Andrew Windy Boy, do you think we can come up with a possible definition for historical trauma?
          2. What, if anything, does this video have to do with Alexie's story?

This power point presentation, "'Kill the Indian, Save the Man' - Stereotypes and Historical Trauma in Indian Country" provides a definitional backdrop for a discussion of the connection between Alexie's book and historical trauma.

Now, let's look at two of the most well-known and popular ways that American Indians have been stereotyped, both of which have contributed to historical trauma - Hollywood and Mascots.

Hollywood and Stereotyping

Beginning in the early 20th Century, Hollywood produced thousands of films that projected the white man's vision of American Indians - the Euro-American point of view. And we can see the results in "How Hollywood Stereotyped Native Americans" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hJFi7SRH7Q

Discussion Questions:

So, let's briefly examine the evolution of these stereotypes through a chronology of Hollywood movies.

A Chronological Understanding of Hollywood Stereotypes. Beginning in the 1890s, the newly-developing movie industry began a trend that continued until the late 1990s - because movies had to make money, movies ABOUT Indians were made from the white point of view; movies were not made BY Indians from the Indian point of view.  Following is a is a very abbreviated understanding of this history through a discussion of five distinct eras. For the full chronology, click here.

Silent Era (1880s to the 1920s) - Films about Indians in the silent era relied upon both the brutal savage and the noble savage stereotypes, often in the same film, as well as upon the ignorant and drunk Indian. This discussion of how Buffalo Bill Cody choreographed his films and photographs during this period is typical of filming during this silent era. 

Buffalo BillFilms of this era included 16-second black and white silent film of the Buffalo Dance shot by Thomas Edison; The Squaw Man that told a stereotypical tale of doomed love between an Englishman and an American Indian woman; The Last of the Mohicans with a stereotypical message that incorporated both the brutal and noble savage images; Before the White Man Came (1918);  The Daughter of Dawn (1920) - the first and only movie of the era to use an all-Indian cast; and  The Vanishing American (1925).

In most of the films made during the silent era, Indians were played by white people with darkened make up and wigs. Indian men scowled, stood with rigid bodies, and grunted barely intelligible words while Indian women were soft, meek, and often seen looking longingly at the white hero. 

Western Progress Era (1930s to the 1940s) - Films in this era continued to use the brutal and noble savage stereotypes, largely to tell the white man's point of view about Manifest Destiny in which good whites who righteously tamed western land were threatened by untamed, violent savages who stood in the way of American progress. Typical of this era were several cartoons that always showed the Indian as being outsmarted by the white man, and in this case, by a silly rabbit - Bugs Bunny in A Feather in His Hare (1948) 

Films of this era include "I Yam What I Yam," (1933) in which the stereotypical message was that Popeye could "out Indian" the Indians by being more intelligent and stronger ; John Wayne in  Allegheny Uprising (1939) illustrating that hard-working Euro-Americans tamed the wild west and such physical and emotional investments gave them a moral right to the land;  Stagecoach (1939), Northwest Passage (1940), They Died with Their Boots On (1941), Fort Apache (1948); She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949). Classic cartoons of this era: Betty Boop in Rhythm on the Reservation (1941), Porky Pig in Wagon Heels (1945)

In these new westerns, America was settled by stereotypically righteous and heroic white men and women who understood the importance of land ownership. In contrast, the Indians wore long-flowing headdresses and mocasins, carried a lethal tomahawk, lived in a tipi, and hunted buffalo - and sometimes white men, women, and children. Even America's silliest cartoon characters were able to outwit the stereotypical ignorant Indians. 

Western Conquest Era (1950s and 1960s) - Western films in this era challenged the righteousness of Manifest Destiny and earlier stereotypes of the white western hero. Instead, they suggested that the greedy, often violent white men conquered rather than settled the west and in so doing, victimized American Indian people. Indians - still played by white men - were seen in a more human light, but were still stereotyped as being all alike, not very intelligent, involved in silly dancing and singing, and when women are portrayed, they are always romantically interested in a white man. Typical of this era was the 1953 Disney release of Peter Pan.

Image from Disney's Peter PanFilms of this era included  Broken Arrow (1951) which was the first film where the directors made a real effort to accurately portray the lives of Indians - Apaches - although its main message was what Euro-Americans wanted to believe about relationships between Indians and Euro-Americans;   The Lone Ranger (1959) which was the first television show to feature an Indian in a leading role as Tonto;  Apache (1954); The Searchers (1956); Cheynne Autumn (1964) 

In these movies, the directors and actors were well intentioned in their desire to show Indians as real people. But because they were always made from the white point of view and most of the Indians were still portrayed by white men, these movies never fully succeed in portraying Indians accurately and instead, pepetuate Indian stereotypes.

Indians as Metaphor Era (1970s to mid-1980s) - Western films of this era used Indians as a metaphor for other victimized people of the time period, especially the Vietnamese and Indians involved in the 1970s Red Power Movement. Indians were shown as victims who lost a valiant cause similar to the cause that the Vietnamese were losing. Typical of this era was One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest (1975)

Films of this era included Soldier Blue (1970) which was the first motion picture account of the Sand Creek massacre with a stereotypical message that the Cheyenne have made a heathen of the adopted American woman in the movie; A Man Called Horse (1970) which tells the story of a white man - Horse - living among his adopted Sioux tribe by telling the story of how Horse was treated like an animal by the Sioux - a treatment that is not found in the Sioux tradition of hospitality; Little Big Man (1970) that relates the story of Jack Crabb who at 121 years old recounts being captured and raised by Indians, becoming a gunslinger, marrying an Indian, watching her killed by General George Armstrong Custer, and becoming a scout for him at Little Big Horn.

In showing Indians as victims, these movies were the first to really humanize Indians. But in trying to be accurate, they still failed as they were told from the white point of view.

Sympathetic Era (mid-1980s to the present) - Films of this era were no longer focused solely on westward expansion but instead tried to show Indians somewhat accurately - but still from the white perspective - during many periods of American history.  Typical of this era was the movie that began looking at Indians sympathically - was New Moon from the Twilight series. Movie Poster for "Dances with Wolves"

Films of this era included Dances with Wolves  (1990) in which the real villain i is the white cavalry who captures Dunbar - and in which audience reaches a point where it can completely sympathize with the Sioux's and Dunbar's point of view;  New Moon, (2009) in which the main white character stereotypically "goes Native;"  Broken Rainbow (1985); Black Robe (1991); Thunderheart (1992); Last of the Mohicans (1992); Geronimo (1995); Windtalkers (2002); The New World (2005); The Only Good Indian (2009); We Shall Remain (2009)

In showing Indians as accurately as possible, movies ABOUT Indians improved - but they were and still are largely told from the white point of view. This is certainly the case with the newest Hollywood extravaganza like The Lone Ranger. When told from the white point of view, such movies were and are inaccurate as they do not incorporate the Indian point of view.

Indians as Filmmakers Era (late 1990s to the present) - Films of this era were made by Indian directors who tell stories about life in contemporary Indian Country and who often use humor to poke fun at American Indian stereotypes. For the first time in Hollywood film history, the point of view shifted from whites telling the story ABOUT Indians to Indians telling their own story. Typical of this era was Smoke Signals (1998)  which was the first feature film to be written, produced, directed, and acted by American Indians and tells the story of two Indians who leave the Coeur d'Alene reservation so that Victor Joseph can collect the ashes of his father who has been largely absent from Victor's life. The internal struggle of the father/son relationship is central to the story and in the end, Victor is able to make peace with his father and to release much of the anger that defines him. The story makes it clear that Indian people are not all alike and have great complexity of character and thought and that Indian people must be the tellers of Indian stories. 

Image from the movie "Smoke Signals"Films of this era included Skins (2008) that tells the story of two brothers living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and who represent opposite ends of the scale of fortune;  House Made of Dawn (1987);  Powwow Highway (1989); The Business of Fancydancing (2002); Imprint (2007); Older than America (2008); Reel Injun (2009); Two Spirits (2011); Our Spirits Don't Speak English (2011) 

These films - which are written, directed, and acted by American Indians - proved that they can be commercially successful, that negative stereotypes about Indian people can and should be examined in film, and that Indians are Americans, Indians are Indian, and that Indians are people who must tell their own stories.

Films, however, are not the only place in our society where stereotyping and historical trauma come into play. The proliferation of the use of Indian mascots is another example of the harmful ways Indian people are stereotyped. This power point - American Indian Mascots: Stereotyping and Historical Trauma - will provide you with plenty of information if and when you teach Alexie's book.

Mascots and Stereotyping: This power point provides plenty of ammunition for the debate - “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” - Stereotypes and Historical Trauma in Indian Country

Discussion Questions:

  1. Did the discussion of stereotyping and mascots help you better understand the historical backdrop for Sherman Alexie's book? How and why? Why or why not?
  2. How might you use either of these examples - Hollywood and Mascot stereotyping - in your classroom?
  3. Do you think these discussions - of Alexie's book and stereotyping - might contribute to efforts to handle bullying in your classroom or your school? Why or why not?

Goal #4: To explore the many reasons why historical fiction is important to use in K-12 classrooms to help students better understand history (this section has been adapted in part from the Scholastic Magazine website at https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/why-and-how-i-teach-historical-fiction/)

Following are several reasons to use historical fiction to help teach history:

  1. It teaches our students to learn the difference between fact and fiction. Teacher smust explain that fiction is an expression of the author’s context and experience and as such, a novel tells us more about who the author is, the time she wrote in, and her message than it tells us about the accurate historical setting in which she placed her novel. Once the novel is read, the teacher must then lead the students into an investigation of how factual the novel is or is not. You can introduce this idea with a simple sentence, "Now that we've looked at what happened to one pioneer family, let's find out if their experience was typical or unusual.
  2. It teaches students about the everyday details of life in a particular historical period. Historical fiction provides visual and contextual clues to how people lived, what their speech was like, how they dressed, what they ate, how they worked and had fun, etc. When accurately portrayed, these details are like a savings account that students can draw on and supplement - each deposit of information provides a richer understanding of the period.
  3. It puts people back into history. Too often, individuals - no matter how famous or important - are reduced to a few sentences. Children have difficulty converting these cryptic descriptions and snapshots into complex individuals who often had difficult choices to make, so myths and stereotypes flourish. Good historical fiction presents individuals as they are - complex people who are neither all good nor all bad.Historical Fiction poster
  4. It presents the complexity of history and historical issues. All too often, historical issues and events are presented in our classrooms as flat, one-dimensional, or single-sided. Historical fiction restores the landscape of history, warts and all, so students can discover that dilemmas are age-old.
  5. It can provide a entrance into a difficult subject. For example, it can ease the way into a discussion of the Holocaust (Number the Stars) or the Civil Rights Movement (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing).
  6. It promotes multiple perspectives. Historical fiction introduces students to characters who have different points of view and offers examples of how people deal differently with problems. It also informs students about the interpretive nature of history, showing how authors and illustrators deal with an issue in different ways.
  7. It can break down stereotypes. A good example are the idealized characters in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett O'Hara, Rhett Butler, Melanie, and Mamie are romanticized characters who do not resemble real people but instead are stereotypes that are easy to understand. Ashley Wilkes is the stereotypical Southern gentleman, always doing what is noble. Rhett Butler is the scandalous, reluctant, handsome Southern patriot who would rather not fight for a lost cause, but does it only to protect those closest to him. Melanie Wilkes is the illustration of Southern female virtue - loving, kind, and gentle. It is our job to bring attention to the romanticized and stereotypical characters in historical novels and encourage students to think about a more realistic portrayal.
  8. It can break down myths. Using Gone with the Wind again, the historical evidence of the master/slave relationship paints a different picture than what is portrayed in the book. While it may be true house slaves were treated better than farm hands, house servants were also subject to the whims of the master, including cruel punishment, rape, sexual perversion and adultery. Although we find evidence of sexual abuse of house slaves in history books, we see none of this in the idealized Gone with the Wind where Scarlett’s servants are happy with their condition, loyal, and decide to remain with her after the war. It is our job to destroy this romanticized myth of the idealistic, caring plantation owner and replace it with historical truths.

The bottom line - Historical fiction can be highly motivating and can encourage students to find real meaning in history. BUT teachers have to counter the tendency of good stories to seduce students into uncritically accepting what they read. In other words, we have to encourage them to read an interesting and exciting book AND THEN we have to lead them into an historical investigation about the accuracy of how the characters, events, and historical era are portrayed!! So, how do we do this?

First, we have excite our students about reading hsstorical fiction. This means we must do ALL of the following:

Second, we have to pick our books wisely. The books that we require our students to read MUST:

Reliable Resources for your choices include the following:

Third, we have to develop a well-thought out assignment that the students complete after reading the book - an assignment that helps them determine the accuracy of the historical fiction they read. Any assignment should include all or most of the questions below:

  1. Do you think that the author accurately described a particular historical period in the novel? Why or why not?
  2. Does the plot focus on a specific historical incident? Explain.
  3. Do the historical characters in the novel participate in a well-known historical incident? Explain.
  4. Do you think the conflict of the story is real or fictional? Conduct some research to see if your opiniion was right or wrong. Explain your findings.
  5. What evidence can you find in the book that accurately describes the historical time period.
  6. Were real historical figures portrayed in the book? If so, list them.
  7. Pick one of these characters from the book and conduct some research to determine how accurately they were portrayed. Provide evidence from the novel that reinforces the true nature of the real character.
  8. Explain the characters’ involvement in the historical setting and events.
  9. Pick another character from the book who is not a real historical figure. Explain how he or she is important to the action of the novel.
  10. Why do you think the author chose to write about this particular historical episode?
  11. Why is this book considered a historical novel?
  12. Based upon our definition of historical fiction, do you think this novel a good or bad historical novel? Explain.
  13. Are the events of the book related to contemporary life? If so, how?

Historical Fiction poster

Finally, keeping this entire discussion in mind, let's create a list of books of historical fiction that you have read or have heard about and that you might consider using in your teaching.