Thursday, March 01, 2012

What Got You Hooked on Historical Fiction?

My folks read to me from the time I was very young (my favorites were Little Women and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), and I started reading on my own fairly early (I loved the Little House books, of course, and my obsession for a while was my uncle's collection of actual 1950s Hardy Boys books).

My folks were also touched by wanderlust. My dad was in the Air Force (a radio DJ, best job in the military!) and my mom had decided to stay and work in Europe after her visit to Norway in 1964, and they met at biergarten in Wiesbaden. She eventually became a travel agent.

Her wanderlust and love for history found an intersection in the books she read. My dad loves reading, but he's more of a non-fiction history kind of guy (which is awesome in a completely different way). My mom was an avid, nay, obsessive fiction reader, and I reaped the benefits as a kid, getting her books when she was done. I read Shogun by Clavell and Centennial by Michener, I read Ivanhoe and The Thorn Birds (alongside Pride & Prejudice and Jane Eyre, of course). Later in life, we shared Alison Weir books, Pilgrim by Timothy Findlay, Sharan Newman's Catherine leVendeur mysteries, among so many others.

As a kid, two books that really stood out for me were by M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon and Trade Winds. The former is a story of Kashmir and Afghanistan in the mid-19th century, the latter a story of life in Zanzibar in the 19th century, featuring a wonderfully named heroine, Hero Athena Hollis. I was so impressed by Trade Winds that I wrote a fan letter in 1986, when I was 15. To my great joy, and continuing glee, she wrote me back.

I've carried this letter around in my Box of Special Things ever since, and count it as one of the cooler events of my early life.

April 20, 1986
Dear Ms. Nelson,
I'm so glad to hear that you enjoy reading my books. It was kind of you to write.
I'm afraid you wouldn't like Zanzibar if you went there now! I'm so glad I saw it before it was spoilt. The place is now full of 'worker's flats' on the western model; and the new 'far-left' government have driven a wide--very wide--main street right through Zanzibar City, knocking down all the lovely old Arab houses, and getting rid of all the fascinating, winding, twisting, narrow streets. Oh dear! So sad--
I've had a lovely life, and I am very grateful to have been able to see, and live in, such beautiful places.
Best wishes to you -

Mollie M. Kaye

Thank goodness for Mollie Kaye, who took the time to write to a kid in California, and thank goodness for my folks, who took the time to read to me, and thank goodness for my mom, who had great taste in, and abiding love for, historical fiction. I sure miss her.


  1. I love this post!

  2. Lovely post! I remember writing to Alison Weir, Antonia Fraser and Sharon Kay Penman when I was a teenager. All three of them sent back wonderfully kind responses.

  3. Oh my gosh, I would treasure that letter also. I could not put down "Shadow of the Moon" when I read it. It was one of those books I kept sneaking at work (shhh). "The Far Pavilions" is still on my list.

  4. @Heather - :D

    @Katherine - lucky you! How fantastic is that?

    @Hope - Images from Shadow of the Moon still come to me, so many years later. I've still never read The Far Pavilions. I see that they made a musical of it a few years ago!

  5. The Thorn Birds is one of my all time faves. The Little House books are too. What a wonderful letter to have received; I would treasure that too! Great post... :)))

  6. I first started loving historical fiction when I was little. The Little House on the Prairie and the American Girl books are what did it for me!

  7. Can't believe how many 'stepping stones' we share...Shogun, The Thorn Birds...and Michener! My first by line was a book review of his Alaska. I still have the galley, wrapped in plastic wrap to keep it protected as best I can. My 'voice' would not be the same without these great works.