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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, April 16, 2000

Novels Can Teach History Lessons As Well

For many of us reading novels is a guilty pleasure. We may feel that we should be reading nonfiction and actually learning something. If you feel this way, then maybe historical fiction is a solution to your dilemma. You can absorb history and enjoy a good story at the same time. I learned about the Civil War as a boy from checking out a Civil War series by Joseph Altsheler from the public library branch at Harper Elementary School. Likewise, the Revolutionary War came alive for me in the sagas of Kenneth Roberts. From these authors I learned more about history than from any textbook.

The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan (Knopf, 2000).

If youwant to find out what really happened at the Alamo, this is the book to read, and you'll enjoy a good love story at the same time. Some of your illusions may be destroyed, however. Davy Crockett wasn't wearing buckskin and a coonskin cap. He was elegantly dressed, befitting the ex-Congressman he was. Jim Bowie was a drunkard and none too honest. Santa Anna was not pudgy but lean and refined.

The novel is built around a seventeen-year old survivor of the Alamo, who was sent out to find reinforcements before the main battle. He is a fictional character, as are his mother and her love interest, a naturalist named Edmund McGowan, a man who has sacrificed passion for ambition. Two of the other main fictional characters are Mexican soldiers, and we are able to witness the action from their perspectives, also.

You won't find a better book on the Alamo than this sweeping and beautifully written tale.

Losing Julia by Jonathan Hull (Delacorte, 2000).

Hull takes us inside the trenches of World War I, to the environs of postwar Paris, and into the wards of a contemporary nursing home. Julia was the girlfriend of narrator Patrick Delaney's best army buddy, the sensitive and steady Daniel. Patrick falls in love listening to Daniel rhapsodize about her. After Daniel is killed in action, Patrick tries unsuccessfully to find Julia after the war. He marries and has a son but then runs into Julia at a memorial ceremony in France. Julia is a beautiful spirit, and they fall tragically and profoundly in love.

A quick and touching read, the author captures the brutality of the battlefield, the spirit of true love, and the atmosphere of a nursing home, where Patrick is confined, reminiscencing about the past.

The Twisted Root by Anne Perry (Ballantine, 1999).

Anne Perry writes mysteries set in Victorian England. This is the latest installment in her William Monk series, and fans will thrill to the news that Monk and Hester, his faithful Watson, are now married. Perry builds the suspense deliberately to a climax befitting a Greek tragedy.

In addition to the mystery, Perry develops the theme of the plight of the nursing profession, when nurses carried slop buckets and received their pay in grog. Hester, who had served as a nurse during the Crimean War and had worked with the saintly Florence Nightingale, is passionately concerned with the training and working conditions of her fellow nurses. Hester is stubborn and idealistic and altogether a wonderful character.

This case has to go to trial before it is solved, and Monk and Hester call on her brilliant ex-suitor, Oliver Rathbone, to defend their client. With characters that could have come straight out of Dickens, Perry's newest is a masterful performance.

A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss (Random House, 2000).

David Liss is a graduate student in English at Columbia University. In this remarkable first novel he spins an intricate and intriguing mystery set in 1719 in London's Exchange Alley, the eighteenth century equivalent of our New York Stock Exchange.

Benjamin Weaver, an ex-boxer turned "thief-taker" and detective, is the long estranged son of a recently deceased Jewish "stock-jobber." When Benjamin is hired by an aristocrat to recover some important documents, we follow him into the alleys, coffee houses, gin joints, and brothels of London. There he discovers that his father's death may have been connected to developments in the newly emerging London stock market.

Liss presents us with a wealth of detail about the era when the stock exchange began competing with the Bank of England for financial primacy. Especially fascinating is his account of the rise and eventual crash of the South Sea Company. Don't miss this financial thriller, one of the most talked about books of the season.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.