Today’s Founding Fiction post is by Lindsay M. Chervinsky, a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. Her manuscript is titled, “The President’s Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.” Follow her @lmchervinsky.
Each book in the Dear America series portrays a diary of a young fictional woman that explores her experience during one specific year in American history. The first-person account shares observations of well-known events or places, as well as the daily struggles of an “average” girl’s life. A number of these diaries take place in #VastEarlyAmerica. A few examples include A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple, which tells the story of the Mayflower crossing in 1620; The Winter of Red Snow: The Revolutionary War Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, which shares one woman’s experience in Valley Forge in 1777; and Look to the Hills: The Diary of Lozette Moreau, which examines the struggles of a French slave girl in the New York Colony in 1763. The series was discontinued in 2004, but Scholastic republished many of the originals in 2010 and continues to produce new volumes today.
I am fortunate to have had several fantastic history teachers over the years, but my history books mostly shared facts about the lives of men – and rarely in great detail. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t voraciously consuming historical fiction to learn more, but I distinctly remember the Dear America books as the first series to capture my attention and introduce me to the young female experience. In A Journey to the New World, the main character Remember Patience Whipple describes in vivid detail the challenges of a multi-month sea crossing on a tiny wooden vessel. As someone who has dealt with severe motion sickness my entire life, this story gave me a new visceral understanding of the harrowing conditions on the Mayflower’s Atlantic voyage.
In my experience, historical fiction offers several benefits to readers. Many students believe history is boring and inaccessible because they view it as a mere recitation of facts and numbers. The best historians understand that history is a collection of individual experiences and stories that produce a compelling narrative when woven together. Historical fiction from the first-person perspective brings alive these personal stories. I also believe reading historical fiction makes students better historians and citizens. When I learned about the Middle Passage a few years after reading Whipple’s fictional Mayflower account, I pictured the ordeal of the enslaved passengers in a completely different light. Historical fiction helps students approach experiences foreign to their own lives with greater empathy.
While I love the Dear America series and its broad scope, I do wish there were more publications focused on the societies of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Don’t get me wrong: the series has made a noticeable effort to include representatives from the vast number of American experiences. For example, the series includes a diary exploring the loyalist experience during the years leading to the Revolution, and another describing French slavery in the New York Colony. But there are still many more stories to tell about the colonial, revolutionary, and early republic periods.
The series does include many volumes on the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many of which portray women of color and other ethnic and religious experiences. A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee tells the fictive story of a slave girl on Belmont Planation in Virginia in 1859. There is also a diary of a former slave in South Carolina in 1865, an Irish mill worker in Massachusetts in 1847, a Jewish immigrant in New York City in 1903, a Sioux girl at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1880, and a Navajo girl in New Mexico in 1864. It would be great to see this diverse approach brought to early America. For further reading, Scholastic has also produced The Royal Diaries series, which explores the teenage years of famous royal women, and the My Name is America series, which serves as the male counterpoint to the Dear America series.