Tag Archives: Christina Baker Kline

The Use and Abuse of Fiction – personal opinion

Why write fiction about real events? Why make up stories about World War II, or Ireland or the Great Depression? Why not stick to imagined worlds, like JK Rowling’s delightful, magic permeated version of England?

Consider the wild popularity of the “Humans of New York” Facebook site. There are SO MANY tales to be told. Why not tell them, as is done with Holocaust survivors and military veterans (to name a few) in oral history projects? I offer The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline as an example of a book written about events that, I believe, have been extensively documented. More about it below.

Sometimes the truth is just too painfully awful to bear.

  • Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Patillo Beals, who participated in the battle for school desegregation as a high schooler, is a non-fiction account so harrowing I couldn’t read it.
  • The truth behind Beloved by Toni Morrison is even worse than that portrayed in the book/movie, in which an enslaved woman kills her child to keep him from slavery.

Fiction represents a selection of what is (or isn’t) “meaningful” or important about an era or event. I’m convinced that “meaning” is assigned, not inherent. The meaning that an author assigns to an event may be very different from what participants experienced. If the people are available (or left records), I would rather listen to real voices than read a fictionalized account.

I think fiction represents a consensus (of sorts) on what we are going to remember, emphasize and/or construe about events.

Fiction has its conventions. Usually major characters stay alive for most of the book. I was truly shocked when Vikram Seth killed off a major character in the middle of The Golden Gate. That’s what happens in life, not in novels!

Stephen Dunn (poet and professor) says that southern New Jersey (where I live) “hasn’t been imagined yet”. Very little fiction or poetry about this region has been written. To me, that means there’s no consensus about what we will or won’t discuss about South Jersey. Fiction sets boundaries. No one has decided what South Jersey means.

Means to whom? Our local poet? We the residents? Scholars somewhere else? (Will South Jersey Studies be invented one day?) We will surely choose to keep the sun and sand. What about the past? How long will it take to digest Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson? Will we study slaveholders or the underground railroad?

So how did Peter H Davies, author of The Welsh Girl, (a novel about WWII) decide what (and who) to keep and who to discard? Why did he include ONE historical figure (Rudolf Hess) in this work of fiction?

Maybe studying history is just TOO MUCH WORK, too intellectually challenging. The Orphan Train was selected as a Common Reading (for a college, with the emphasis on the Freshmen) because it was “accessible”. Translate that to mean not too long, not too complicated… (I found it didactic.) Serious study of the events and historical period was apparently not considered. (I get it, but are we underestimating student intelligence?)

I was surprised, when I checked, to find out that I split my reading almost 50/50 between fiction and non-fiction. I thought I was leaning more towards fiction.

I very much enjoy “fantasy” fiction, but I would guess it’s a small fraction of what I read, maybe 10%. I LOVE a good alternative world.

My point? Does anyone else have a problem with fictionalized accounts of real events? Do you worry that you might be misled? That an author might be biased? How should fiction be incorporated into education? If a book pops into your mind when you consider this, I’d particularly like to hear about it.

“Orphan Train – a novel” by Christina Baker Kline

I read this because it was selected by the college where I work as the “common reading” for 2014. A copy will be given to each incoming Freshman. Some of these students will read it for their Freshman seminar. The entire college will be invited to hear the author speak. Some students may hear nothing more about it. (No one is willing to tell the faculty what they must include in a course, and there will never be a common reading that is universally popular.)

About half of the common readings are novels. There has been at least one anthology, one autobiography, a popular, semi-scientific approach to the supernatural, and a genuinely scientific book about the Mississippi River (Bayou Farewell). I think the common reading program is nine years old.

The plot? A girl who has spent much of her life in (low quality) foster care meets an old woman whose early years were also disrupted by suffering and grief. Each gains important insight.

So what are the good and bad points of this book for college Freshmen? Let me evaluate it against the four “pillars” of the college – global outlook, engagement, sustainability and learning. (How it pains me to see “learning” so marginalized!) Let’s see, on a scale of 1 to 5…

  • Globalization – 3 points. Immigration (Ireland to USA) is a major feature, as well as migration (involuntary) within the US.
  • Engagement – 1 point. There’s a social worker. Aren’t they automatically “engaged”? One of the protagonists is doing community service in order to avoid a criminal charge for theft.
  • Sustainability – 0. It’s not there. (I didn’t miss it.)
  • Learning – 4 points. Both protagonists love books and reading. The young woman “finds” herself academically as she is finishing high school. The old woman professes to be indifferent to the “information superhighway”, then plunges in with cheerful enthusiasm – starts shopping on line and using Facebook. Maybe 5 points for learning!

All that said, I give the book a B-. I like more development of character. I found the structure, skipping back and forth between two plot lines, distracting. I think college students should be offered something more challenging. This is too close to being a standard “feel good” book. But (by way of redemption) there’s one plot twist that surprised me. A child (I won’t tell you whose) is given up for adoption. I wonder how students will react to that?