Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

Story vs. history

“A Tugging String,” by David T. Greenberg

Dutton, 2008

David T. Greenberg’s book is set in 1960s Alabama, “blending facts, speeches, memories and conjecture.” A twelve-year-old boy, the son of a civil rights lawyer, tries hard to fit in at school. An African-American woman struggles to become a registered voter. As the two stories come together, the young protagonist sees first-hand the importance of the civil rights struggle. While many readers on amazon.com whose reviews I have checked are raving about the book, BookList and School Library Journal have called it “didactic” and “not always making for a smooth narrative.” (They also did call it “sincere,” “clearly written” and “fascinating.”) http://www.amazon.com/Tugging-String-Growing-During-Rights/dp/0525479678/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1297877810&sr=8-1

I am always very sad and a little sorry when I don’t fall in love with a book. I am, as my regular followers know, a fan of historical fiction. But I am also a fan of fantasy. Sci-fi. Contemporary YA. My point is this: I love learning about other worlds, be  they old or new, past or future, real or imagined, or a crazy blend of the two. But what I love the most about books is . . . the story. The characters thrust into a situation that takes center-stage. The feelings that come through, implode and explode as other events unfold, be they historical or fantastical. 

While reading “A Tugging String,” I did learn a lot. I did especially like the fascinating unusual little details no one thinks about when reading of the 1960s, like a Jamaican housekeeper with a ring on every toe!

But, to me, the book was trying too hard to “tell” me things: here is what is important, here is what’s horrible, here is how to feel.

I realize, the book is probably meant for the school market. Teachers give it great reviews, and the author David Greenberg is a popular speaker. Also,  judging from the amazon.com reviews, some kids like it too.

So yes, books can teach. Still, I feel an author shouldn’t worry so. An honest story with a character that feels real can teach a young reader more about that character’s time and place, than any amounts of footnotes or paragraphs of asides ever could.

What do you think? Writers and readers, when you write or read historical fiction, what sort of balance between STORY and HISTORY do you expect or hope to create?

Answer the question, and get the chance to win an autographed copy of David Greenberg’s “Tugging String!”

Then read it and judge for yourself, then maybe write your own review, so we could compare notes? 🙂


March 6, 2011 - Posted by | Book Impressions | , , , , ,


  1. Well, you know me. I like(or should I say, love) the history behind the story. For me, history plots the story. Not literally, of course and yet it helps me know what is plausible and it certainly inspires plot points. And I do like to weave historical characters in with my fictional ones. So I’ve been accused of doing the same thing as Stringer. I think I’m still learning how to find the balance of history and story.

    I do have to footnote everything for my editor who expects accuracy but the footnotes don’t show up in the finished product.

    Pretty sure I’d like this book so do enter me in the contest!

    Comment by Joyce Moyer Hostetter | March 6, 2011 | Reply

    • Thanks, Joyce, for your perspective. How about an afterword instead of footnotes? So you don’t keep getting interrupted with extraneous info? I guess my thing is . . . when I am reading, it is — or should be — like a magic voyage into another dimension. Like watching a movie? When you are lost in a story you are not thinking about history, you are living it. Can’t wait to see what you think of the book. Maybe you could guest blog about it for me? 🙂

      Comment by Katia Raina | March 6, 2011 | Reply

  2. I dislike it when a writer uses a story to preach or when there are massive info dumps to educate the reader.

    I’d rather learn through the setting, dialogue, and action about the historical aspect of a story. I want it to be mainly story, with history woven into it.

    Comment by Medeia Sharif | March 6, 2011 | Reply

    • So we’re on the same page. Except, as a historical fiction writer, I know this is sometimes easier to say than to actually do. It’s funny because I have two trusted writer friends who have just read/ are still reading my manuscript. One of them says, “more history, please. I want to feel more in the period. And make them sound less modern. Less American.” The other says, “Stop telling me about how they did things. Just have them do it!” So I guess, like Joyce says, that balance isn’t always easy to achieve…

      Comment by Katia Raina | March 6, 2011 | Reply

  3. I agee that we need to communicate history through story elements such as great setting, dialogue, and plot!

    I love afterwords. Wouldn’t actually want to include footnotes in finished product. I agree that could be disruptive to the story.

    And yes, I would love to guest blog this for you. Spasiba!

    Comment by Joyce Moyer Hostetter | March 6, 2011 | Reply

    • No thank YOU, Joyce. That would be amazing!

      Comment by Katia Raina | March 6, 2011 | Reply

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