Conundrum Question: Fact vs. Fiction in the Historical Novel

Readers love historical novels. Fiction rounds out the details of history while helping us understand history’s wider ramifications. But, as Hannah Zuber noted here recently, “Historical fiction’s relationship with academic history has always been hotly contested.” This difficulty is discussed in my recent essay “A Critical Clarifier” where I said “assigning fictional actions to real persons from the past is, by definition, an exercise in inaccuracy.” How then can the novelist with a high regard for historical veracity minimize distorting the past?

Sometime around the turn of the 21st century, I happened upon a description of the attempted assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt by Giuseppe Zangara. This little-known event is seldom reported in histories of the 1930s, perhaps because Zangara missed his target with all five of his shots at Roosevelt. One of the bullets, however, struck Chicago’s mayor, Anton Cermak. And in Cermak’s life and later death lay a terrific real-life struggle yielding more than enough drama and excitement for a novel. I immediately knew I had to write this story of Chicago in 1933.

Still, decisions had to be made. How should I relate this in novel form without falsifying the very real experiences of the participants?

My essay had distinguished two types of historical novels, those that relate lives of famous historical characters, and those that focus on un-noteworthy people in the midst of historical events. Although both strive for what Simon Schama calls the “imaginative re-enactment,” the latter, which I named “Historical Context Fiction,” avoids at least some of the potential falsification pitfalls.

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I therefore chose to construct Illusions of Magic around the actions of fictional Chicago residents during the weeks that included the nineteen days between Anton Cermak’s wounding February 15th and his death on March 6, 1933. With Cermak’s struggle to live, the ensuing political intrigues, and the city’s extraordinary grieving over his death, I had a sturdy spine upon which to hang fictions involving adventure, love and compassion in the Windy City during the Great Depression.

Two questions remained to be decided: How much of the Cermak story should be included, and how should I go about integrating that history into the novel?

Following the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, Mayor Anton Cermak had arranged to meet with FDR in Miami, where the president-elect was vacationing. The mayor was hoping to obtain a promise of federal funding to help Chicago out of a severe financial shortfall brought on by the Great Depression. After all, when the tide finally turned during the Democratic National Convention in the summer of ‘32, it was Mayor Cermak who seized the microphone to announce the release of all of Illinois’ 58 delegate votes to Roosevelt, helping FDR gain more than the two-thirds majority required for nomination.

That fateful night of February 15, 1933, at Miami’s Bayfront Park, Cermak strode to the car from which Roosevelt had just concluded a brief speech. The large crowd that had gathered was still applauding as Cermak shook hands with the president-elect and they exchanged a few words. Shortly, five shots exploded from within the front rows of the crowd. People screamed. Someone cried, “Stop that man!”

Giuseppe Zangara, a small man with a troubled life, had fired a .32-caliber pistol, trying to kill Roosevelt. But the bullets missed. Along with three others, Anton Cermak was hit. Zangara was quickly subdued and carted off to jail. Roosevelt insisted on taking the wounded mayor to the hospital in his limousine.

The importance of this event cannot be minimized—the shooting risked the life of the president-elect at a crucial time in United States history (he would be inaugurated as president less than a month later).

Although the shooting was not local, the serious wounding of the mayor had a huge impact on Chicago. A poorly-understood fact surfaced in its aftermath: should the mayor die, no legal process existed for his replacement. Not only did this pose a practical difficulty, it gave rise to political machinations and intrigue such as the city had never before known. It saddled Chicago with monumental uncertainty and became the important historical focus for my novel.

At this point, a wide choice existed for uniting the Cermak story with my concept of a protagonist who takes on a dangerous quest, accidentally encounters a sweetheart after twenty years, but then discovers that caring can clash with familial bonds and the necessity for compassion.

I decided the most unobtrusive way to integrate the Cermak story was through the experiences of a major player in the fiction. Precinct captain Liver Jack Horn, although not the protagonist, is arguably a very important character. Early on, he lectures his sister on the importance of the city’s administration during the downturn:

There’s ‘most a million people who wants work, can’t find any. Some are so bad off they’re eating garbage. You remember last fall, down on Lower Wacker Drive? Remember all those men—musta been a hundred—sleeping under newspapers and cardboard boxes? Who d’you think’s leading the way to helping people out so they don’t end up there? It’s me and the City—what you call ‘the machine.’

Late in the book, Liver Jack witnesses the ceremony at the Bohemian National Cemetery:

There, in the carpeted and roped-off area, the mayor’s three daughters wept as they sat in the family’s space. Nearby were hundreds of Bohemian Odd Fellows arrayed in their red or blue ornate collars trimmed in gold, along with Knights Templar in uniform, and a group of children from the Bohemian Orphanage, each holding a white flower.

James Rada, an officer in the Lawndale Masonic Lodge, of which the mayor had been a member, was conducting ceremonies while most of his Lodge members stood in solemn attention. Liver Jack regularly cupped his hands over his face and blew on them to impart some warmth as he awaited the final ritual.

These glimpses suggest the novel’s historical component. Alongside but not sampled here is the story of Nick Zetner, stage magician. Short of work because of the poor economy and diminished vaudeville bookings, Nick reluctantly accepts the task of finding and returning stolen goods for a rich but sleazy banker. Yet this quest leads him to uncover, after a lapse of twenty years, a long-lost love that is subsequently rekindled.

The topic of this article is fact versus fiction in writing the historical novel. Through Liver Jack’s experience and discourse in Illusions of Magic, the reader relives the day-to-day political theater so characteristic of the times, details of the hospitalization and treatment of the mayor, and the great loss that Anton Cermak’s passing delivered to the city of Chicago 83 years ago. This slice of history proceeds in parallel with Nick’s story, combining fact with fiction in what I hope is an informative, as well as entertaining, amalgam.

J.B. Rivard is a local writer and illustrator and the author of the historical novel Illusions of Magic. More information about his work can be found at www.illusionsofmagic.com.

Chicago Open Archives

In the same spirit as Open House Chicago, Chicago Open Archives welcomes the public to tour over 30 cultural institutions around the city. Chicago Area Archivists hosts the event that runs from October 6 to October 8, 2016. Visitors have the opportunity to take part in behind the scenes tours and will have access to several places that are normally off limits to the public. Along with tours, visitors can engage with librarians, archivists, and museum curators. Other events include film screenings and exhibit talks.

Please note that in order to tour and/or participate in some of the events, preregistration may be required. Registration closes at midnight on October 4, 2016. There may be admission fees at some of the institutions. Check out the Chicago Open Archive website to learn more about the event and participating cultural institutions.

Ambidexterity and Ambition: The Tuskegee Model Legacy

Last year Fazila Kabahita and I decided to nominate the Ambidexter Industrial and Normal Institute in Springfield, Illinois, to the National Register of Historic Places as a part of our Historic Preservation course. Fazila and I learned that the Ambidexter Institute was modeled after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Deemed the “Tuskegee of the North,” Ambidexter was a private industrial school intended to teach trades and provide academic education to African American students. It received the name “Ambidexter” because its founder, Springfield clergyman G.H. McDaniel, believed that the students would have to be ‘ambidextrous,’ (in some sense-suggesting that they would have to be doubly as skilled as whites) using both their minds and their might, in order to make it in competition for employment with the white labor force. McDaniel intended to “accomplish for the negroes of the north what Booker T. Washington’s great school is doing for the colored people of the south.” He opened the school in 1901 with funding from prominent Springfield residents.[1] As we continue to work toward nominating the site through the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, I thought I’d share a little about the history of the school and similar institutions that followed the Tuskegee model.

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Stranger Than History: The Art of Historical Fiction

Conversations at the Newberry Library recently featured “Stranger than Fiction: Tasha Alexander and Susanna Calkins on the Art of Historical Fiction.” The two authors reflected on how their backgrounds as academically-trained historians prepared them for the world of fiction-writing. Alexander and Calkins addressed concerns relevant to writing historical fiction, like heeding the historical mindset of their characters, capturing the tone and rhythm of their characters’ dialogue, and knowing how to use their research effectively to tell captivating, enriching stories.

Maggie McClain, Kelly Schmidt, and Hannah Zuber attended the event. Below are their reactions to the conversation. A full recording of the conversation can be found here.

Writing historical fiction. It seems like an exhilarating, daunting, fulfilling process. I personally have never undertaken writing a book, but I’ve always enjoyed reading historical fiction. Really great writers transport you to a different time and place through their mastery of the written word. Composing a great story requires in-depth research and clear, concise writing. Historians are trained to do exactly that, so it is no wonder that some go into the profession of historical fiction writing.

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Camp Douglas Restoration Project: Urban Archaeology Builds Community while Unearthing History

Many people are familiar with Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp that held Union soldiers during the Civil War, but fewer know of Camp Douglas, a Union camp that held Confederate prisoners on Chicago’s South Side. Between October 8th and 14th, we—and others from Loyola, DePaul, and the community—worked as volunteer archaeologists on a dig with the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation, uncovering elements of Chicago’s Civil War past, and learning some basics about archaeology and the processes that go into a dig.

From 1861 to 1865, Camp Douglas occupied about 80 acres in what is now the Bronzeville community. Initially, Camp Douglas was a training ground for Union soldiers, and would later train enlisted African Americans. The camp was designed to be temporary, since the Union was confident the war wouldn’t last long. But by February 1862, Camp Douglas had become a prison camp for Confederate soldiers captured in battle, since the Union Army had nowhere else to put them. Camp Douglas became one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the nation and had the most Confederate deaths of any camp. Poor sanitation and overcrowding in makeshift wooden shelters spread disease among the prisoners, resulting in approximately 4,500 deaths (the prison housed roughly 30,000 prisoners through the course of the war).  Security was slack and escapes were frequent; an estimated 500 Confederate prisoners escaped during the camp’s operation. After the war Camp Douglas was quickly dissolved, and for the most part, forgotten.

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“Who Tells Your Story?”: Historymaking in “Hamilton”

Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role of the musical "Hamilton" at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York.

The Broadway smash hit Hamilton: An American Musical, a “hip-hopera” about the nation’s founding, is a bona fide phenomenon. Tickets are nearly impossible to come by, and celebrities flock to every performance. (President Obama has seen it twice.) The show and its composer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, are receiving recognition for fantastic performances, an energetic blend of musical theatre tradition and hip hop innovation, and the choice to cast people of color in the roles of the lily-white Founding Fathers.

But Hamilton is also being praised for its potential to teach its audience members, to get them excited about a period of history they may only remember from dry classroom lessons. Miranda based the musical on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, and the historian served as a consultant to the show. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History recently partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to provide discounted tickets for low-income New York City high school students and develop accompanying educational programming.

Hamilton is the latest in a long line of musicals based on historical events: 1776, Les Misérables, Evita, and the recently-opened Allegiance, about Japanese internment in the U.S. during World War II, among many others. So why has this particular show seemed to inspire its audiences, particularly those who are not otherwise musical theater fans, more than these other worthy musicals?

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From Preservation to Community Engagement in Chrysler Village

In October 2013, Loyola University Chicago public history graduate students launched Public History Lab, a student-driven effort to apply public history skills at organizations and sites of history in the Chicagoland area. This post belongs to a series that chronicles efforts undertaken by members of the Public History Lab.

Spanning several years and spawning multiple course projects, the Chrysler Village History Project offers unique insight into the dynamics of a long-term collaboration between a local community, history graduate students, and faculty. The following account presents the evolution of the project to foster continued reflection on the practice of public history inside and outside the classroom.

The Origin Story

In early 2013, an energetic young alderman from the Southwest side of Chicago reached out to Loyola professor Dr. Theodore Karamanski with a request to nominate the neighborhood of Chrysler Village to the National Register of Historic Places. Located in the Clearing neighborhood just south of Midway Airport, Chrysler Village was one of the few housing construction projects undertaken in Chicago during World War II. It was strategically located near the Ford-Chrysler plant where workers assembled B-29 “Superfortress” bomber engines. Characterized by winding streets and a centrally-located park, Chrysler Village also represents an important link between prewar planned communities and postwar suburban development. As part of a preservation course led by Dr. Karamanski in the Spring of 2013, fellow Loyola history graduate students and I unearthed the neighborhood’s historical significance through extensive research in the archives and on the ground in Chrysler Village.* We continued to develop the nomination in the months after class until the nomination was officially accepted in early 2014 and Chrysler Village was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Aerial photograph of Chrysler Village, ca. 1950, courtesy of Clear-Ridge Historical Society
Aerial view of Chrysler Village, ca. 1950. Photo courtesy of Clear-Ridge Historical Society

Now What?

As satisfying as it was to help put Chrysler Village on the National Register, we couldn’t help but ask how the listing could better benefit the community.  At the 2014 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History, Kim Connelley Hicks and I joined a roundtable on preservation to discuss how we could build on our nomination to create a sustained, financially soluble, and socially relevant project for a changing community. The roundtable generated a host of great ideas, but as the original core of students moved on in their lives and careers, we needed leaders with a plan to move the project forward.

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Gender Gap Set in Stone

Chicago’s 580 parks are littered with statues of historically significant men. Some of these men may be familiar to you: Nicolaus Copernicus, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln. Others may be unfamiliar: Greene Vardiman Black, for example, the “father of modern dentistry.” While the accomplishments of these notable figures vary, their gender does not. In fact, there is not a single statue in Chicago that honors a historically significant woman.

The lack of public statues honoring women has received recent attention in the local media, and for good reason. In a city home to such important female leaders like Ida B. Wells and Jane Addams, how can public depictions of women remain absent in Chicago’s parks?

The Chicago Park District told WBEZ Chicago that this absence is an issue of timing; the heyday of public sculpture in the city occurred before women earned the right to vote and were therefore not involved in public life. Yet this argument does not explain why men continued to be honored in Chicago parks long after women earned the right to vote in 1920. As recently as 2006, the Chicago Park District has added a new bronze statue of a male figure to its expansive park system.

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