Recently an interviewer asked me why young readers would be interested in historical fiction, specifically, how a teenage girl today could relate to Ariadne, the priestess of the moon-goddess (and future goddess herself) in Dark of the Moon. The story is set in the Bronze Age, after all—how much can a modern sensibility resonate with it?
This was an odd question to me—and I imagine it’s also odd to most readers of this blog—so I found it hard to answer. But I’ve had the chance to think it over, and if I were to be asked the same question today, I’d probably answer something like this:
We sometimes need a little remove from our own time, place, and circumstances in order to understand them. It’s similar to the way studying a foreign language helps you better understand how your own language works. We’re just too close to our own language—and our own setting—to be able to see it clearly. But if we step back a pace, we quiet what Lionel Trilling called “the buzz of implication.” Our own issues come into focus in a different (not necessarily better, just different) way from a different vantage point.
Ariadne faces a struggle that many people face: She agonizes over whether she should she do what is expected of her, or forge her own path. She’s also conflicted about how much she owes to her family, her faith, her country, and how much she owes to herself. And on a more personal level, does she love Theseus, or is she merely swept off her feet by the first boy who sees her as a girl and not as a goddess-to-be?
King of Ithaka is also set in the past (in this case, the Iron Age). My protagonist, Telemachos, lives in a time of war, and he has to discover how to be a man despite an absentee father. Tell me those aren’t common issues of young men in many countries today!
I don’t write for a didactic purpose; I don’t expect my readers to take Ariadne or Telemachos as a model for their own behavior. But—to go back to the language analogy—just as studying dangling modifiers in Latin can help us recognize them in English, seeing how characters in historical fiction (or fantasy or science fiction) confront familiar issues might lead to a clearer understanding of the reader’s own questions and conflicts.
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Tracy Barrett is the author of numerous books for young readers, most recently Dark of the Moon (Harcourt) and The Sherlock Files series (Henry Holt). She lives in Nashville, TN, where until recently she taught Italian, Humanities, and Women’s Studies at Vanderbilt University. Visit her website and her blog.