I’d like to welcome Debra Brenegan, author of Shame the Devil, to my notebook today.
Learn about history by reading historical fiction
By Debra Brenegan
By profession, besides being a writer, I am a teacher. Frankly, one of the reasons I chose to write my historical novel Shame the Devil was because I wanted to teach people about Fanny Fern, a trailblazing nineteenth-century journalist, novelist and feminist who has been largely forgotten. I did enough research to write a biography about her, but I wanted to convey all of the wondrous information I discovered about Fern to as many people as possible. What better vehicle than a historical novel, right? But, does reading historical fiction really count as learning history?
According to a survey by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, professors believe 81 percent of college seniors are at a D or F grade level when it comes to American history. Teachers lament these statistics and search for ways to make history more interesting and understandable to students. Many high schools and colleges offer combined history and literature courses to reinforce student learning because history and literature, taken together, teach important facts about history while illustrating that same information in story form. Taking that idea one step further, history teachers are now adding historical novels to history course reading lists. History teachers say that when students read about characters living in the era the class is studying, it brings history alive and makes it real.
If you are a teacher, borrow this insight. If you are a reader, dive into a historical novel now and then to learn about a person, event or era you’ve always wondered about. The historical novel will allow you to experience the world of another time and place without committing yourself to dry or academic nonfiction. It’s the low-risk equivalent of putting your toe in the water of serious scholarly reading. You’ll be entertained, certainly (isn’t that what novels are about?), but you’ll also learn more than you realize. And if your interest is really piqued by the novel, you can consider that read as the first stone in the road, and continue your quest for information by diving into the mass of biographies and history books about your subject of choice.
Debra Brenegan grew up in the Milwaukee area and graduated with a B.A. in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She worked as a journalist and taught at Milwaukee Area Technical College before beginning her graduate work. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing from The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she also taught. She teaches English and Women’s Studies at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. For her fiction, she has received a Ragdale residency and was a recent finalist for the John Gardner Memorial Fiction Prize, The Cincinnati Review’s Schiff Prose Prize, and the Crab Creek Review Fiction Prize. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Calyx, Tampa Review, Natural Bridge, The Laurel Review, RE:AL, The Southern Women’s Review, The Cimarron Review, Milwaukee Magazine, Phoebe, and other publications. Debra Brenegan’s novel, Shame the Devil, is a historical account of nineteenth-century American writer Fanny Fern (SUNY Press, Excelsior Editions). She is currently working on another novel, set in Missouri, and on a short story collection. During the school year, Debra lives in a 130-year-old house in Fulton with her husband, Steve, and their elderly cat. They spend summers and school breaks in their native Milwaukee. When not teaching, writing, spending time with family or driving back and forth to Wisconsin, Debra enjoys cooking, gardening, reading and traveling.