Desiree, or a Down Side to Living Books?

Dear Reader,

I love living books. They are the cornerstone of our homeschool. I love when my kids make a real connection to what they are reading. I love that they aren’t bored out of their minds in school like I was. I can still barely read a textbook. All the words and terms swim together in my head.

But I have been wondering if there is also a danger in some living books. Their very power can work both ways. On the one hand, a great story about historical events draws the reader in and gives him a picture of the time he is reading about. It allows one to form connections, the heart of a Charlotte Mason education. But what happens when not everything in such a book is true?

I recently reread Desiree by AnneMarie Selinko. I remembered reading and enjoying this book as teen and since we were studying the French Revolution in our homeschool, I thought I would check it out again. In the end I decided it was too long for my kids to read and might be a bit much for them yet, but I enjoyed rereading it. If you don’t know the book it is the story of Napoleon’s first love, the title character Desiree, who goes on to become queen of Sweden. It is historical fiction. And that is just the sort of book which gives me pause. Because this genre is an oxymoron. History is true. It is things that happened. But fiction is made up. How can we combine these two? The power of a good story is that it does draw us in. But if we have no context, we are likely to believe everything we read. It can be hard to know what is true in what we read and what isn’t.

As I reread Desiree, I knew that the story was just too good to be true. And when I was done, I went to Wikipedia to find out how much of it was true. But as teen (apart from the fact the Wikipedia didn’t exist then) I never would have done this. While there are historical inaccuracies, one of the biggest disappointments is that the title character and her husband were not devoted to each other as the book portrays. The characters of the people involved were a major part of what made the book good, but that seems to be where the author took the most liberties. Of course she did so to make a good story, but in the process she also changed the true story.

Now I know we can have different perspectives on history. The winners write it, they say, and there are two sides to every story. But in God’s world, there is also truth. Though our human perceptions may at times be wrong, there are things that are true and things that are not true.

What I am saying boils down to this: in CM homeschooling circles, I tend to hear discussions of what makes a living book that involve criteria like: Is it interesting? and Does it keep their attention? (I have used these criteria myself.) But I think we also need to ask is it true? Because our kids are just learning, they don’t have all the resources they need to pull a story apart and know what is true and what isn’t. It might not occur to them to check with Wikipedia (which, of course, may have its own accuracy problems).

Of course, this consideration applies mostly to historical fiction. When I think of the books we are currently using for geography and science, though there may be fair amount of fiction involved in the form of people made up to move through situations, it is obvious that these elements are fictional and that the basic facts are true. An example of this type of book would be Fabre’s Storybook of Science which my younger son is reading. There is a fictional setting and characters — an uncle and his niece and nephews who are talking– but the things the uncle tells them about bugs and volcanoes are (hopefully) true. It should be pretty obvious in a book like this which bits are true and which aren’t. A similar stratagem is used in our geography book, Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels — an ancient Greek boy and his dad go on a  sightseeing tour in the part we are reading and though we know they are not real, the things they see are.

I guess I am just nervous about the line between history and biography and historical fiction. Think of the recent movie Selma about Martin Luther King, Jr. Though I have not seen it, I am told it is presented as historical but that it takes a fair amount of liberties with the truth. Movies do this quite a bit actually. And certainly a book like Desiree does. But I have never really thought about whether the other books we are reading do the same. You can actually see most of the books we have used for history recently in the various booklists I have been posting here. Most I don’t think would be a problem though I haven’t looked back at each one. We did watch a couple of videos about the American Revolution each of which had its problems (see this post).  One I hated for its message, but the other, as I read online, does have historical inaccuracies. I guess part of the problem I am having is that I am not sure I would know the inaccuracies if I read them. Somehow with videos, I think we expect to find discrepancies and one can usually find what they are online. But I never really think about it with the books we read.

What do you think? Are there books you have used which turned out to be more fiction than history? Do you even ask if the books you use are accurate? Or perhaps it just doesn’t matter that much — maybe we should be happy our kids get a picture of what the crossing of the Delaware was like and not care that they think Alexander Hamilton was there when he wasn’t (another reference to that movie we watched if that weren’t obvious).


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by NaptimeSeamstresss on March 8, 2015 at 3:26 pm

    Good question/point, Nebby.
    I do wonder about the accuracy of our historical fiction. Sometimes I check it out — if I pre-read the book before handing it over to my daughter. I confess to mostly relying on reviews – from SCM forum, from Amazon, from my local homeschool group. I do read the author’s note or forward or introduction or afterward from historical fiction books, so that I can hopefully find out before my daughter reads it which parts are un-factual.

    An example is that we recently read the picture book _What’s Your Angle, Pythagoras?_. I read the afterward before reading it out loud to my daughters. Good thing I did – in the book, Pythagoras sees the lighthouse in Alexandria……in real life, Alexandria wasn’t even a city when Pythagoras MIGHT have gone there. (He might have visited the site of the future city as a young man.) So I could tell my girls that part was untrue. Which makes me question the author— why did she have to fantasize that part? Why couldn’t she have devised another way in which Pythagoras figured out the a2 + b2 = c2 ???

    All that to say there is a great weight that rests on a parent’s shoulders – to find accurate, interesting books.


  2. […] to finish by giving a shout out to two other books: Desiree which I read myself and blogged on here and The Court of Stone Children by Eleanor Cameron. Cameron is an author whose other books we have […]


  3. […] to supply details that cannot be known, but there are better and worse ways to go about this (see this post). For older children in particular it can be helpful to research what is true and what may have […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s