Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Plunging into a time and place that is not my own.

By R.J. Harlick

Of all the books you have read over the years, crime novel or otherwise, which book or books created a world and characters that you would like to live yourself? Which character would you want to be?

I’ve immersed myself in the stories of so many books over the years, that it is hard to decide which ones I would have liked to live myself. 

The one that immediately comes to mind from my youth is The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. Horse crazy at the time, I so wanted to be on that deserted island, like Alec, alone with such a magnificent horse. And, of course, I would’ve given anything to be able to befriend it and finally ride it against all odds to a glorious victory. 

Once I got into serious reading, I devoured pre-revolution Russian literature, particularly the novels written by Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the short stories by Anton Chekhov and Alexander Pushkin. I enjoyed their stories because I was fascinated by such an exotic period of time and culture, knowing that in 1918 it would all come to an abrupt end.  I could imagine myself enjoying the round of balls, soirees and salons during the winter months in St. Petersburg and come summer heading off to my isolated estate to enjoy the tranquility of nature.  But I can’t say that I ever saw myself as being any of the characters. They all seemed to lead such unhappy lives, like Anna Karenina in Tolstoy’s book by that name or Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Two novels, The Far Pavilions and Shadow of the Moon, by M.M. Kaye also fascinated me. Again, like the Russian books, they depict a world that is very far from my own, the India of the British Raj. Both are set around the time of the Great Mutiny and offer good insight not only into daily life of British India but also into the colliding cultures that inhabit the sub-continent and still do. M.M. Kaye did a stellar job of transporting me to the heat and exoticism of that distant land. Would I want to be any of the characters? I don’t know. But since the endings are happily ever after, I suppose I could jump into the shoes of Ashton Pelham-Martyn, the main character of The Far Pavilions or Winter de Ballesteros of Shadow of the Moon. Still I would find myself enduring much hardship and heart stopping adventure before finally reaching the calm of happily ever after. 

Another set of books I would want to become a part of, is The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, all 6 volumes of them. Following the adventures of Francis Crawford of Lymond, a young Scottish noble, they are a fascinating glimpse into the life and politics of the mid-sixteenth century in such countries as Scotland, France, Russia, Malta and the Ottoman Empire. I’m not certain I would want to be Francis, a very complex, almost anti-hero, but I would want to latch onto his coat tails, to follow his adventures as he races from country to country and from intrigue to intrigue. There would never be a dull moment. They are very complex stories with unimaginable detail on life in the mid-sixteenth century. I am in awe of Dorothy Dunnett and the depth of her knowledge.

When I look at this list, I can’t help but laugh. Two weeks ago, I was vowing that I never read historicals and yet here I am writing about historicals that I would want to live, though to be honest only the last two authors were writing of a time other than their own.  


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Robin. I never set out to write historical novels either, but sometimes a setting in a far-off place or time just makes the story stronger.

Susan C Shea said...

The first two I knew, the second two I don't...yet! I really have fund writing the French village novels and get wonderful feedback from readers who say it was like being there. Getting "there" right, whether it's historical or geographical, is so important, as your examples from what touched you and inspired you show. Good post.

Anonymous said...

I too loved the M. M. Kaye novels and understand what you mean about being transported into the steamy settings. I also devoured American Civil War novels such as Gone with the Wind, but that is probably because they appealed to my romantic nature. Maggie Wheeler is an Eastern Ontario author I enjoy, as her books refer back to the period of the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway (and the Lost Villages) and I remember that time very clearly. In any book I read, I often identify with the protagonist, but only in the context of the story at the time.
Nancy R