And yours, too!
Learning a little something from everything you read.
I’ve said it a hundred times if I’ve said it once: “Write what you know, read what you don’t.” Writing what you know makes your work compelling and complete, while reading what you don’t, outside pure escapism, lets you learn something on all those pages.
I was thinking about this juxtaposition while reading a new book called God Made Us Monsters. The author, Bill Neary, clearly knows his stuff, but I only knew a little bit about the subject. The story focuses on Father Damien, a real priest who voluntarily treated lepers on the island of Molokai in the late 1800s. There are plenty of nonfiction books about him, but God Made Us Monsters took a novel approach — it fictionalized this future saint’s life.
I was intrigued. Why do this? Are there advantages to fictionalizing aspects of his life? After all, the story takes a few liberties with Father Damien’s life, adding allies and a worthy demonic opponent capable of holding his own against the good father’s faith. It also imparts a moral lesson modern historians insist should be absent from the past.
That doesn’t mean God Made Us Monsters is bad history. In fact, it’s rather good history, if a fanciful retelling.
Like all good historical fiction, though, it offers certain advantages over its nonfiction counterparts.
What Can Historical Fiction Do Better Than Nonfiction?
God Made Us Monsters fits each of these five points. It’s a solid read that gives a voice to Father Damien, a figure I only vaguely knew, and brings alive a locale I’ve never visited. It allows me to figuratively step into that long-abolished leper colony in a way nonfiction would never allow — and it does so in a most-entertaining fashion. And all because the author wrote something he knows, and I took a chance and read something I didn’t.