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Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Magnificent Seven

My friend and fellow author John Cahill, who lives and writes in Vienna, Austria, recently posted a challenge to me on Facebook to share “7 Books That Made An Impact On Me” as a writer.  While I first thought about my childhood days when I devoured stories of the Old West or books like Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer and The Wind in the Willows, I decided it was probably books I read in my late Teens and early 20s that propelled me along the path to writing historical fiction and adventure stories.  It's hard to select just 7.  Think about books that you have liked and felt made an impact on your own life or your own writing.   The list can become very long, indeed.

Anyway, here are my 7 choices (and a bit about each) of books that made an impact on my writing, particularly my inclination to take real historical figures and employ them as “characters” who interact with the characters I create. 

 All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

Warren’s tale of power and corruption in the Depression-era South is a deep meditation on the unforeseen consequences of every human act, the vexing connectedness of all people and the possibility— even if  not much of one—of goodness in a sinful world. Willie Stark, Warren’s lightly disguised version of Huey Long, the onetime Louisiana strongman/governor, starts as a hero of the people and ends as a murderous populist demagogue.  Jack Burden, his press agent, carries out the boss’s orders, first without objection, then with an increasingly troubled conscience.   A remarkable and troubling tale, especially when taken in context of today’s political world.

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

Wouk’s 1951 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel grew out of his personal experiences aboard a destroyer-minesweeper in the Pacific Theater in World War II, dealing with, among other things, the moral and ethical decisions made at sea by the captains of ships. The mutiny of the title is legalistic, not violent, and takes place in December 1944. The court-martial that results provides the dramatic climax to the plot.   And, it sets the stage for his later books Winds of War and War & Remembrance.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

It would have been very easy to write a novel about a rape trial involving a black man and a white woman, set in the deep, deeply racist South and seen through the eyes of a young girl, but thankfully that is not To Kill a Mockingbird.  The young girl is the curious, clear-eyed Scout, and her father, who defends the accused, is Atticus Finch, what we can only all hope is a standard for our justice system.   Lee’s story is neither simple nor sentimental, but is instead a classic of moral complexity and an endlessly renewable fund of wisdom about the nature of human decency.

Hawaii by James Michener

Written in episodic format like many of Michener's works, the book narrates the story of the original Hawaiians who sailed to the islands from Bora Bora, to the early American missionaries (in this case, Calvinist missionaries) and merchants, to the Chinese and Japanese immigrants who traveled to work and seek their fortunes on the Islands.   Opening with the formation of the islands millions of years ago and ending just as Hawaii is to become our 50th State, each page-turning section explores the experiences of different groups of arrivals and their ultimate melding into the Society that is today’s Hawaii and a reflection on the American melting pot and dream.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
The Crystal Cave is the first in a quintet of five magical novels covering the Arthurian legend and the life of the magician Merlin.  Part of its attraction is that it isn’t about King Arthur as such, but about the events that led up to Arthur being born.  This book and the subsequent ones in the series are great examples of taking mythology, history, fantasy and real events from the times and combining them into a jaw-dropping narrative. 

The Winds of War by Herman Wouk

Out of Caine Mutiny came Wouk’s amazing The Winds of War, published in 1971 and followed seven years later by War and Remembrance.  Those two books are really just one gigantic novel totaling nearly 2000 pages.  These remarkable stories are tales of the time, historical fiction permeated with gripping drama and intrigue.  They feature a mixture of real and fictional characters all connected to the extended family of Victor "Pug" Henry, a middle-aged Naval Officer and confidante of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  All 3 books are historical fiction at its finest.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

Doctorow’s tale of the American past remade the historical novel. In a story spanning the first decades of the 20th century, three groups of fictional characters — a white middle-class family, a family of Jewish immigrants, and an African-American couple — lead lives entwined with one another and with some of the great public figures of the day, including Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud. The interaction of real and fictional characters isn’t new in itself, of course, but with this absolutely amazing book, Doctorow makes it feel that way.

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