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Historical fiction does not merely tell a good story – the reader also learns about the time and place of the novel’s events.  In conclusion of What’s Past is Prologue’s celebration of Polish-American Heritage Month, I can think of no finer novel to highlight than Push Not the River by James Conroyd Martin.  Genealogists will be delighted to learn that the novel is based on an ancestor’s diary!

As the Polish proverb says, “Push not the river; it will flow on its own accord.”  That sentiment is a perfect reflection on the sweeping events that occurred in Poland in the late 1700′s, the setting of the novel.  Anna Maria Berezowska is a 17-year-old countess whose life is changed by a series of tragic events.  The tumultuous time in Anna’s life coincides with an equally revolutionary time in Poland’s history: the Partitions and the Third of May Constitution.

During this time period, from 1772 to 1794, Poland was repeatedly divided – or “partitioned” – by its neighbors Prussia, Austria, and Russia.  The Third of May Constitution was modeled on the United States Constitution and was the first democratic constitution in Europe.  For the first time, some of the rights of the nobility were decreased, putting them on equal footing with the “middle class” townspeople.  The constitution also provided protection for the peasant serfs – another first.  Although the constitution was only in effect for a short time, its effect was revolutionary as Poland’s restless neighbors fought against these ideas which threatened their power.

These dramatic historical events provide the backdrop for Push Not the River.  Because of the divided loyalties of the time, it is a rich setting.  Anna’s life is affected by these events in multiple ways.  Her life as a noblewomen changes with the political events, and her love for patriot Jan is threatened by both the ensuing insurrection and her conniving cousin Zofia.

As a novel, this book is well worth reading if you enjoy romance, drama, history, or a mix of all.  From a historical perspective, readers will learn much about Poland’s history and its people.  But the most amazing fact of all is that the story is based on a true story!  James Conroyd Martin’s friend, John Stelnicki, is a descendant of the real-life Anna Maria Berezowska.  Anna kept a diary during the years of these events, and the diary is the basis for the plot of the novel. To quote from the author’s own website, “Vivid, romantic, and thrillingly paced, Push Not the River paints the emotional and unforgettable story of the metamorphosis of a nation—and of a proud and resilient young heroine.

I was delighted when I found out that James wrote a sequel entitled Against a Crimson Sky.  This novel explores the Napoleonic era in Poland and the loyalties that continued to divide Poland.  The story culminates with the dramatic but doomed 1812 march into Russia.  Ultimately, it is a story of the love that Anna and Jan have for each other as well as their country.

Both of these novels made me an immediate fan of author James Conroyd Martin.  He graciously agreed to chat about these novels, their origin, and what’s next in his writing future.  And, he also offers some advice to those genealogists who want to write about their ancestors!

Push Not the River was based on your friend’s ancestor’s diary recounting events in her life.  How many of the events in the novel were presented in the diary as real-life events, and how many events did you “fill in” based on the historical events of that time?

I’m often asked what events are true-to-life right from the diary and what things I have added to the story.  For the most part the big events in each of the six parts are absolutely faithful to Anna’s account.  These include the rape, attempted murder by her husband, her being kept by the clan, Zofia’s scheming, her imprisonment by her (real cousin, not adoped one), and escape from the Russians across the bridge. I had to deepen characterization, bring in historical information that Anna assumed people would know, and help an occasional character exit the story for closure.  I also had to imagine the short chapters from Jan’s point of view.  Push Not the River has been optioned for film.  I’m not buying a tux yet, as the producer needs to secure funding. And in this economy!

Was Against a Crimson Sky based on events in the diary as well?

Push Not the River ends just where the diary ended. Anna was running out of pages and her life was becoming more settled so she hoped not to need the therapy of the diary.  When St. Martin’s Press asked for a sequel, I took the characters I knew so well and placed them into the milieu of the Napoleonic era.

I was happy to see that you’re planning a third book based on these characters called The Warsaw Conspiracy.  What can we expect, and when will it be published?

The Warsaw Conspiracy, the final book in my trilogy,  continues with the familiar characters and their children; however, this will be a bit of a political thriller revolving around the attempted kidnapping of the Russian Grand Duke, brother to the Czar, who had charge of Poland.

Is your own ancestry Polish as well?

I’m Irish and Norwegian, but I certainly feel I’m an honorary Pole. On November 9th I’ll accept a second major Polish award, this one from Wisconsin’s Polish American Congress. Last year I received a gold medal from The American Institute of Polish Culture. Maybe I should get busy with my own lineage!

Recently genealogy-bloggers have been discussing “creative nonfiction” as a technique in writing about their ancestors’ lives.  This is where you take the factual events of an ancestor’s life and bring it to life using literary techniques found in fiction.  To some extent, this is what you’ve done – although you added fictional material to flesh out the story line, and your intent was to create fiction.  Do you have any advice for genealogists who want to use the “creative nonfiction” techniques?

Absolutely! I would just say, Go for it!  A good story will always find its way in the world.

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Thanks, Jim!  I can’t wait to read the third book!  For more information on James C. Martin and his novels, including some excerpts and a “video trailer” of Push Not the River, visit his website at http://jamescmartin.com.

[Written for the Polish History & Culture Challenge.]

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