My favorite author as a child was Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her fictionalized accounts of her childhood on the American frontier intrigued me. Her life was so different from mine, but the feelings and relationships she described were so utterly familiar. After turning out the light at night, I lay awake in bed making up conversations with Laura. I would show her my record player, which (in my imagination) amazed her because record players didn’t exist yet in her day. And she would amaze me as she showed me how to tap maple trees for sugar or make sourdough bread from scratch. Each of our worlds was magic to the other.
Why the fascination with stories from another time? They transport us as tourists to another century. It’s tempting to speak of the appeal of a simpler time, but I’m not sure earlier times were simpler to the people living in them. I suspect we make them simpler in retrospect by selective memory. Just as an American tourist to a developing country gets only a hint of what it might be to live there, my friendship with Laura – while improving my knowledge of pioneer life and fostering my interest in history – gave only the occasional hint of the complexities her parents must have faced every day.
Most stories worth reading take us into an unfamiliar world in one way or another. Historical fiction takes us into worlds that are real but we can no longer visit, except in imagination.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.