Biographical fiction can be good history lesson

Biographical fiction can be good history lesson

History has always fascinated me — but not necessarily the big-picture history that is often taught in school. I've always been more interested in the daily lives of people in different periods, and well-researched historical fiction can be an entertaining and informative way to explore this type of history.

Biographical fiction goes one step further and imagines the inner worlds and day to day lives of specific figures from the past that otherwise remain inscrutable. The past few months have seen a spate of biographical fiction, with titles like "Z: a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald" and "The Aviator's Wife" hitting bestseller lists.

My two recent favorites, however, are "Fever" by Mary Beth Keane and Marisa Silver's "Mary Coin."

Mary Mallon, known to most of us as Typhoid Mary, is the fascinating subject of Keane's new novel "Fever." Keane paints a vivid picture of New York City in the early part of 20th century, a city changing rapidly due to industrialization and a growing influx of immigrants.

Mallon came from Ireland as a teenager and had worked herself up from a scullery maid to become a well-respected cook in wealthy homes. Unfortunately, she was also an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever, which is frequently spread through contaminated food or water.

Mallon was the first person to be identified as an asymptomatic carrier and was forcibly quarantined after her status as a carrier was discovered, both in the interest of public health and for scientific research.

After her first three-year period of quarantine, she was released on the condition that she no longer be employed as a cook. She changed her name and found work as a laundress but was eventually drawn back to cooking, a much more lucrative job that she took great pride in.

After she was found to be at the center of yet another outbreak of typhoid, she spent the rest of her life in quarantine. It's difficult to imagine why someone would continue with behavior that kept sickening, and in at least three cases killed, those around her, but Keane crafts a compelling portrait of an often stubborn woman, driven by pride and determination, who suffered from both denial and a lack of scientific understanding that had tragic consequences.

In "Mary Coin," Silver explores the relationship between the renowned Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange and the subject of her iconic photograph "Migrant Mother."

Silver changes the names of her subjects (the Mary Coin of the title refers to Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of the photo, and Lange is depicted as the character Vera Dare) but stays true to the biographical details of their lives.

She paints a richly imagined portrait of the lives of both women and the ways that their chance meeting impacted their lives — and frames them with a fictional character, a present-day historian investigating the link between his grandfather and the "Migrant Mother" photograph.

The novel floats back and forth through time, from Mary's youth on a hardscrabble farm in Oklahoma and Vera's childhood bout with polio, to the dusty days of the Depression, when Mary was a widow on the road with her children trying to find work and Vera was a photographer for the Farm Security Administration. Both women are faced with hard choices about love, family and work during a tumultuous time in America's history.

The novel revisits the women in their later years as they look back on their lives and the significance of that famous photograph, which made the photographer famous and etched the subject's face into the minds of America as a symbol of suffering during the Depression.

Both of these novels allow the reader to become immersed in historical periods very different from our own, bringing details of the busy, teeming tenements of early New York City and the migrant tent camps of the 1930s to life.

Biographical fiction offers authors and readers the opportunity to imagine the possible motivations and emotions of these complicated and tenacious women, adding new dimensions to what we may have learned of them from history.

Kasia Hopkins is an adult services librarian at the Urbana Free Library. She can be reached at

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