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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

Watching History Made at the School Board Level

Don’t mess with Texas–even if Texas messes with history.

That’s the gist of a sobering new article by Russell Shorto in The New York Times Magazine (Feb. 11) about the campaigns being waged by religious fundamentalists to pressure Texas school administrators and textbook publishers to portray the founding fathers as devout proponents of a Christian nation.

I always shake my head with a mixture of bemusement and chagrin whenever I see a reviewer of historical fiction take an author to task for deviating from “history.” More often than one might think, the charge is lodged by an embittered grad student who cannot abide a novelist stepping onto his small patch of supposed expertise and gaining a hundredfold more readers than will suffer through his dry dissertation on the subject.

If you had any doubts about the unreliability of accepted history, you must read Shorto’s chilling account of how so-called facts and interpretations only a few decades old are skewed and twisted by the demands of ideology, religion, and propaganda.

I dare say you’ll not soon forget Shorto’s description of a cowed Texas State Board of Education. With a swift show of hands, its fifteen members pass proposed conservative amendments  offered by Christian activists to school curriculum like the Committee on Public Safety sending off aristocrats to the guillotine during the French Revolution.

The process became so cavalier and unsavory that one board member, a Republican, exclaimed in embarrassment, “Guys, you’re rewriting history now!”

Shorto quotes one long-time observer of the process: “It is the most crazy-making thing to sit there and watch a dentist and an insurance salesman rewrite curriculum standards in science and history.”

None of this is surprising to historical novelists, whose job it is to dig into the source material and underweavings of history. If such blatant revisionism can take place under the scrutiny of modern communications technology, just imagine how many of the so-called “facts” of history during medieval times and earlier were shaped and sifted by the royal courts and the Church.

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