What If? Alternate History in June

[First off, an apology: this was supposed to be a  nonfiction month. We were going to look at historical nonfiction. Why did we end up with alternate history? I'll answer that in a bit.]

"What if...?" is probably a question better asked before making big decisions - but, occasionally, it's fun to ask afterwards, too. Alternate history does just that - questioning what might have happened had a few changes been made to the past. Usually, the author investigates the question pretty straight-forwardly, just presenting the story as though history had been different; sometimes, though, the author has something (like time travelers) actually change history. Either way, the author can play with how one or a few simple changes could ripple into major differences in parallel worlds.

Our Main Read this month comes courtesy of the Doctor, who swears it was history when he last spoke to me. (What exactly did he say to Socrates? He refuses to answer.) Check it out:

Lion's Blood: A Novel of Slavery and Freedom in an Alternate America
Spring's first day was a warm sweet song, a time of companionable silences and comfortably shared labor in Mahon O'Dere's coracle. The boat's round woven sides bobbed gently in the Lady's arms. Aidan O'Dere, eleven years old and the crannog's best swimmer, leaned against the coracle's side, reveling in the river's timeless flow. He studied the dark darting shadows of the fish as if they held the secrets of the universe, his mind alternatively racing and utterly still.

 Aidan O'Dere's life is torn upside down when his village is attacked and his family sold as slaves to the African settlers of Bilalistan, the New World far to the west where the followers of the Muslim seer Bilal are carving out a new country. In Lion's Blood: A Novel of Slavery and Freedom in an Alternate America, Steven Barnes explores a world where Europe was not the dominant power when the New World was discovered.  If Egypt had never lost its power, if Islam had been the religion of the Western explorers and settlers, how might the world have been different - and how might it have been the same?

Barnes's first novel (there are two in the series) explores the natures of man, freedom, and friendship, as well as raising questions about the uses and misuses of religion, particularly to justify wrong or to preserve hope. The characters are very well-written - the actions of each follow naturally from their various contexts, no one does anything out of character, and no one is truly evil or entirely good. Each character is very human, and the beauty and heartbreak of their choices derives from how recognizable they are as choices we might make ourselves. Highly recommended for readers of early American historical fiction.


This month's Quick Read is highly recommended by the Doctor, who says it will be very helpful for us time-bound travelers:

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past
A young man stands hatless in a black coat on a high rocky point. His back is turned toward us, and he is bracing himself with a walking stick against the wind that blows his hair in tangles. Before him lies a fog-shrouded landscape in which the fantastic shapes of more distant promontories are only partly visible. The far horizon reveals mountains off to the left, plains to the right, and perhaps very far away - one can't be sure - an ocean. But maybe it's just more fog, merging imperceptibly into clouds. The painting, which dates from 1818, is a familiar one: Caspar David Friedrich's The Wanderer above a Sea of Fog. The impression it leaves is contradictory, suggesting at once mastery over a landscape and the insignificance of an individual within it. We see no face, so it's impossible to know whether the prospect confronting the young man is exhilarating, or terrifying, or both.

Before we study history, we need to know how to think like historians. In The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, Gaddis explores the methods and mindsets of history's chroniclers, providing a solid groundwork for critical and historiographical reading of biographies and other nonfiction accounts of the past.

Not only does he do a thorough job of covering important concepts, he does it with more than a little snark - which I always appreciate! (So does the Doctor, at least in this incarnation.) A must-read for anyone considering history as a field of study or who simply enjoys reading nonfiction historical accounts. I think it's also very interesting for those who enjoy reading alternate history, to judge how well the author did at recreating a history that wasn't there!

Interested in more alternate history titles, or want to learn more about historiography? Let me know, and I'll see what the Doctor suggests, assuming the books he recommends are still in existence after his latest escapade!

Happy reading, as always, and I'll be back next month with a new genre and some new titles, courtesy of another member of the Readers Advisory Committee!

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