What Do We Learn About History From Novels?

Thad Carhart
Thad Carhart

We hear excerpts from a dramatic reading of Ernest J. Gaines’ novel, A LESSON BEFORE DYING by Enchanted Circle Theater actors. It’s about a young black man in Jim Crow Louisiana who is condemned to death. And we interview Thad Carhart about his new historical novel, ACROSS THE ENDLESS RIVER. It’s about Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of Sacagawea who was a guide on the Lewis and Clark expedition and who lived both in the United States and Europe.

[amazon-product align=”left”]0375702709[/amazon-product]

A Dramatic Reading

One in seven people sentenced to die are later proven innocent, according to studies cited by the ACLU. This terrible injustice is one of the themes of Ernest J. Gaines powerful novel, [amazon-product text=”A LESSON BEFORE DYING” type=”text”]0375702709[/amazon-product]. Another is the dignity of all human beings, no matter what their situation is. Gaines, who is probably best known as the author of DRIVING MISS DAISY, explores these themes through the story of Jefferson, a young black man who is sentenced to death for his role in a botched robbery, even though he is not the killer. The action takes place in rural Louisiana during the 1950’s, when Jim Crow was still alive and well.

Published in 1997–and an Oprah favorite–“A Lesson Before Dying” was chosen as this year’s selection for One Book Holyoke, a community project based on the idea of the Big Read, a program by the National Endowment for the Arts to encourage reading. When I interviewed the founder of the Big Read, Dana Gioia, back in 2005, he asked me why there were no Big Read programs in Massachusetts. There are some now, and One Book Holyoke has gotten support from the Big Read. The idea is simple, Holyoke residents read a selected book during a set period of time. They then get together for a variety of activities planned around the book.

[sniplet amazon bookstore widget]

One activity was a dramatic reading by the Holyoke based company, Enchanted Circle Theater. They compressed the action of the book into a dramatic script of about an hour and a half. Writers Voice went to a reading at Holyoke City Hall for an audience of local high school students.

You can listen to the entire reading on the Web Extra, but we air excerpts on the show.

The actors are Gilbert McCauley as Jefferson, James Lightfoot as Grant Wiggins, L’Kuicha Parks as Jefferson’s godmother Miss Emma, and James Emery in the roles of the book’s white characters, the defense lawyer and Mr. Henri Pichot.

You can get the Oprah Book Club edition of the audio book on Audible.com

[amazon-product align=”left”]0385529775[/amazon-product]

The son of Sacagawea

Thad Carhart’s first book was the memoir, [amazon-product text=”The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier” type=”text”]0375758623[/amazon-product], in which he chronicled finding a piano shop tucked away on a little street that helped him rediscover his love of playing the piano. An American citizen with an Irish passport who lives in Paris, Carhart is an expatriate like the protagonist of his new book, [amazon-product text=”Across The Endless River” type=”text”]0385529775[/amazon-product]. It’s an historical novel about the fascinating life of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau.

“you had this extraordinary story of survival and determination and…by anybody’s lights and in anybody’s culture that’s a remarkable life’s beginning.”

Charbonneau was the son of the Indian Sacagawea and a French Canadian voyageur. He was born while his parents were accompanying the explorers Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition of 1804 to 1806, was adopted by William Clark after his mother died, and lived for years in Europe as the assistant of Duke Friedrich Paul Wilhelm von WÁ¼rttemberg before returning to his native land.


, ,

About Francesca Rheannon

Francesca Rheannon is an award-winning independent radio producer. In addition to hosting Writer's Voice, she's a freelance reporter for National Public Radio and its affiliates. Recipient of the prestigious Nancy Dickerson Whitehead Award for reporting on substance abuse issues for her news series, VOICES OF HIV, produced for 88.5 WFCR public radio in western Massachusetts. She is also finishing a book on Provence (PROVINCE OF THE HEART) and working on a memoir of her father, THE ARGONAUTS.

One thought on “What Do We Learn About History From Novels?

  1. Thank you for highlighting these books. As an author of HF and one whose academic background and teaching career are in History, I have always felt that HF (done well) is an excellent vehicle to open a window to the past. I still remember how vividly ACROSS FIVE APRILS provides a look at the Civil War from one family’s perspective (I read the book at the age of eleven or twelve). Anton Myrer’s ONCE AN EAGLE remains my all-time favorite novel, with its searing portrayal of the combat experiences of the character Sam Damon. Keep up the great work with your blog!

    My new novel is entitled THE FUHRER VIRUS. It is a fictional WWII spy/conspiracy/thriller for adult readers and can be found at http://www.eloquentbooks.com/TheFuhrerVirus.html, http://www.barnesandnoble.com, http://www.amazon.com, and on Google Review. Read a recent review by Celia Hayes on PODBRAM.


    Paul Schultz

Comments are closed.