Historical fiction is an odd sort of thing, for it's neither history, nor fiction, but somewhere in between.
Handled well, it can be better than either history or fiction.
Handled poorly, it can act as a crutch, a barrier, or a hobble, leading to a result that is lacking both as history and as fiction.
So it must be with some trepidation that an author who has previously demonstrated success with both history and fiction, separately, tries her hand at historical fiction.
I'm pleased to report that Ordinary Patriots: A Novel of the Eastern Sierra Nevada, the second in the (ongoing, I hope?) saga of the Richardson family of Owens Valley, strikes me as a resounding success.
In this case, although there is certainly history (World War II, in particular, sets the stage and frames all the action), what really appeals to me about Ordinary Patriots is its vivid sense of place.
Some geographies are, all on their own, so vivid and dramatic as to be story-worthy by themselves, and California's Eastern Sierra is certainly such a place: remote, harsh, almost unlivable, it is one of those landscapes that just forces adventure to emerge, literally out of the thin desert air.
But to write about a place, you have to have lived in that place; you can't just conjure up a sense of place out of your imagination.
Spring in the Owens Valley is the most challenging time of the year. Temperature obeys no laws -- hot, dry days may be followed by gray days leading to showers or actual rain storms, before the endless sunshine of the desert summer begins. The winds can be ferocious. Sometimes it blows so strongly that a grown man must stop walking and simply lean into it before proceeding. Sometimes it will pick up sand and scour cars and windows and skin.
And yet also, here:
Spring is the best season for people living in the desert. The sun warms the sand and melts the little patches of snow and ice remaining in sheltered canyon corners and under creosote bushes and evergreens. Wildflowers begin to burst out, yellow and white and purple each on their own timetable. The desert tortoises can be seen occasionally, tiptoeing across the hot sand. The ranchers begin to move their animals in the direction of summer pastures, but at a leisurely pace. And school is out, for at least a week and two weekends, so the main street in Independence is occupied by boys on bicycles.
You take the bad with the good; it can't be otherwise, if it's a real place.
Surely, most of Ordinary Patriots is a story about people, both real people (Father Crowley, Jacqueline Cochran, Ansel Adams) and fictional ones, like the Richardson clan and their neighbors and friends.
And it's a story about events, which, quite rightly for this sort of story, are real events (mining accidents in the mountains, the establishment of the Manzanar internment camp, the changes wrought by technology upon the world and its people) primarily, although sprinkled with a fair share of imaginative filling-in-of-the-blanks as well.
But my favorite aspect of Ordinary Patriots was how it made me feel like I was there: getting a pastry at the local bakery, driving the dusty desert roads, looking up (straight up!) at the majestic mountaintops, hunching my shoulders as I walked along in the howling desert gale.
If you've ever thought you might be a desert rat, or might want to know what desert rats are like, give Ordinary Patriots a try: it's quite a success and certainly worth your time.