Tag Archive | history

Sons of Liberty: Accuracy and Story

Last night I finished watching the third and final part of the History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty” series.  I know I’m a bit late to the game since the episode aired Tuesday night, but I’m still hearing mixed reviews about the show that portrayed the American Revolution’s early days. “Sam Adams was NOT a gymnast!” “I can’t believe they used modern English in the speech!” “Dr. Warren and Mrs. Gage having an affair was just speculation!” “Some of these men are a little young to be portraying older men.” “Wow…Ben Barnes looks good!” Okay, I admit that last comment was from me (admit it-he does look good in 18th century costume!)  Regardless, though many viewers watched the show with a positive reaction-enjoying the drama and learning about people or events-many others were unhappy.  To them, there were too many inaccuracies for it to be worthy of the History Channel’s line up and the show was more fiction than fact. Whether one group was wrong or one group was right isn’t the subject of this post, however.  (I’ll leave that up to the people who are currently debating that on Twitter and entertainment forums.)  Rather, the dialogue between fans got me wondering about historical fiction and story.  Can a lack of accuracy take away from what really happened?   Does historical fiction distort from fact and create a false sense of events in the minds of the viewer or reader if everything isn’t exactly as it happened? I’ll admit when I first started watching “Sons of Liberty”, I was a little uneasy at the inaccuracies.  Though Ben Barnes is a fabulous actor, I knew that the real Sam Adams was older than what he was portrayed as in the series.  But I continued through and watched it just to give it the benefit of the doubt.  By the end of the series, I noticed that I learned a few things:

  1. Even though there were inaccuracies, the show made me research what really happened.  I was a huge American Revolution nerd in college.  My trip to Monticello/Yorktown/Williamsburg is still the highlight of my life.  But after a few years of being out of school and working, there were a few things I’d forgotten about, and after watching a scene in “Sons of Liberty”, I’d look up what really happened on the internet or in my books.  Though the show didn’t educate me, it allowed me to educate myself.
  2. Words are important…depending on who you talk to.  I admit I felt a tinge of familiarity when I read the many comments online about people being upset about the show’s lack of 18th century dialogue.  My next book (“Captain Patty and the Nameless Navigator”) is set in the mid 18th century, but I’m not putting it into the historical fiction category simply because I used more modern dialogue in the story (and because it’s not 100% historical fiction).  To be honest, I didn’t want the hate mail.  But if I’m being more frank, I put modern dialogue in my story because I wanted it to be more understandable.  I’ve stopped reading a few historical fiction novels simply because the dialogue was so ancient that I had to stop and decipher every sentence and look up more words in the encyclopedia than I had time for.  Were the authors wrong in using historically accurate dialect?  Absolutely not.  I can only imagine the amount of research they had to do to write something so well.  But readers are also different from each other.  Some readers will rejoice at the idea of accurate dialect and enjoy learning about life back in time.  Others, like me, just want to enjoy the story and the drama that unfolds.
  3. Sometimes you just have to enjoy the story.  I may be wrong on this, but to my knowledge I didn’t see the History Channel advertise “Sons of Liberty” as the gospel truth of what really happened back then.  I did, however, see a lot of commercials stating for viewers to check out their website “for the real story”.  Did “Sons of Liberty” have inaccuracy?  Absolutely.  But it was also a story filled with drama, action, adventure, and even splashes of comedy and romance.  And like any other story out there, it had the ability to be enjoyed (or disliked) by others.

As a student of history, I understand the needs for accuracy in historical fiction (I still can’t watch “National Treasure” thanks to all that learning about the American Revolution I did in college).  But as a student of writing, I also understand that sometimes a story is simply a story, and it doesn’t always support fact over fiction.   What is important, however, is that fiction does not take away from the facts.  Yes, Sam Adams was portrayed as a younger and probably more acrobatic rebel than what he actually was.  But many of his ideas still came through in the end.  He was a supporter of freedom and liberty.  He loved his nation and the people that inhabited it.  He was a passionate individual who would do practically anything to make the world a better place.  He was a true son of liberty, and no story will ever be able to change that fact.

The Inspiration of Story

During my first year as a teacher, I wanted to make my students inspired.  Inspired to learn, inspired to be good kids, inspired to grow up and become contributing members to society.  And when I had a week to create my own social studies lesson, I decided to try something different.

I decided to teach a lesson about inspiration using story.

It was an interesting week when the lesson was being taught.  During the first few days, we’d gotten hit by a terrible winter storm and the heater in the classroom had went out.  My students were all huddled in the school library having class for the morning, and to four and five year olds, nothing says awesome like being able to have class in the part of the building where all the “big kids” are.  We practiced math, we did some reading and writing, and when it came time for social studies I pulled out a picture.

It was of a young boy.  The picture was cartoonish because I never could quite find a young picture of this guy on the internet, drawn and painted as if from a few centuries back, and the kids didn’t know who he was.  I only told them his name was Alex, and as I held the picture up I began to tell a story.

This young boy had a hard life.  His father left him, his brother, and his mother all alone.  His mother had to raise him by herself.   In the Caribbean, where he lived, his home was ravaged by a terrible hurricane.  He didn’t have much of a chance to go to school after his mother died.  He lost everything and had to go to work at a store while still a kid.  Many times he had to teach himself by reading books.  Life was really hard for him.

After setting the picture down, I asked the students a question.

“How do you think the little boy turned out when he grew up?  Do you think he became a good person?  Do you think he did anything good with his life?”

Every student in the room shook their heads and said no.

“Why?” I asked.

Life was hard.  He didn’t get much of an education.  His dad left.  To the kids, it was simple why this little boy didn’t have a chance in life.  He didn’t have much of a future because he had such a terrible past.

“Alright.” I said as I pulled out another picture.  “Let’s see who this little boy became.”

I pulled out a $10 bill.  On the middle of the bill was a portrait of a famous American founding father named Alexander Hamilton.

“The little boy who didn’t get to go to school much went to America and attended college.” I began, telling them his life story.  “The job he had to work at the store when he was a kid taught him about money.  He became the first Secretary of Treasury in America and helped build the country like it is today.  The hurricane that destroyed his town gave him an opportunity to write for the newspaper about it.  He also wrote something called The Federalist Papers that is considered a classic today.”

The kids were shocked.  They didn’t expect someone who “clearly didn’t have much to work with” actually did some good with his life.  As we went through other stories of famous individuals like Phillis Wheatley and Albert Einstein, the kids became astounded that people who had such difficult or hard beginnings could overcome them and become great people.  After the lesson was over, they became inspired, feeling like they too could make the world a better place no matter what obstacle came their way.

So what was the point of the lesson?  If you’ve ever worked in the education field, you’ll know there’s a lot of hopelessness out there.  Divorce, poverty, bullying, inequality.  Like kids in the past, kids today may have a lot going against them.  I know growing up as the only kid in class with divorced parents, I was ignored and bullied for years for something I knew little about.  When I was in jr. high, however, I read the story of Jonathan in the Bible.  Like me, he had issues with his father.  Friendship was also important to him.  Even though he did the right thing, he sometimes didn’t get rewarded for it.

When I read the story of Jonathan, I felt a connection with his character.  Despite his hardships, he still did the right thing.

And that story inspired me to do the same.  My life changed because of his story.

My history lesson may not have taught my kids much about history.  Being ages four and five, I’m not sure they understood how all of these individuals impacted our world today.  What I do hope, however, is by listening to these stories of hope, they would be inspired.  That just because a parent abandoned them, they still matter.  That just because someone calls them “stupid”, they are actually smart.  That just because everyone thinks they’re nothing, they are actually something, and they are important.

What I hope, more than anything, is they realize their story is inspirational too.

 

Spoilers! Can A Known Story Still Be Good?

Tomorrow evening AMC is premiering a new show entitled Turn, a tale based on the true story of the Colonial spy ring during the American Revolution in the late 18th century.  Recently IGN did a review of the pilot episode (which can be found on their homepage) and discussed whether the show would be able to keep viewers’ interests when the overall ending of the story was known.  Does it matter if the audience knows the outcome of the spies’ network?  Does it ruin the story if they know the Colonists create their own nation and George Washington becomes president?  Or can the audience enjoy the story despite knowing the ending?  Not everyone knows the story of just how these guys and gals did their work, after all.

Unless you’re a history buff or have read the book the show is based on.  If that’s the case, then yeah…you know the whole story.

But even if the story’s known, you can still enjoy it, right?

Think of your favorite story.  A book, a film, a family tale passed on from member to member.  Do you still enjoy hearing or reading it?  Even though you know what happens, chances are there’s something about that story that makes you enjoy it even though the mystery of the conclusion is gone.  Maybe it’s the exciting plot that still gets your heart racing.  Maybe it’s a connection with a character that you see a little bit of yourself in.  Maybe it’s the jokes that always make you laugh even after all these years.  Regardless of what connects you to that story, some stories (even though they are known) still have that “enjoyability” factor.

(On a side note-apparently “enjoyability” isn’t a word since my spell-check is underlining it.  Oh well.  Maybe in a few years it’ll catch on and become a Twitter hashtag or something.)

The beauty of story is that it isn’t just mystery that makes it unique and enjoyable.  Yes, mystery is key to a good story when you first hear it, but once the story is told, the mystery is no longer there.  The audience knows what happens, so something else must be used to bring them back.  Other elements, be they plot, character, or the lessons gathered from the tale, can keep the story alive and relevant to the audience.

I’m not sure how Turn will be.  I’ve yet to see the pilot episode, but as a student of history (and as a major Colonial America fan whose highlight of life was visiting Monticello), I’m really looking forward to learning about a piece of history I knew little about and I hope the show does well.  And even though I know the ending of the story (spoiler! Washington becomes president), I’m looking forward to seeing the characters themselves-who they were, what they did, and how their struggles and sacrifices relate to the overall time period in which they lived.

And in this case, with an ending pretty much known, maybe Turn‘s strength won’t be in the destination, but the journey there.