Opinion: Fiction Can Be A Teaching Tool

By John Hood

RALEIGH — “It is a delight!”

That’s what a recent reviewer said about my novel Mountain Folk, which she called an “entertaining and instructive” blend of American history, folklore, and fantasy. “As a long-time teacher of middle school and high school students,” she wrote, “I think Mountain Folk would be a great addition to school reading lists.”

Shockingly, I agree! So does another reviewer. “The best magic in Mountain Folk,” he wrote, “is the sorcery that will make early American history accessible to a wide swath of ages, tween to adult, who would otherwise eschew the subject. Not since John Jakes’ The American Bicentennial series has the story of our nation’s founding been so engaging and approachable.”

I’ve been writing a column on North Carolina politics public policy since 1986. Obviously I believe journalism — including opinion journalism — is necessary to maintain an informed electorate. But I’ve come to believe it’s far from sufficient.

Mountain Folk and the other tales in my Folklore Cycle series — which currently consist of two novels, two novelettes, and two more works scheduled for release later this year — aren’t history lectures. Yes, they feature historical characters such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, Edgar Allen Poe, and Sojourner Truth. And, yes, they depict historical events such as the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, westward expansion, the Trail of Tears, congressional debates, and the formation of the abolitionist movement.

But they also include magic, monsters, and wee folk. Fairies help Daniel Boone foil an assassination plot against Thomas Jefferson. General Cornwallis tries to break the French blockade of Yorktown with the help of a sea monster. Davy Crockett’s heroics at the Alamo help his dwarf friend unmask a massive conspiracy.

There’s a method to my seeming madness — I promise.

According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, fewer than quarter of our eighth-graders are proficient in civics. Only 13% are proficient in history. A survey of students at America’s 55 most-exclusive colleges and universities found that just 34% knew George Washington was the American commander Cornwallis faced at Yorktown. A slightly higher share, 37%, thought it was Ulysses S. Grant!

More consequentially, most students cannot identify key passages of the U.S. Constitution and explain their relevance to today’s political debates. Most Americans — not just most young Americans — couldn’t pass the basic civics test legal immigrants must take to become citizens.

How do I use fantasy fiction to improve my readers’ knowledge of history? Here’s an example. One of the Revolutionary War episodes I depict in Mountain Folk is the 1777 battle of Germantown, near Philadelphia. In my telling, Washington’s army is on the verge of defeating his British and Hessian foes when a giant creature called a Fuath steps from the river and uses magic to cast a thick fog over the town. Blinded and disoriented, American units fire on each other and ultimately retreat.

There was, of course, no fog beastie from Scottish folklore tramping around Germantown. Readers know that’s fiction. Still, my hero’s memorable fight with the formidable Fuath sticks with them — which means they have, unwittingly, learned something most of them didn’t know: an entirely natural fog drifting over the battlefield really was the major reason Washington’s army got fouled up there!

In many other instances, my novels and novelettes use fantastical means to convey historical truths. Much of the dialogue spoken by characters such as Washington, Hamilton, Houston, and Sojourner Truth is adapted from what they actually spoke or wrote. As for the fantasy characters, their adventures are great fun. But that’s not all they are.

“Students of American history will see their history anew,” wrote another reviewer of Mountain Folk. “And those who forgot everything they learned about American history and folklore will have a renewed appreciation for their country.”

That’s why I’m writing the Folklore Cycle — although I suppose I should admit that the difference between covering North Carolina politics and writing fantasy fiction isn’t exactly stark.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history (FolkloreCycle.com).

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