Monday, February 27, 2012

Reader's Diary #805- E Craig McKay: Abel Clarke; At Sea in a River Boat

"Abel Clarke; At Sea in a Riverboat" by E Craig McKay begins with the following disclaimer: Although set in Newfoundland in 1814 this tale is based only loosely upon the history of the times. There has been no attempt to depict actual historic characters or events-- which is fine as I don't often read fiction hoping to learn something. If I happen to along the way, great, but it's certainly not an expectation. Historical fiction, however, creates a whole other set of issues. What was the author's intent? To educate as well as entertain? Or to simply use a historical setting or event as a backdrop? McKay's disclaimer would suggest that his intent was the latter, but the story itself suggests that his intent was to teach.

The problem here isn't that McKay's motive isn't clear, it's that his "teaching" frequently interferes with his story. The story of an English settler in the early days of Newfoundland trying to escape from the French, it has potential to be a thrilling tale. However, too often I could sense the author's presence. Historical facts (if they are facts), are worked awkwardly into the narrative and distract from the action. For example, when Abel is off to warn Captain Daniels about a French invasion, he comes across a creek:
At this point the channel was little more than a creek which threaded its way through marshy bogs which would one hundred years later provide perfect spots of forage for moose. In 1814 moose were as alien to the Newfoundland landscape as snakes.
Flashing forward to educate readers about moose in Newfoundland's future is not only irrelevant to the story, it completely removes the connection to Abel, who most certainly wouldn't be making predictions about the success of imported moose.

At it's heart, "Abel Clarke; At Sea in a River Boat" has potential to be a great man versus nature survival story, akin to a Jack London style tale, but it's too bogged down with historical awareness-- even though we were promised that wouldn't be the case.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)


Teddy Rose said...

You know I read quite a bit of historical fiction. I like to get the sence of time and place as well as a good story. I love historical deatail when it's done well. It doesn't sound from the quote you provided that achieved that. He totally taked you out of the time period. If there were an historical fiction writers manual, I'm sure that would be a "no,no!"

I wrapped up my tribute to Ivan Coyote here:

Perogyo said...

I hate it when I get bumped out of the time period in historical fiction.

I read a short story from a Japanese anthology that will be published soon.

Loni said...

That's disappointing about the story. From that quote, it really seems like the writer is pulling you out of the story instead of drawing you in.

I read Katherine Mansfield this week.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

It sounds as though the author is trying to make the story all things to all people, and only succeeds in making it awkward.