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Alternative History In Fiction

Daring To Think Outside The Historical Box

Daring to Think Outside the Historical Box

There has always been and will always be ambiguous loss in the retelling of history.  Cases of loss with no knowledge of what happened, when there is no evidence (especially when it comes to death, leaving no body to bury, no official record of a demise of a historical character) is problematic in writing historical non-fiction, as well as historical fiction.   Additionally, sometimes in both types of genre ambiguous loss leaves authors faced with further ambiguous loss either with the historical facts or the possibilities. Truth in history can get lost and become a form of ambiguous loss. Truth in history can also deal directly with ambiguous loss, for example, when the death of a historical figure has no definitive explanation or proof.   In other words, there is always a whole lot of mystery found in writing about history after-the-fact.

Famous people in history can and do disappear from the face of earth without leaving any definite proof of where, when, why or how they disappeared or met their demise.  This same ambiguous loss can even happen to events that get swept from the annals of history by design or simply the failure to record what happened.   There also can be that all too familiar form of ambiguous loss deliberately thrown into history by the authors of history who wish to disguise the truth with propaganda that suits their needs publicly.  Even Napoleon claimed:

"History is a set of lies agreed upon."

Well, maybe Napoleon was not really suggesting lying about history, as much as he was observing that -- history is all in the eyes of those who are usually the victors and those who have a vested interest in the retelling of the history.  Both readers and book reviewers sometimes are unaware that they are, at heart, die-hard truth seeking lovers of historical fiction.  They struggle with the new possibilities of something different than what they already believe presenting them with quite a quandary.  Collective educational memory has left generations of people not prepared to think out-side the historical box of what they believe or have been taught to be true historically.  This happens simply due to the fact that they have been pre-programmed by their education, to believe certain historical facts and speculations that aren't necessarily true.  Such spoon fed pre-conceived beliefs about how a certain historical figure lived and died doesn't mean that the idea of a different truth couldn't also be true.  Just think of the possibilities:

Vice President Aaron Burr's daughter Theodosia Burr Alston, was last seen aboard the Patriot, Georgetown, NC. in 1812. Was she imprisoned by pirates?  Forced to walk the plank?  Did she seize an opportunity to start a new life, having perhaps fallen in love with another?

Vice President Aaron Burr's daughter Theodosia Burr Alston, was last seen aboard the Patriot, Georgetown, NC. in 1812. Was she imprisoned by pirates?  Forced to walk the plank?  Did she seize an opportunity to start a new life, having perhaps fallen in love with another?

Swedish director, screenwriter, and producer Daniel Lind Lagerlöf has been missing since 2011 while scouting a planned filming location in the Tjurpannan nature reservation.  There were no witnesses to answer questions of what may have happened.   No signs or remains were found.

Swedish director, screenwriter, and producer Daniel Lind Lagerlöf has been missing since 2011 while scouting a planned filming location in the Tjurpannan nature reservation.  There were no witnesses to answer questions of what may have happened.   No signs or remains were found.

American writer Ambrose Bierce, especially known for "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "The Devil's Dictionary", was last heard from in a letter written in 1913 sent from Mexico.  Could he have been a victim of war?  Or thought to be a spy and sentenced to death?

American writer Ambrose Bierce, especially known for "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "The Devil's Dictionary", was last heard from in a letter written in 1913 sent from Mexico.  Could he have been a victim of war?  Or thought to be a spy and sentenced to death?

Michael Rockefeller, son of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, disappeared in southwestern New Guinea during an expedition in 1961, when his catamaran was tossed by waves.  He was last seen swimming to shore.  Was he kidnapped? Killed and eaten by local headhunters?  Hiding in the Jungle?  Taken prisoner?

Michael Rockefeller, son of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, disappeared in southwestern New Guinea during an expedition in 1961, when his catamaran was tossed by waves.  He was last seen swimming to shore.  Was he kidnapped? Killed and eaten by local headhunters?  Hiding in the Jungle?  Taken prisoner?

Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Central Pacific near Howland Island at the age of 39 in 1937. From children's books to biographies, theories on why, how and when Amelia may have died have been explored over and again.  People are still searching for physical evidence.  Anything that will give some sort of answer that will prove or disprove favorite theories.

Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Central Pacific near Howland Island at the age of 39 in 1937. From children's books to biographies, theories on why, how and when Amelia may have died have been explored over and again.  People are still searching for physical evidence.  Anything that will give some sort of answer that will prove or disprove favorite theories.

In 1944, American big band musician, arranger, composer, and bandleader Glenn Miller was on his way to play for troops in Paris.  His flight disappeared over the English channel, never to be seen again.

In 1944, American big band musician, arranger, composer, and bandleader Glenn Miller was on his way to play for troops in Paris.  His flight disappeared over the English channel, never to be seen again.


Alternative Historical Fiction aka "What If" Books

In historical fiction, it's often hard to ignore or embrace alternative fiction's speculation for many of us despite living in an age of conspiracy theories, myths, and urban legend.  Without evidence, alternative endings to the history we grew up with and "knowing only what we were taught" many times doesn't fuel the need or desire for plots that are not only plausible, but also possible -- although outside of our personal belief system.  After all, we live in a world where deception in the name of politics have long ago married forever and wars can be justified with falsehoods and the extremes in fantasy bombard us with every media available, very often in the so-called news of the day.  Those facts alone are the best reasons why the world needs alternative fiction!

The breath of fresh air that alternative fiction gives us is no secret to those who made their own mark on history as authors.  It opens a whole new world of becoming one with historical fiction as we try on something new.  Perhaps it's time to start trying on a new way of thinking about a historical event?  Maybe we are supposed to look beyond the veneer of myth and propaganda and strive to think of famous people as real people with flaws, failings, or even see them in a new light of empathy? Over the centuries, some of the authors who wrote alternative history in fiction even gave us memorable quotes on that exact topic, consider:

By its very nature, history is always a one-sided account.
— Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code
The real war will never get in the books.
— Walt Whitman
True, I have raped history, but it has produced some beautiful offspring.
— Alexandre Dumas
That’s how it is with legends. The greater they sound, the more must’ve got left out.
— Tim Tharp, Knights of the Hill Country

Eye On Life's Current Top Picks For

The Best in Alternative History in Fiction

Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain

Recently, and in the past Eye on Life Magazine has been privileged to review two books that we believe are among the best-of-the-best when it comes to being examples of vibrant alternative fiction that deals with one of America's most forgotten wars as a backdrop in history, as it also takes on two famous historical characters who fall into the category of historical figures whose lives were ambiguous losses.  

Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain.jpg

Katz's newest novel, Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain, now joins its sister novel, Theodosia and the Pirates:  The  Battle Against Britain  as deserving to be listed on the same top picks for alternative history bookshelves as other such well-known books as:  The Guns of the South  by Harry Turtledove; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain; For Want of A Nail   by Robert N. Sobel, or The Years of Rice and Salt  by Kim Stanley Robinson.

In both Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain, and the newly released follow-up book -- Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain  -- both by Dr. Aya Katz -- readers will be introduced to a multitude of possibilities that will tickle any serious student or lover of history to get outside their traditional box of cultural collective historical memory and step into further, new adventures that will open the doors of thinking about the history you know, or thought you knew in fresh and unexpected ways.  

You'll find yourself thinking long after reading either of these two stand-alone historical fiction masterpieces, about such topics as:

Did anyone really win the War of 1812 and if so, who? What were the consequences of this war, and how did they affect the way the bill of rights is currently interpreted? Was Theodosia Burr drowned at sea or captured by pirates? Was her disappearance an accident or a deliberate evasion? Was Jean Laffite a pirate or a privateer, and what actually is the difference? Why are there no more privateers today? Did Jean Laffite and Theodosia know each other -- as indeed they had many friends in common -- and if so how intimately? Did Jean Laffite die of his wounds in battle on board the General Santander while serving in the Colombian Navy in 1823? Or did he fake his death and open a gunpowder manufacturing business in St. Louis? Who really wrote the Journal of Jean Laffite?  You get the picture -- in other words the possibilities these wonderful books bring to mind are endless.

Both books are the kind of reading experiences that will have you revisiting and savoring passages and chapters again and again long after you've finished them.  Many will find that thinking outside history's traditional box will be a lot more satisfactory in guiding you to searching out your own "what ifs" further adventures,  and have you thanking Aya Katz's wonderful novel versions of alternative history to opening the door to wanting to know more!

Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain and Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain can be found on Amazon.com.

Other Books:   The Few Who Count  /  Our Lady of Kaifeng /   Vacuum County 

From the Literary Archives: Ethics in Writing Historical Fiction