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Why do non-historians write the cool history books (that people actually read)?

Today we welcome Rebecca Koerselman to The Twelve. Rebecca teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.  Thanks, Rebecca.

Max Brooks recently released a book entitled The Harlem Hellfighters, a novel about the heroic actions of the 369th division of African American soldiers during World War I. It is historical fiction and a graphic novel.

Here is what I learned:
Fiction is better (or easier?) than truth. A colleague from grad school once asked me, “why read fiction when you can read the actual historical account?” Good question (insert comment about self-righteous doctoral candidates in history programs here). Max Brooks’ account of the 369th contains mostly accurate information, including real people like Jim Europe and General Henri Gouraud. But it is not all accurate. So why not just write actual history instead of historical fiction? I cannot answer for Max Brooks, but I think the answer is that historical fiction is straightforward. Brooks can leave out the parts that do not fit his theme or storyline and pull stories from other African American soldiers in other divisions to enhance his plotline.

Historians follow rules that non-historians do not need to follow. Brooks is not a historian; nor does he claim to be. Therefore, he does not need to act like a historian. In The Harlem Hellfighters, Brooks successfully conveyed the frustration of African Americans in the U.S. who were unable to enjoy the privileges of citizenship but wanted to fight (and die) for their country. African American soldiers in WWI were primarily used for labor and very few were ever allowed to see any combat. The few who fought did so honorably and were highly decorated by the French as a result of their tenacity and courage. After all, what did they have to lose? WWI African American soldiers fought to prove that their blood was just as red as any white American’s blood and hoped it would shake the foundations of the white supremacist hierarchy that dominated American life and culture. While Americans did honor their service, that honor was brief and quickly forgotten. “The truth is that our fight, and the fight of those who looked up to us as heroes, didn’t end with the ‘war to end all wars.’” (235)Koerselman 2

Doing the real work of history is sorting through the messiness of human stories. As a historian, I don’t get to skip the messy parts. Instead, I try to understand them. Our lives are not neat and tidy. Our stories are messy, do not always make sense, do not fit with an overall theme or argument, and rarely have neat and tidy endings. Yet we try to make it seem like our lives have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Jim Europe, jazz musician and one of the heroes of the 369th was stabbed in the throat by a band member and died shortly after his return to America. Brooks did not include that part of the story in his narrative because it would have tempered the hopeful ending to his book.

God does not expect us to be perfect. He is; we are not. As a historian, I appreciate the messiness of people’s stories. Whether I am reading about people who flee from God, who are chosen and empowered by God, or who are occasionally obedient and often disobedient, human stories are not neat and tidy. Thankfully, God can work through our messiness and still execute his perfect plan.

People like pictures. Despite the recent success of B.J. Novak’s The Book Without Pictures, even my two-year-old can tell you that pictures in books are important. Canaan White’s images are riveting and powerfully descriptive. His images with Brooks’ narrative created a very memorable story. Most history books (or books written by historians) do not contain very many pictures. And yes, I know this is because of copyright restrictions, publishing costs, length, and other reasons. But still.


The Harlem Hellfighters is a broadly accessible book for anyone (well, I might give it a ‘PG 13’ rating for thematic elements, gore, and language) and has recently been optioned for film via Sony and/or Will Smith, according to NPR and the Washington Post. Max Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks, and the author of World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


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