I’ve just put down a novel of 368 pages after reading to page 179. I was interested in the story, so why did I call it quits? In a nutshell, I couldn’t take another erudite word from a 12 year-old. Dictum was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House is historical fiction, my favorite genre, and has been praised by such as Robert Morgan. The first half of the book spans the time from 1791 to 1797, though the novel continues through 1810. The story develops around Lavinia, a seven year-old white girl who is orphaned when both her parents die on the ship taking them to America. The captain carries her to his plantation where, as an indentured servant, she lives with the slaves. Tension develops as Lavinia sees the negros as her family, though she is expected to behave as a white.
Lavinia, in telling the story, says things like:
I brought Sukey for a visit, for she elicited a vivid response.
…those excursions ceased as an increasing lethargy overtook him.
With the security of the past two years, I had become more sure of myself…Yet an underlying anxiety always stayed.
All of this from one page in the book. A few slips here or there can be overlooked, but the tone becomes that of an educated adult with 21st Century sensibilities, which, in my case, created a fault that shattered the fantasy.
Finally, Lavinia says “I often heard her state how she felt obliged to help the less fortunate, and there was no doubt that my welfare was included under that dictum.” What 12 year-old living in the 1790s would say this?
Grissom took on a double challenge when she chose not only an 18th century narrator but a child as well. Obviously the reader doesn’t want a tale told in simplistic language. The key is to sound simplistic without actually being simplistic. It’s in the tone, that ephemeral quality that doesn’t lend itself to a simple reduction.
As Shaun so capably reminded us in a previous blog, our characters can do unbelievable things only as long as we respect a consistent “reality,” which may be a far cry from what is really real; i.e., we can get away with any absurdity in our alternative reality, but if we violate the rules of our creation, we risk losing the reader.
In like fashion, the characters we create need to speak the language of the alternative reality we give them. Their words in many ways define them and can either reinforce or undermine their validity. Especially in historical fiction, contemporary language and sentiment can transport the reader out of the story.