Every now and then, I review a book here that has really caught me, either emotionally or because of some element of its craft, something the author has done particularly well, at least in my opinion. I’m trying to read a lot of teen historical fiction these days, be it middle-grade or YA, and I’m trying to learn from those books–from the way the author approaches some element of writing in this genre. Getting my general impressions down in more specific words & sentences helps me hone in what about the book impressed me. And, lucky you, I’ll be doing that processing here. 🙂 I wouldn’t call this a regular thread, but if you see a blog post that starts with HF, you’ll at least know that’s what’s coming.
I just finished War Games by Audrey Couloumbis and Akila Couloumbis. It’s an excellent book, showing me a world I knew nothing about–WWII Greece–and beautifully showing it through the eyes of a young boy.
What absolutely hooked me about this story is how well the authors wove the war into the opening chapters, when the Germans hadn’t yet come to the town of Amphissa, when the people there had gotten used, in some way, to living with the Italian soldiers, and when boys could still argue over marbles and worry about getting scolded for trading away the wrong goat.
I’ve been worrying musing about how to accomplish this very feat, in my WIP–how to weave the bigger, problem world into the opening, when the MC is still totally wrapped up in her own personal time and space. I’ve been thinking that I can’t just drop the big problems in when they get big, that I have to seed what’s coming, without waving the big red flag labeled IMPORTANT FORESHADOWING HERE.
So you can bet, as I was reading the opening chapters of War Games and saw what the Couloumbises were doing, that I was running for the pen and sticky notes. I’m going to break down some of the opening here, but, believe me, there will be no spoilers!
Chapter 2 is completely taken up with a bet that Petros and his older brother Zola have about who can shoot more birds. The focus is tight and narrow, on the boys, their bet, their arguing, and the third corner that is added to the triangle when their cousin Stavros shows up. There is no hint of war, of danger, but at the end the author seeds the bigger tension by having Stavros kill a swallow–an act known to bring bad luck.
Chapter 2 brings the fact of the war, with a moment when Petros thinks about the drachmas under his father’s bed and how, since Greece surrendered to the Germans, drachmas are worth nothing and people are now trading instead of paying money for goods. The rest of the chapter is mostly taken up with Papa telling Petros to take their biggest male goat to trade for his uncle’s biggest female, so their family can have the milk. Petros, knowing his uncle will not cook a goat, takes the smaller one–his favorite, the one he wants to keep alive. Along the way, he talks to some Italian soldiers, cautious but without real fear, as they casually lay about in the countryside. The soldiers joke with him, but they do not answer his questions about when the Germans will come. With about two lines of dialogue, the authors establish that while, right now, life is not so bad for Petros, there is a worry–and a little excitement–lurking in the background.
This is the way of the next few chapters. We stay in Petros’ world, in the scolding he almost gets about the goat, in the chores he does, in the bickering between the boys. All along, we get trickles of curiosity, anticipation, of parental concern, over whether or not the Germans will come to their town, of what trouble that will mean. The authors give us just enough information so that we know something is coming, but also takes the time to really immerse us in Petros, his personal hopes and problems–for this time, at least, separate from the war.
And then with one big crash, Stavros’ brother, Lambros, is home from fighting in the Greek army, bearing wounds and the news that the Germans are mere days behind him. At this point, the authors flip everything–from now on, the war and its immediate consequences for Petros’ family are in the spotlight, while Petros’ specific goals and actions weave through as the thread that keeps everything connected to him, and for us.
I know this is only one technique for writing historical fiction, but I also know it worked really well in this book. So…the lesson learned, I think, is that if we really establish our MC at the beginning, then when things erupt, their strength as a character will keep the reader caring, even as history and its more global problems take over. We have to take care not to overwhelm the opening with history, but do need to show how it touches, intersects with, the smaller place where the MC lives. And we must make sure that, whenever history takes dominance, the hero’s character arc is the path our readers follow through it.
Once again, folks, it’s about balance.