The Problem with “Nothing Good”

It’s been longer than I intended since my last blog post, friends, because the second half of November was something of a doozy. In old books, like Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, characters are wary of November because it’s such a big month for shipwrecks. I guess November has remained rough seas (literally) in spite of modern technology because The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald does have that line about “the witch of November.” Haunting.

On the date of my last blog post, November 14, I was reading Mal Peet’s much-acclaimed novel Tamar, which is about British-sponsored SOE operatives in Nazi-occupied Holland. I was thinking to myself, Man, I have got to stop reading books about British SOE operatives in Nazi-occupied Europe. I was thinking this before I went to the mailbox and a random dog bit me, before my husband got rear-ended on his way to pick me up to go to the doctor, before I was told I was going to need the entire series of rabies shots as a precaution because we didn’t know and couldn’t find the dog. (I don’t have rabies. Happy day. But it doesn’t take a lot of medicine to do a number on a 115-pound body.) And before an EF4 tornado ripped through the next town over, and another two dozen hit around the state of Illinois in one day, leaving many people homeless and generally upsetting the whole place.

Guess what I did not especially want to read about? British SOE operatives in Nazi-occupied Holland who are pretty nasty to each other even when the Nazis are leaving them alone. But I finished the book, anyway, because I hate to leave things unfinished. It was a good book, maybe even a great book, as objective analyses of books go. I made it through thanks to the all-too-brief flash forwards into the mid-1990s, where a granddaughter is, with the help of a cute Dutch guy, trying to unravel the mystery of what really happened to her grandparents in Holland in 1945. Hint: nothing good. I clung to that frame story like it was a raft in a sea of sharks. Or a sea of Nazis.

It occurred to me that maybe this is why many people resist historical fiction. There’s a whole lot of nothing good in history, and I’m only willing to be immersed in it when things are going swimmingly in my own life.

I realize I’ve probably not inspired anyone to read Tamar today, which is sad because, objectively, it’s a great book. But you might want to make sure the only kicking and screaming you need to do at the time is over the story.

Of course, there are all kinds of historical fiction that are Downton Abbey candy, and that’s where I’m headed next. Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford is speeding to my door.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem with “Nothing Good””

  1. I’m having the “nothing good” in history problem with “Johnny Tremain.” I know it turns out okay but there are just so many bad turns. I am cringing with every page turn.

    Even in “Downton Abbey” “nothing good” happens. It is a bunch of sad things and people being rude. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch season three. (I slept through season 3 on PBS, don’t judge, I was preggers.)

    On the other hand “Downtrodden Abbey: The Interminable Saga of an Insufferable Family” is now available.

    1. I don’t know, I’ve never had that problem with Johnny Tremain. He has a rough time for a while, but things look up for him significantly once he meets Rab. Also–I don’t feel bonked on the head with the “nothing good” by Esther Forbes or by Downton Abbey. Perhaps that is the difference. Or my “nothing good” tolerance is actually pretty high. Also, I think the Nazis just hit a level of sustained awfulness that is all their own, and these SOE books create this total lack of any sense of anything ever being okay ever again. I guess it usually wasn’t if you were in the SOE.

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