Monday, January 06, 2014

I learned quite a lot when I was young: Youth, fiction, and history

At what age is a writer most susceptible to impressions that later find their way into his or her fiction?

Adrian McKinty sets his Sean Duffy trilogy (Cold Cold Ground, I Hear the Sirens in the Streets, and the new In The Morning I'll Be Gone) in a time when the author was 13 and 14 years old and growing up in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. John McFetridge's forthcoming Black Rock takes place in Montreal in 1970. McFetridge was 11 and living in Montreal at the time. And James Ellroy was 10 and 11 during the years that are the setting for American Tabloid, first of his Underworld U.S.A. trilogy.

Three authors, three bodies of work set in turbulent periods of  their countries' history, the turbulence coinciding with the authors' pre- and early adolescence. Happenstance? Here's Dana King, from a comment on this week's historical-fiction post here at Detectives Beyond Borders:
"You're right about the images the writers grew up with; I see it in my interest. I enjoy recent historical fiction more than that of more distant periods for a couple of reasons. A lot of this happened when I was of an age to understand it, but not to place it into context. To me, growing up, it was natural for mills to close and for one or two American cities a year to burn with riots; it's what I knew. These books help me to re-examine these periods and events with some context.
"They also allow me to see how the roots of today's problems were always there; many things have changed at their core very little, though they look different now. I remember how upset people were in the 80s and 90s when it was reported the black drug gangs were killing innocents with drive-by shootings, and recruiting grade school kids as runners, as they'd do no time. It wasn't like they thought of the idea; organized crime had done both for years."

None of the works under discussion is a coming-of-age book. Though the authors were 11 to 14 at the times when the novels are set, the protagonists and all significant characters are adults. Did McKinty, McFetridge, and Ellroy just happen to be the right age when their countries and cities, were going through changes (the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the October Crisis in Montreal, the Cold War in the United States)? Or does something about ages 11 to 14 make authors want to re-examine the worlds of their post-childhood, pre-teenage youth? Comments from historians and developmental psychologists welcome.
McFetridge's protagonist is a young cop named Eddie Dougherty called to the scene of an explosion that blew a car apart on Montreal's Champlain Bridge:
"Dougherty watched the police photographer, Rozovsky, take a hundred pictures of the wreckage and dozens of every body part they could find and then stop and change lenses on the camera and then turn and aim it back towards the skyline of Montreal.
"One of the detectives said, `What's that for?' and Rozovsky said, `It looks like a postcard.'
"`You can't sell a picture you take while you're on the clock.'"
"Rozovsky snapped off a few more shots and said. `It's for my personal collection.'"
"`Yeah, your personal collection on the rack in every drugstore on town,' and Rozovsky said, `From your lips ...'"
So yes, I have a special reason to like this book. And now, for your listening pleasure, the Animals.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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