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If you had asked me 5 or 6 years ago if I liked historical fiction, my answer would have been “Meh.”

Sadly, I was effectively turned off to all things history as a child, when my first learning experiences labeled “History” were nothing more than an endless dry and boring series of names, dates, places and events to be absorbed and later regurgitated on tests. In retrospect, our teachers had to cover 7 or 8 different subjects daily, so what were chances that any of them would be a real history buff and would teach us history with great enthusiasm and insight? Apparently, pretty slim.

KiteRunner-KHosseiniIt wasn’t until college when I had an exceptional professor who taught Contemporary Civilization in the context of art, (I was at an art school), and for the first time someone teaching history had neurons in my brain firing rapidly. History suddenly came alive! Unfortunately, at that point, I had very little mental framework in my brain to hang it on. But I started to take an interest in the subject.

What really kicked my interest into high gear has happened in more recent years when I would come across a novel set in a particular place and time period, so rich and textured, that I wanted to learn more. One of those books was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and it sent me flying to the internet to learn about the Afghani people and what was transpiring in Afghanistan during the time this novel took place. I cannot recall the country of Afghanistan mentioned once in history or geography in my childhood education, but now, here was a piece of fascinating history.

ShanghaiGirle-LSee2The two novels that recently afforded me that desire to delve into history were those by author Lisa See, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy.The first novel begins when Shanghai was known as the Paris of Asia, and sisters May and Pearl were  “beautiful girls”, models. With their father having lost all their money, the sisters, with their mother, must flee Shanghai as the Japanese invade China. The sisters were forced to emigrate to the United States in arranged marriages. From their interment on Angel’s Island to creating lives for themselves and their families in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, we follow the complex relationship of Pearl and May and Pearl’s daughter, Joy.

In Dreams of Joy, Joy, now in college and angry at her family’s deception and distraught over one family member’s suicide, secretly runs away to China to find her true father. Her studies have convinced her that Communism is the best of all systems, and she is determined to start her own life, although  DreamsOfJoy-LSee2she is soon to be profoundly discouraged and isolated. Pearl leaves the states to search for her daughter, encountering endless roadblocks along the way. The backdrop of much of the novel is the time under Chairman Mao and The Great Leap Forward, a time of alleged progress in which a famine took the lives of millions of Chinese people. (From Wikipedia – “The Great Leap ended in catastrophe, resulting in tens of millions of deaths, estimated from 18 million to 32.5 or 45 million. Historian Frank Dikotter asserts that “coercion, terror, and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward” and it “motivated one of the most deadly mass killings of human history”.)

Lisa See writes about family and relationships and this alone would have held my attention, but told against the backdrop of both China and the United States in times of political change and turmoil of every kind, I searched to know more. My knowledge of history is still spotty, but through the pages of beautifully written historical novels, I continue to learn. It seems history stands at my back door, always with a hand raised, always ready to knock.

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History seems determined to find me. I haven’t been looking for history, but somehow I am bring coaxed into looking at periods in time of which I know little or nothing, most recently British colonial rule in Kenya in the 50’s. I know. How did that happen? (Well, one look at the photo, and you may know.)

TheFirstGrader-KerryBrown2Like the experience of many others in a time past – and perhaps still the present – history was taught in such a way that it was guaranteed to, at the very least, leave no lasting impression, and at the worst, develop in one a real distaste for it. The latter would be me. I dutifully swallowed the dry rattle of names, dates, places and events and dutifully coughed them back up for tests. Not until I got to college and had a brilliant professor who made history truly come alive did I suddenly realize the fascination of history. And by then it seemed too late; I had such a fragile and spotty framework of knowledge on which to hang any new historical insights.

But history seems to be hunting me down through  books and/or movies as of late … Afghanistan before and after the Taliban took over through The Kite Runner; the deep South during the Civil Rights movement in The Help; the Civil War period in Oklahoma in what I’m reading now, Paradise, medieval times in Britain in The Last Templar and so on. History isn’t the subject; it’s the backdrop, but it’s impossible to not be drawn into the history of the time period when reading the book or watching the movie.

Most recently it’s The First Grader, a movie set in Kenya in 2003. It’s based on the true story of an 84 year old villager, Maruge, who, when primary education was made available to all, wanted to learn to read. The story is absolutely inspiring. There he sat, having fought repeatedly for his right to do so, with six year olds, five to a desk, learning the alphabet. His rapport with Jane Obinchu, the instructor, and the children is a testament to the spirit of those who believe in something enough to pursue that dream and love doing it in spite of all odds.

What was far more difficult to watch, shown in sporadic flashbacks, was what happened to Maruge in the early 50’s when he was sentenced to a prison camp under British colonial rule. The Mau Mau tribe, whom  Maruge had joined, had risen up against the corrupt British but were defeated and captured. To force him to renounce his vow of loyalty, his captors forced him to watch the execution of his wife and children, (this was not shown onscreen), and tortured him brutally. It was hard to not wake up the following morning flooded with sadness as to what has gone so wrong in human beings that they can treat others as they did.

But in the long run, that does not change my recommendation to see this incredibly rich and touching movie. The First Grader was filmed in Kenya, and all the children are actual attendees of one of the schools in the Kenyan bush. Their glowing faces just light up the screen. One little girl named Agnes, seemed mildly deformed and had a severe limp like Maruge. She told him she wanted to go to school so she could be a doctor … and then she could make him better. The children have almost as much impact as Maruge himself. It’s hard not to smile when thinking about this movie, in spite of the reflection of such a terrible time in history.

Maruge became the oldest recorded person in the world to ever attend first grade and drew his own bit of celebrity for his devotion to education. So much so, that he was flown to New York to speak at the UN. Should you watch The First Grader, be sure to watch the short documentary and you will see the real Maruge, Jane Obinchu and others. You will also see how the director worked with the children who had never seen a television or movie. You may be inspired.

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