Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
One needs to note at the beginning a difference between historical authenticity and historicity. It would seem a paradox, for example, to argue that historical fiction is an unlikely melding, the history and fiction genres being critically apart. If, however, a novel’s plot takes place in a setting located in the past, such a novel can suffice wonderfully to gain perspective on certain times in human society and on the human condition.
The problem then?
The Marxist critic Lukas developed both a theory and a body of criticism arguing that interpretations of historical fiction should critique the development of capitalism and the role of class struggle relative to economic change. Such a materialist interpretation of historical development informed and influenced the fiction which in turn was obliged to portray a dialectical view of social transformation. It’s the “use” of history.
There are, however, historical novels in which major historic events take place away or apart from the world inhabited by the fictional characters. The backdrop is thus structurally informative to the fictional characters’ troubles whose personal histories are largely invented by a novelist. What’s fascinating, but also difficult, is the necessary accuracy of the major historic events and the verisimilitude of the characters’ personal histories.
Such historical novels are often labeled “historical romance,” which would seem to suggest nothing more and nothing less than romantic love and a plethora of slick paperbacks, the term “romance” being ambiguous.
Both Northrop Frye and Hayden White, however, have argued for a certain kind of historical writing that mirrors literary writing, and vice-versa, but which offers interpretations different from those of Marxism. One might, in fact, say better.
There’s something more than mere gesture here by arguing that romance is a mode of employment in which even an ordinary human being transcends circumstances and achieves a moral victory. It’s the kind of criticism that allows for suspension of belief but is also ethical.
Under the Same Blue Sky is Pamela Schoenewaldt’s third novel. It’s a rich and fascinating tale set in 1914 on the evening of the Great War. The characters are German-American immigrants, part of what one might call the German diaspora. The largest group, some seven-and-half million, arrived during the latter decades of the 19th century, adding largely to the population of Pennsylvania.
It’s an old American story: immigrants arrive and begin the processes of Americanizing themselves while maintaining elements of their cultural heritage. When World War I broke out, however, German Americans were often accused of endorsing the German war effort. There are poignant stories from across the country of Germans ostracized for speaking German; often a German with a Germanic last name was blacklisted as a spy. German-named towns and streets were renamed. Very often the response of these first and second generation immigrants was to Americanize as much as possible, using the German language only in the privacy of one’s home or Americanizing one’s last name.
Schoenwaldt’s novel is set against this background when German-born citizens were subject to suspicion and discrimination. And it’s these circumstances that can either defeat the novel’s major character or enable that character to transcend those circumstances and achieve a moral victory—hence the term “historical romance.”
Hazel Renner, a German shopkeeper’s daughter living in proximity to the Pittsburgh steel mills, is just such a character emerging into adulthood amid the tumult of war prejudice. The contrast is between the past, the present, and the future. Hazel Renner has to make her own determined journey (allegorical even) across the landscape of a world gone terribly mad in Europe as well as Pennsylvania.
As is or was often the case with immigrants, great hopes are placed in children, the first generation born in this newly adopted homeland. Hazel is thus on the cusp of adulthood when the war erupts and she seeks to find her place. Her parents have high hopes for a career in medicine but Hazel’s interests are elsewhere.
When the war in Europe escalates and tensions rise in Pittsburgh, Hazel leaves to teach in a one-room country schoolhouse in a rural area. Schoenwaldt introduces a mystical metaphor at this point when Hazel is visited by a mysterious healing power. It’s an attempt on her part to make “things” whole in a world of conflicting loyalties. As in most romances, there is a suspension of ordinary belief but never enough to make the narrative disconnect from ordinary reality.
And like many immigrants, Hazel is searching for her own identity, which leads to a confrontation with her past and a search for belonging, healing, and transcendence. Thematically, then, the physical war-ravaged landscape of Europe is the backdrop for her own ravaged emotional landscape.
Seeking peace, attempting to discover who she is and where she belongs, Hazel begins work for an exiled German baron who has exiled himself from his own German homeland. The chaos and voids of his own private demons take form in the American castle the baron has built. Hazel meets Tom, a gardener at the castle, and the two form romantic interests. In this portion of the novel, too, as in most romances, there’s a suspension of ordinary belief.
But there’s the war and the devastating realities of war which impacts lives not only on the battlefields themselves, reported in detail in newspaper accounts as the casualties mount, but also on the community battlefields at home when German-Americans suffer hardships. As the title suggests: There are likely moments in which blue skies emerge over the battlefields; and surely any combatant in the trenches is aware that the sky is the same blue sky back home. Such a notion is fraught, however, when those moments are complicated by characters who share the same cultural heritage and who wish to safeguard dreams of love and belonging.
There’s an analogy to be made here by drawing an inference from another war. Maryland was one of the Border States straddling north and south; of the combatants, one-third joined the Confederacy and the other two-thirds the northern or Union army.
When the two collide, the suffering is propounded.
Given that, who would not seek out a haven of peace and rest which is the dream of Hazel Renner, a fully realized character, by the way, and not a mere romantic cardboard cut-out.
This is a fine book, believable not only for the war-shattering of peace but for the vivid psychological characterization of German-Americans who had the misfortune of loving both their country of origin and their new homeland. Peace, it seems, is always historically short-lived; but with moral courage, what is short-lived can be transcended and peace can be regained. Once regained, its residue is a sobering knowledge to be recounted in prose both historical and fictional.