Making History 3-D

History can be a turn-off when it focuses only on dry facts, just like science is more than formulas and chemical compounds. Science matters when you walk through environmental disasters or live through a pandemic. So, too, history becomes more than dates of wars, lists of treaties or studies of revised maps when you walk through historical landscapes and meet characters who share the same human frailties we all experience. Through the power of imagination, readers experience sensory detail and emotion which allows them to have a visceral experience. 

Here is a list of ways that the power of fiction can merge the past into the present:

Field trips. Visit the scenes of massacres, of battles, of boat crossings. For example, I cycled down forest paths that my 1945 refugees would have travelled in Crow Stone. I walked the beaches of Tainted Amber.

Cycling in Kaliningrad Oblast
BIG Maps. There’s nothing like a visual map to pinpoint the scenes of a story. If the book doesn’t have a map, find one. Mark the places the novel’s characters are traveling. In Crow Stone there’s a map included, but don’t hesitate to find other maps.

SMALL Maps. How about visualizing the little places? A map of the house, of the bedroom, of the barrack? 

Photographs/drawings. A picture says a thousand words. But don't forget to ask, who was taking that picture? Why? What happened before or after the photo was taken? Where was the photo taken? Why does this particular photo matter? Who's not in the photo?

Recipes. One thing all humans, past and present, have in common is the need for food. Find out what food was available in those years and experiment with the ingredients. Did they drink tea or coffee? Soft drinks? 

Königsberge Klopse in Kaliningrad

. Musical tastes might change but music is always part of the human experience … whether to celebrate or to mourn. Find what would be part of the historical narrative for a particular book.

Clothes. We might get our clothes from an online retailer, local mall or thrift shop. But where did historical characters get their clothes? What were they wearing? How did they care for them?

Ambition. Many of us aspire to have careers, houses, children, cars, to travel or volunteer, to learn new languages or run a marathon. What sorts of ambitions would the characters in historical fiction be striving towards?

This is just a brief sampling of the ways that history can become livelier for readers. Some might call it research, I like to call it developing empathy.  One day, our lives today will also be history. Hopefully, no one will remember our lives as dull or boring. After all,  we too are living in historical times.

NEW Young Adult Books | Winter 2023 Top Grade Picks

CROW STONE FOR FREE!  49th Shelf's book give-away!  Go to their link for an opportunity
to receive your copy!

Check out my sidebar, where I share a discussion guide created to increase readers' understanding of the devastating consequences of war—not only for the soldiers fighting the battles—but for the women and children left behind ... even after peace treaties are signed. 

I'd be happy to visit your classrooms, online (or in-person in the Winnipeg area), to facilitate a conversation about the ugliness of war. 

About Birch Trees

When is a book about birch trees not a book about trees? When it’s sub-titled, "a Russian Reflection.”

Tom Jeffreys’ 2021 release is part history, part art study, part travel memoir, part meditation. It’s always political. Reading The White Birch has been an immersive journey through Russian history and landscape searching out the ubiquitous and photogenic white birch.

The book opens with a listing of the various types of birch trees that become actors in the book. It ends with an extensive bibliography for readers to further explore the complexities of Russia. 

Manitoba aspen 
Everything from landscape art of pre-communist times to Stalin-era posters to the lyrics of modern Pussy Riot music and the philosophy of Aleksandr Dugin, finds its way into this book about birch trees which explores the very soul of Russia. It’s a must-read if you appreciate the power of landscape to define a nation and want to get a better understanding of this complicated country. 

From rustic, poverty-stricken rural settlements to professionally designed urban parks, the author searches out the birch tree and always finds it. From oil paintings to poems to advertisements to songs, the birch tree claims its spot. A tree of nostalgia, of the feminine, it’s become a Russian cliché. 

I needed access to the internet to really appreciate the images mentioned in this book. I was constantly searching out the places, paintings and artists that the author mentions. This was not a fast read. Good for a long prairie winter. 

We don’t have a lot of birch trees in Manitoba. More aspen which looks quite similar but with a darker bark. Aspen forests are the first to shimmer green in the spring and pure amber in the fall.

But next time I spot a birch while out hiking, I’ll be reflecting on Russia. A white birch tree will never again be just a tree. 

P for Propaganda

A recent news link referred to Putin’s girlfriend, Alina Kabaeva, who called propaganda as important as using Kalashnikovs, in the current war. Seriously? At least she’s naming it for what it is. Propaganda is a catch-all term for state sponsored lying. 

movie poster in public domain
Propaganda permeated the UFA (Nazi movie industry), as well. The most famous movie being Triumph of Will. We might laugh at the stupidity of these manipulative films, but they worked. Putin knows this.

Why is propaganda—blatant lying—so popular?  Why else would global corporations spend billions on advertising?  As a human race, we're a gullible lot.  In one Russian video clip, interviewing young residents from St. Petersburg, a woman artist said, “propaganda helps people lie to themselves.”   

Lying to one’s self is easier than ever with social media. We only ‘like’ what we follow and vice versa. If everyone is out to deceive us then who do we trust? I feel like Eve in the Garden of Eden. Media-literacy has never been more important. Critical thinking skills can’t be assumed. We need diverse points of view.

My parents’ generation grew up under the influence of Hitler and his propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels. Germans, always ready to follow rules, were told they were the chosen people— superior to Slavs, Jews, Roma and coloured people. Treat humans like animals long enough and that lie becomes easier to believe.

Russians are now told that Ukraine is their enemy, overtaken by Nazi fascists. As ludicrous as this sounds to our western ears, Russians are losing touch with objective truth. Meanwhile, massive corporations control our media. Ads about liquor, cars, beauty products, holidays, etc. bombard our lives daily. 

Canada is a democracy, but this freedom of choice has a price. Our challenge is to be aware, skeptical, and engaged. It’s up to us to separate truth from propaganda.

Here are some tips to avoid being 'brain-washed' by propaganda.

1. Listen to/read/view multiple media outlets. Don't share something on social media if you can't verify the facts. 

2. Be aware of the distinction between mis-information (an error) as opposed to dis-information (a lie). 

3. Be aware of the power of slogans and symbols. (for example: Soviet: raised fist; Nazi: swastika; Russia: Z; clothing brands: the Nike swoosh)

Check out this Canadian government website for more information on how we can be aware of potential manipulation of facts during the current conflict in Ukraine.

Fragile Places

Border between Kaliningrad Oblast (Russia)
and Poland (NATO) in 2019
Yes! Grateful for a 5 star review from CM Review (Canadian Materials). Hope this will encourage readers to pick up a copy
of both Tainted Amber and Crow Stone. Understanding history helps us to understand the present global conflicts. 

I’ve blogged a lot about East Prussia, the eastern-most province of the former Third Reich that became Russia’s most western enclave. At about 15000 square kilometers, it’s a third of the size of Prince Edward Island. For more than seven decades it’s been not much more than a ghost town … de-populated of Germans, re-populated by transplanted Russians (a man from Kazakhstan lived in my uncle’s former house) and dotted with the ruins of war.  Today, as Putin rages about how German tanks are again confronting Russian ones, this area is a stark reminder that the conflicts of the past are not resolved.

Baltic Sunset near the Lithuanian/Russian border
Pillau—on the Vistula Lagoon—was once the desired Baltic port of refuge for civilian refugees like my mom. The Russians renamed it Baltiysk.  

As a Russian naval base, it’s in a restricted zone and shares (along with the capital city of Kaliningrad) the only year-round ice-free port on the Baltic available to the Russian military. Even when cycling near Baltiysk, along the beautiful, sandy Amber Coast, we could feel the ground rumbling and hear the dull explosions from military exercises.

Kaliningrad Oblast is surrounded by NATO countries… Lithuania to the north and Poland to the south and east. However, there’s a 65- kilometer-long border near the Polish town of Suwalki that makes the Baltic countries’ vulnerable. This short border is all that separates the three NATO countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia from Belarus, Russia’s ally. I expect that we’ll hear more of these three places: Baltiysk, the Suwalki Gap, and Grodno (the closest Belarusian city) in the coming months. Will Kaliningrad/East Prussia ever heal?

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