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Perspective: Truth in fiction

Ed Robertson

As a history teacher, it’s hard to resist good non-fiction. In my free time, you’d often find me wedged between the pages of history books, biographies, and political stories. The last one that grabbed me was David Blight’s big biography of Frederick Douglass, whose 900 pages are well-worth the time and effort. When people find out I teach, many express their love for the “true stories” over fiction. They seek solidarity in never cracking a novel again. That’s too bad because there is much truth in fiction, if one knows where to look.

Aside from reading about Douglass, I've spent the year with some great fiction. I’ve been rereading my favorites and getting to some I’ve missed along the way. I've particularly enjoyed the novels of Laila Lalami and Gish Jen, two new authors for me. I’d forgotten how hard it is to put down a good novel. The last one I read was an old favorite, The Lord of the Rings.

I’d never noticed how that story deals with so many truths beneath the high-fantasy narrative. I found ideas like: the corrupting nature of power, how do you deal with evil when it disrupts your everyday life, the place of ordinary and familiar people in the great deeds of history, and maintaining hope in the face of overwhelming evil. Those are some of the same themes that resonated with me in Blight’s biography of Douglass.

As a person who teaches the “true stories,” I also know a well-written novel can be just as true to life. That new award winner or old favorite is worth a closer look. It may ring truer than you think.

I’m Robert Ullrich and that’s my perspective.

Robert Ullrich is a Social Studies teacher at North Boone Middle School and lives in Rockford.