Many of us who loved to read when we were very young, who read everything we could get our hands on starting in elementary school, at some point had a historical fiction phase. For me, this took the form of devouring books by Ann Rinaldi, Scott O’Dell, the Dear America series, even (gulp) the American Girl Dolls books. This seems natural to me in the way that the popularity of fantasy and science fiction do—what could be better than discovering, along with characters and their fates, entire worlds?
What I think we forget as we grow up is how truly weird the past can be. But fortunately, we readers have Ben Stroud to remind us. In his story “The Traitor of Zion,” idealistic settlers overlap with whiskey smugglers on an island utopia in Lake Michigan. But to give that summary, spoiler free though it is, grossly undersells this story—not for nothing did it first appear in Ecotone’s Sex and Death issue.
Stroud’s layers of story are immersing. There’s a charlatan, as you may have suspected, but throughout the story the characters’ moralities are overturned—fathers acknowledge failings to their daughters, lovers fail in atonement, and enemies become new brothers. The characters are driven by desires not different from our own—a twenty-three-year-old works a dead end job during the day and drinks away his nights, all while wishing for some greater purpose. Stroud’s characters long for love, purity and grace, and struggle between the pulls of the sacred and the profane, the safety of home and the call of adventure.
The story opens thus: “They had become something of a fascination of mine: communes cut out of the interior, new societies where all were equal and either Jesus or Liberty reigned.” It’s a gentle entry, modern-feeling, and it previews the way that Stroud, despite its setting in the mid-1800s, makes this tale feel as familiar as any of contemporary suburbia. The story succeeds through historically accurate and surprising details, not belabored scene. Like the tip of Hemingway’s iceberg, you know there is more knowledge of this time and setting than is allowed to seep onto the page. I’ve come to believe that trust in the author is one of the most crucial aspects of a short story, and at all times we’re in very capable hands. Speaking of hands and terrific writing, our protagonist carves wooden simulacrums of them, which are mirrored later, eerily, by the hands of the man he has killed, rising up from the corpse as it sinks into the waters of Lake Michigan.
I wonder why historical fiction seems to be so firmly attached to the novel—there have been many wonderful historical novels in recent years, from Wolf Hall to this year’s Booker prize winning The Luminaries, but it seems to me that historical narratives have been comparatively ignored by the story form. Hardly any cross my desk in reading Ecotone’s fiction submissions. I wonder why this is; with this story, and Stroud’s excellent collection, Byzantium (Graywolf), in which “The Traitor of Zion” is included, I posit that perhaps this should change.
Ecotone Fiction Editor