Exploring History Through Fictional Characters

This year in ELA, we are tracing some of the major events in American history and exploring the ways in which history can be conveyed through the experiences of fictional characters, often presented as a blend of documented “truth” and imaginative speculation. As Colson Whitehead has explained it, in discussing his novel The Underground Railroad, he wanted to stick to “the truth of things, not the facts.” In this spirit, we’ve read about Cora escaping the slavery of the Antebellum South via a modern city of skyscrapers, and Billy Pilgrim’s journey from Dresden, Germany in WWII to life in a human zoo aboard a flying saucer. 

At the same time, we are examining the conversations that authors have with each other through their texts, and finding connections—explicit and implicit—from one story to another. And so we have paired Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad with Anne Frank’s Diary and have discovered new ways to view and talk about these stories, and the events they depict, in the context of the other. It has been a wild, winding journey, as Vonnegut might describe it, “somewhat in the telegraphic, schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from.” So it goes.

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