The Past Is Messy and Repeats Itself: The Trap of Fairytale Victory Endings in Historical Fiction
Allison Epstein on the Popularity of World War II Novels, Reform Movements, and Why We Need Historical Stories
This essay isn’t about World War II. But like any historical fiction writer publishing in 2023, it’s impossible to ignore the recent wave of WWII novels that fill bookstore shelves at the moment. As someone who reads and enjoys many of these books but has no desire to write one, I have a theory about what drives their tremendous popularity in the historical fiction market. As a global conflict, WWII—the European front in particular—has all the elements of an archetypal tale: a clear hero and an inarguable villain, and a reassuring ending in which the villains, however horrifying their crimes, will not carry the day.
Obviously, the actual history of WWII isn’t such a simple story. That’s a fairy tale, not history; real history makes us grapple with the atrocities of the heroes as well as the villains. But the building blocks of that narrative make for a deeply satisfying story. It’s harder to pull literary satisfaction from a historical conflict that ends messily, without a neat resolution or a signed treaty. But given the world we’re living in today, I think we have just as much, if not more, to learn from those stories. Certainly they’re the ones I feel drawn to now.
My new novel, Let the Dead Bury the Dead, is very much interested in historical failures. Set in an alternate version of nineteenth-century Saint Petersburg, it follows three characters—a loyal army captain, an idealistic nobleman, and an instigator of an urban uprising—as they try to answer the question social reformers have faced forever: what needs to change for this country to be fair, just, and free?
Some of my characters accept the risks of that question wholeheartedly. They fling themselves into the fight for their own human rights, knowing that change doesn’t come without personal sacrifice. Others, seeing the titanic strength of the Russian Empire at this moment in history, keep their heads down and cling to their place in it. Selfishness isn’t an admirable emotion, but it’s common and human. If the system protects you, it takes a particular type of bravery to stand up to it.
The uprising described in my novel is invented, but the forces and human impulses behind it recur constantly throughout Russian history. As I continued to research the book, this was the historical thread I became most interested in tracing: the agonizing, circular pattern of failed rebellion, the pendulum swing of attempted progress.
Say “rebellion” and “Russia” in the same sentence and most people will think of the Russian Revolution proper, the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family and the rise of the Bolshevik party. But the sweep of Russian history goes back much further, and for virtually all of that time, rebellion crackled just under the country’s surface.
Whether the uprising was led by Ivan Bolotnikov in 1606, Stenka Razin in 1670, Yemelyan Pugachev in 1773, or the military collective known as the Decembrists in 1825, the shape of all these failed revolutions is broadly the same. A force arises against autocracy, most often confronting the ruling party by using its same bloody tactics. Some citizens choose to side with the oppressors because doing so is familiar, or more profitable, or safer. The autocratic government uses its superior force and resources to put down the rebellion and then doubles down, using the excuse of law and order to reimpose the status quo even more brutally than before.
Again, history has no fairy tales. The attempted rebellions I’ve mentioned above were complex, messy social movements. They all contain moral shades of gray, some of them darker than others. Innocent lives lost. Towns massacred. Crimes against humanity. I don’t want to smooth over any of these truths. But when we zoom out enough to see a pattern, the movement toward and away from reform seems clear to me.
And this pattern is familiar here at home as well. Whether it’s Reconstruction followed by the horrors of Jim Crow, or the Obama presidency followed by Muslim bans, anti-AAPI hate crimes, and torchlit chants of “Jews will not replace us,” Americans are plenty familiar with the idea of attempted progress followed by backsliding and failure. And we’re also plenty familiar with people choosing to uphold those broken systems because it’s easier, or less frightening, or because they genuinely believe they have the right to put others down.
All this is enough to send you into an existential spiral, if you’re of a pessimistic frame of mind. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but what if history is nothing but repetition, minor variations on the same theme?
I can’t allow myself to think that way, though. It’s tempting, but it’s not productive, and, besides that, it’s not sustainable. Hopelessness doesn’t serve anyone, even when it seems morally righteous.
You can call it self-delusion if you want to, but I think there’s a reason to find hope in the cycle of attempt and failure. Namely, that the desire to try again never seems to go away.
The circular nature of reform tells us two things, I think. One, that no effort has ever been fully successful. There are always ideals left unreached, people left behind, values compromised. And two, that the instinct for reform is never truly crushed, even if the rebellions fighting for it come to an end.
Movements for justice appear over and over again, throughout both Russian and American history. Sometimes centuries separate one attempt from the next. Other times, it’s decades. But ideas, as it turns out, are very hard to destroy completely.
Let the Dead Bury the Dead is being published during a high point of Russian autocracy and violence, at least in my lifetime. The war crimes of President Putin’s army during the massacre of Ukrainian civilians at Bucha are now a year and a half in the past, and the Western news cycle has largely phased out its wall-to-wall coverage of the invasion and ongoing attempted genocide of the people of Ukraine, but it is still happening.
Every day, it is still happening. When I sat down to write this essay, the United Nations estimated that almost 27,000 civilians had been killed since the war began February of last year. By the time you read this, it will undoubtedly be more.History has no fairy tales. The attempted rebellions I’ve mentioned above were complex, messy social movements. They all contain moral shades of gray, some of them darker than others.
So what happens next? I can’t pretend to know. I’m not a geopolitical expert. I’m a fiction writer and a student of history. But what I do know is that without hope, the world feels unbearably dark. And change comes from action, not despair.
Sometimes history gives us a triumphant narrative. Sometimes it’s easy to narrow your focus on the fairy-tale ending, the special day on the calendar to celebrate victory. More often, history gives us an inch, then takes it away again.
I don’t take comfort in saying this, exactly. But the centuries-old pattern is hard to ignore. And even if we’re in the middle of a backslide, with enough determination, we can make the next step forward count. I don’t see that we have a choice.
Let the Dead Bury the Dead by Allison Epstein is available via Doubleday.