October 2011

Biography vs. Biographical Fiction

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

Those of us who enjoy biographies should also remember that sometimes you can get nearly as much out of a well-researched biographical novel.  Although some liberties have often been taken, certain authors are known for sticking as close to historical fact as possible.  Philippa Gregory is one of the top biographical novelists I can think of -- many of her novels are based on real historical figures, and anyone reading these books can tell how much work she put into researching the people and the historical period.

A Great Deal on a Landmark Autobiography

Autobiography of Mark Twain

Yesterday the Nook Daily Find on BN.com was Mark Twain's Autobiography, the first volume of a work with completely new material.  The book was published in 2010, a hundred years after Twain's death, as he'd instructed -- he didn't want to be around when it was published.  I've had my eye on this one since it came out, but the ebook was expensive at first $12 or so, I seem to remember.  The Nook Daily Find price was $6.99, so I snatched it up.  (If you want to follow in my footsteps, don't wait -- most likely the price will go back up soon!)

Founding Sisters

Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott

Erik Larson's Devil in the White City got me interested in the kind of history book that read more like a novel than dry nonfiction.  Shortly after I finished that book, I picked up Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott, a similar style book about prostitution in Chicago -- and the sisters who ran the famous Everleigh Club.  Although this book is a novel-like history book similar to Larson's books, it is also a biography of two women who essentially reinvented themselves -- and invented the concept of high-class prostitution that the Everleigh Club became famous for.

It Takes a Village

The Killing of Crazy Horse by Thomas Powers

You've probably heard the saying that it takes a village to raise a child.  In The Killing of Crazy Horse, Thomas Powers shows how it takes one to kill one, too.

Not that Crazy Horse was a child, or everyone involved in his death was in his village, but what I mean is this: Powers shows how intricate the events were that led to Crazy Horse's death, and how many people were involved -- directly and indirectly -- in bringing it to bear.

It's an intricate biography, one that follows many different people's actions and movements throughout the years, not just Crazy Horse's but also those of the main players who were there or involved when he was killed.  Every time Powers introduces someone else, he inevitably jumps back to their history and how they became involved in the Indian Wars and Crazy Horse.  This makes for a lot of jumping around, and a very convoluted (not necessarily linear) story, but eventually you see why: Powers is trying to establish the character of each man involved, to better demonstrate how each one fits into the puzzle.

Finally the book gets around to giving a thorough description of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and by the time you get there you feel like you've been waiting for it like a child waiting for Christmas.  The rest of the book, the events leading up to Crazy Horse's death, are very drawn-out, too -- it's tough knowing what's coming, and seeing all the missed opportunities to change it.

I've always been fascinated with Crazy Horse's story, but Powers brings it to life like nothing I'd ever read before.  What he's done differently is to paint a picture of not just Crazy Horse himself, but also of all the movers and shakers who surround him -- American military leaders and scouts, as well as some of his own people.  The Killing of Crazy Horse is an amazing book, and though it's a lengthy one, it's also one you won't regret reading.