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  • “A History Not Then Taught in History Books”:(Re)Writing Reconstruction in Historical Fiction for Children and Young Adults
  • Marla Harris (bio)

Set in Virginia during Reconstruction, Elsie's Motherhood (1876) is a sustained attack on the Ku Klux Klan. The fifth volume of Martha Finley's best-selling, nineteenth-century American series has a remarkable plot for at least two reasons. First, Finley's stubbornly pro-South, pro-slavery bias is evident in the series' earlier novels—Elsie Dinsmore (1867); Elsie's Holidays at Roselands (1868); Elsie's Girlhood (1872); and Elsie's Womanhood (1875). When Elsie, the daughter of a wealthy slave-owner, witnesses the whipping of the female field-slave Suse, she is initially horrified, until the other slaves convince her that Suse deserves her punishment: "She's always 'plaining ob de misery in her back, an' misery in her head; but don't ebery one hab a misery, some kind, most days? An' go on workin' all de same" (Girlhood 64). After the Civil War, Elsie's ex-slaves "don't want no freedom" (Womanhood 276). They prefer to continue "as kind and generously cared for as in the old days of slavery" on her plantations (Motherhood 31). Second, Finley's depiction of the Klan is written for young readers before many books questioning Reconstruction had become popular for adult readers. Elsie's Motherhood predates by three years Albion Winegar Tourgee's semi-autobiographical A Fool's Errand (1879), one of the best-known contemporary novels about Reconstruction. Written from the point of view of a transplanted Northerner, Tourgee's novel is, however, intended for an adult audience, while Finley's appears within a series widely regarded as fiction for girls.

The Civil War continues to be a perennially popular theme for children's fiction. Yet, the Reconstruction Era of 1865 to 1877, which [End Page 94] saw the emergence of the Klan's first incarnation, has been virtually ignored by children's novelists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Anxiety about Reconstruction sometimes surfaced indirectly. Brandy Parris explains, for example, how the animal stories published in Our Young Folks, a Northern children's magazine (1865–73), "enabled the discussion of sensitive issues surrounding Reconstruction by displacing tensions between people onto less politically charged tensions with and between animals" (27). Through these anthropomorphized tales, white children were taught sympathy for formerly enslaved African Americans, but the images tended to reinforce both the idea that African Americans were essentially Other and that they were unable to cope with freedom.

In general, Northern and Southern children's writers segued from the Civil War as a subject to postwar narratives of Westward expansion and immigration. Reconstruction's continued neglect in the twentieth century probably was due, in no small part, to the far-reaching influence of the film Birth of a Nation (1915), directed by D. W. Griffith, based on Thomas Dixon's racist melodrama novel The Clansmen (1905); it was lent academic credibility by white historians, including President Woodrow Wilson. Film historian Leon Litwack estimates that "From 1915 to 1946, some two hundred million people viewed the film in the United States and overseas" (136). Demonizing African Americans and deifying white racists, the film perpetuated "the perverse view of Radical Reconstruction as an unrelieved orgy of black misrule," whereas in reality "The Radical governments were overthrown not because they were corrupt but because the reforms they instituted threatened the supremacy of whites and the subordination of black labor" (Litwack 140). Despite the film's gross inaccuracies "More than any historian or textbook, the vivid images conveyed by The Birth of a Nation shaped American attitudes towards Reconstruction" (140).

Nonetheless, since the late 1980s there has been increasing interest in this period among both African American and white children's writers, including Patricia Beatty, Sandra Forrester, Joyce Hansen, Carolyn Reeder, Harriette Gillem Robinet, and Mildred Taylor. Coincidentally, in the 1990s, the Elsie books, including Elsie's Motherhood, were adapted for modern readers; I will return to this phenomenon later in the essay. While Finley embeds her critique of the Klan within a narrative that endorses the superiority of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, more recently white and African American novelists...


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