Following Erika Dreifus's recommendation on her excellent blog Practicing Writing, I picked up Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help recently. You've probably heard of the novel already. Not only is it a major bestseller--a literary book that has "broken out"-- but it is already being developed into a major motion picture. I heartily recommend The Help. Although you hear this sort of thing said all the time, I literally "could not put it down." It explores a flash point issue--the relationship between black house servants and their white employees--at a flash point time in our history--the early 1960s, when civil rights struggles were becoming white hot. These various tensions are expertly explored and manipulated by Stockett. Most impressive is how Stockett manages to capture a variety of white and black voices. I believe every one of her characters. I feel them as individuals not types.
My own definition of historical fiction is fiction that is set in a time prior to the author's birth. For the author, therefore, that time period is not simply remembered and described but a part of history to be evoked through imagination and research. That's a crucial difference. Stockett did grow up in Jackson, Mississippi--the setting for her novel--and did have personal experience with African-American help who worked for white employers (she recounts her own history in an afterword), but given that she was not alive in 1962-1964, I'll call her novel historical. Besides, given that the 60s were one of the most contentious and important decades America ever lived through, it's hard not to see any novel set in that time as evoking history. All that said, I must hold Stockett's feet to the fire for one or two instances of historical inaccuracy. For the most part she does superbly well, mentioning and/or dramatically using the events of 1962, 1963, and 1964 in credible and careful fashion. I did notice a big anachronism, however. One of her characters--in the summer of 1963--disparagingly describes a group of Yankee civil rights activists as "hippies" who flash peace signs all the time. No. Not in 1963. Not before Kennedy's death. The peace movement, and the peace sign, came out of the anti-Vietnam war movement. And as long as Kennedy was president, Vietnam was a minor footnote on the American political landscape. Civil rights was the much more prominent issue. Not until Johnson became president and greatly escalated our involvement in Vietnam--and the number of American deaths became noticeable--were there any peace protesters or peace signs. Certainly, "hippies" is a purely late-60s coinage. Just looking at photos of the northerners who traveled to the south in the early 60s to assist with voter registration reveals that these were not "hippies." (Not even the Beatles had very long hair in 1963.)
It's a minor flaw in a very good book that demonstrates few historical missteps, but given the glaring anachronism it did stick out to, and disappoint, me. It's an example of how easy it is for even a talented writer of historical fiction to go awry if she's not careful. Even so, go buy and read The Help.