Notables in Novels: When Real People Have Cameos

Early-1900s pitching great Christy Mathewson.

What do Winston Churchill, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Hitler, Houdini, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, King Louis XIII and Queen Anne, Christy Mathewson, Franklin Roosevelt, Stalin, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington have in common?

They are among the many real-life famous people who’ve had cameos — or more substantial supporting roles — in novels starring fictional characters.

It’s fun to see actual notables pop up in historical fiction, and sometimes in fiction that’s not that historical. We’re curious to see how the authors will portray them, and we hopefully get a sense of what those VIPs were like as living, breathing people rather than cardboard-cutout personages. Often, they’re depicted with various quirks and flaws that help make them feel at least somewhat three-dimensional. 

Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, both of which I read recently, are brimming with World War II-era officials. Of them, President Franklin Roosevelt gets the most page time because fictional U.S. Navy man Victor “Pug” Henry periodically serves under him as a roving military/diplomatic assistant. But we’re also in the room with a fair number of other leaders such as Churchill, Hitler, and Stalin — the last of whom pops up as well in Kate Quinn’s WWII-era novel The Huntress.

Much of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna is set just before WWII — in 1930s Mexico — and features extended appearances by three famous people encountered by made-up protagonist Harrison Shepherd. They are artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and Russian-revolutionary-in-exile Leon Trotsky (who was murdered in 1940 on orders from the aforementioned Stalin).

Set earlier in the 20th century, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime is well-known for mixing fictional characters with actual notables such as Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and Booker T. Washington.

Also set mostly in NYC around that time is E.R. Greenberg’s The Celebrant — about fictional immigrant Jackie Kapp and his friendship with real-life Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants.

Continuing my reverse chronology, another baseball-themed book — Darryl Brock’s time-travel novel If I Never Get Back — has its fictional 20th-century-born main character Sam Fowler meet Mark Twain in 1869 and conduct a secret mission for the iconic author. In Brock’s Two in the Field sequel, Fowler meets General Custer, who is portrayed as negatively as he deserves.

A far-better general, George Washington, turns up in the part of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series set in the American colonies during the 1770s. Fictional protagonist Jamie Fraser briefly serves as an officer under Washington during the war with Great Britain.

Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, which unfolds in the 1600s, includes real-life personages such as King Louis XIII and Queen Anne.

Getting back to the 20th century, an interesting cameo occurs in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden when we briefly meet…John Steinbeck, as a boy.

Any real-life “notables in novels” you’d like to mention?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about an upcoming local Board of Education election and more — is here.

A Sampling of Fiction with an Australian or New Zealand Disposition

Liane Moriarty (center) with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon of the “Big Little Lies” TV series based on Moriarty’s novel. (Getty Images.)

Australia and New Zealand are not that close geographically, but they ARE in the same general region of the world. So, I’m going to include them both in a post about the literature I’ve enjoyed from past and present writers who’ve spent all or some of their lives in those two countries.

I’m doing this as I’m about to read Apples Never Fall, the latest book by Australian author Liane Moriarty — one of my favorite contemporary novelists. I think her Big Little Lies is among the top books of the 21st century, and I also enjoyed her Nine Perfect Strangers, The Husband’s Secret, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, and Truly Madly Guilty. Moriarty expertly mixes readability, social consciousness, and humor as she spotlights three-dimensional women, their friendships (and rivalries) with other women, their oft-complicated relationships with men, and family dynamics. Often with some elements of mystery.

Perhaps Moriarty’s most famous Australian author predecessor was Colleen McCullough, writer of the widely read The Thorn Birds (which inspired a widely watched miniseries) and other compelling novels such as Morgan’s Run. A superb author.

Over in New Zealand, that country’s best-known past author might be Janet Frame. I particularly like her Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room — a disturbing novel about a seemingly dead man who ends up alive, and what happens after that.

More recently in New Zealand, Eleanor Catton wrote the impressively ambitious novel The Luminaries set during her country’s 1860s gold rush. Catton, who was born in Canada but came to New Zealand as a girl, authored The Luminaries while still in her 20s — and won the Booker Prize for that 848-page work.

Nevil Shute was an Englishman but spent his later years in Australia, where he set his most famous novel — the gripping, apocalyptic On the Beach.

Geraldine Brooks grew up in Australia, became a journalist, and ended up in the U.S. Her intense novel March — which focuses on the American Civil War experiences of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women — won the Pulitzer Prize.

James Clavell also did the Australia-to-U.S. thing during a life in which he wrote novels such as the riveting Japan-based epic Shogun and worked in the movie business.

Worth mentioning, too, is Australian writer Frank Moorhouse, whose interesting Grand Days novel focuses on a young Australian woman working for the League of Nations in 1920s Switzerland.

There was also New Zealand’s masterful short-story writer Katherine Mansfield.

Of course, many novels with an Australian or New Zealand setting have been written by authors who didn’t live in either country. Among them is A Rogue’s Life — a brief, good-not-great work by English writer Wilkie Collins of The Woman in White and The Moonstone renown.

I’ve only named novels and authors I’ve read. Any thoughts on them? Any thoughts on other novels and authors with an Australian or New Zealand connection?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about a mass resignation of committee members after Township Council interference — is here.

Taking a Look at the Banning of Books

Angie Thomas with her compelling novel. (Teen Vogue photo.)

When a Tennessee school district last month removed from its curriculum Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust graphic novel Maus, book banning was once again in the news.

I, like most avid readers, oppose book banning. (No surprise there.) If you don’t like a book, don’t read it. Nothing would make me read, say, an Ayn Rand novel, but others are welcome to do so. Some will even survive the experience. 🙂

Then there’s the matter of book banning often making the banned book more popular — as exemplified by Maus climbing current best-seller lists despite it dating back to 1980 (when it started to be serialized). It’s not a banner day for a book banner when there’s a sales spike caused by curiosity and/or people wanting to push back against narrow-mindedness.

Of course, the vast majority of book banning is perpetrated by people and groups on the right. Many conservatives don’t like books that feature anti-racist elements, sexual candor, LGBTQ themes, criticism of negative aspects of organized religion, “bad” language, anti-war sentiment, the depiction of violence that’s unfortunately so prevalent in real life, etc.

But liberals are occasionally in the book-banning camp as well, with one example being past efforts against Adventures of Huckleberry Finn spurred by discomfort with its many uses of the “n-word.” I hate that facet of Mark Twain’s iconic novel, too, even as the issue is complicated by knowing that the book showed “of their time” attitudes and that Twain was mostly anti-racist in Huckleberry Finn as well as in his personal views.

Why did Tennessee’s McMinn County school board ban Maus? Reportedly because the graphic novel contains some swear words, nudity, and suicide. Disturbing to some, sure, but, as Art Spiegelman has noted, the Holocaust was disturbing. Way, way beyond disturbing. If anything, Spiegelman often underplayed things in Maus, from my memory of reading it many years ago. I much more recently read Herman Wouk’s superb War and Remembrance, and the explicit concentration camp and gas chamber scenes in that novel will haunt me for the rest of my life.

The Nazis, of course, banned various books and burned enough copies of them to make the doings in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 look like a picnic. Among the Third Reich’s targets were All Quiet on the Western Front and other writings by German author Erich Maria Remarque, who was disdained by the Nazis for his admirable anti-fascist and anti-war views. Remarque had to flee Germany, and lived the rest of his life elsewhere.

Many other excellent novels have been banned anywhere from once to often. In some cases, banning happened to books that were sexually frank at a time when that was especially frowned upon — with D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) two prime examples. LGBTQ-themed novels, including James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), have also been “cancel-cultured.”

Race can of course be a very fraught topic, as we’ve seen recently with conservatives pushing for students to be taught only history and current events that sanitize America’s virulent racism. One novel banned periodically since its 2017 publication is Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give because of its uncompromising depiction of racism and spotlight on an unjustified shooting of a young Black man by a white police officer. It’s a compelling book, and one really relates to its teen girl protagonist who witnesses the murder by cop.

Even the modern classic To Kill a Mockingbird has seen some challenges from people on the right who don’t like its lens on American racism and also (less frequently) from people on the left who don’t like the idea of a “white savior” (Atticus Finch) being the star of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel. Well, maybe the co-star with his daughter Scout.

The Handmaid’s Tale has also had bouts with banning. Not a shock given that Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel depicts an nth-degree level of patriarchy and oppression of woman. Plus it’s clear that the author’s target is at least partly America’s far-right Christian evangelicals, who like to think they’re ultra-moral but are anything but.

Surprisingly, there’s also been some banning of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books because of their depiction of magic. Gee, as if young readers would take all that witchcraft literally rather than literature-ly.

I’ve read every novel I mentioned in this post, and they were all well worth the time. I learned a lot, I felt rage for and sympathy with victims of social injustice, and I was entertained. What a loss to be prevented from reading such works — although determined people can usually get their hands on banned books, whether in print or digital format.

Thoughts on this topic? Some of your favorite novels that have been banned?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about masks in schools and more — is here.

Supporting Characters: Why We Like Them

Outlander novelist Diana Gabaldon between Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan — who, in their roles as born-two-centuries-apart couple Claire and Jamie, interact with many memorable supporting characters in the Outlander TV series. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images.)

I support the idea that supporting characters are important. 

They’re a big part of the world authors build in their novels; they’re needed for the protagonists to interact with; and they’re frequently quite interesting in their own right.

What they’re often NOT is super-three-dimensional. Why? In most novels, of course, less space is devoted to a supporting character than to a book’s star, so there’s less space to really flesh out secondary players. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because somewhat-one-dimensional characters can be quite memorable in their somewhat-one-dimensional-ness. 

I noticed this while currently reading the ninth Outlander novel, Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone. Diana Gabaldon’s riveting series with time-travel elements is chock-full of distinctive supporting characters, with a notable Bees example the strict, stiff, religious, judgmental Elspeth Cunningham — a woman in her 60s or 70s who’s among the settlers living near the Fraser family in 18th-century North Carolina.

Actually, Elspeth becomes a bit more nuanced as the novel goes on. That can happen with supporting characters, as is the case with nosy neighbor Rachel Lynde of L.M. Montgomery’s wonderful Anne of Green Gables and several of its sequels. She morphs from a gossiping busybody to kind of likable.

Very likable yet mostly one-note — as supporting characters often are — is Helen Burns of Charlotte Bronte’s iconic Jane Eyre. That suffering young friend of Jane’s at the miserable Lowood institution is kind, patient, forgiving, and near-saintly. She almost feels more like a symbol than a human being, but stays in the reader’s mind.

Much less saintly is Flintwinch in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, who ruthlessly uses the secrets he knows to gain power over people and get ahead in life.

Not quite so evil but definitely fraudulent are “the duke” and “the dauphin” — the colorful conmen encountered by Mississippi River travelers Huck and Jim in Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Speaking of on-the-water novels, the cast of Herman Melville’s epic Moby-Dick includes Starbuck — the Quaker first mate who’s a “voice of reason” on the Pequod ship. (It’s a small role, but Captain Ahab’s underling would become the novel’s star of stars of sorts as the namesake for the Starbucks coffee chain.)

Another minor character who makes a major splash is Flicka, a teen girl suffering from a serious disease. She is fatalistic, funny, and charismatic in (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That — a compelling novel that takes a well-deserved smack at America’s profit-driven medical system.

Death is even more pronounced in Nikolai Gogol’s ultra-quirky Dead Souls, whose supporting characters include the glib, rakish, lying Nozdryov.

And it’s hard to forget Otto Katz — a Jewish-born Catholic priest who’s an atheist (and a drunk) in Jaroslav Hasek’s hilarious The Good Soldier Svejk.

I realize I’ve only scratched the surface here. Any supporting characters you’d like to mention? Anything you’d like to say about the role of secondary players in novels?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about an alternate universe of tiny development — is here.