Photo Credit: Farewell Arch in South Framingham, Massachusetts, where Massachusetts troops departed for the Spanish–American War in 1898, from Reminiscences of Company F, Second Regt. Massachusetts Infantry, U.S.V., First Brigade, Second Division, Fifth Army Corps, Of Gardner in the War With Spain, With Historical Data, 1906, author unknown: Kges1901/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0
When talking about historical fiction, time matters. Even specific years matter because history has shown that what can happen from one year to the next can rapidly change the world. This was my thinking behind setting the Waxwood Series in the last decade of the 19th century. Book 1 of the series, The Specter, takes place in 1892, and Book 2 of the series, False Fathers, takes place six years later, in 1898.
Authors always have to consider what events occurred outside of the text in the time period in which the book is set and whether to incorporate those events or ignore them (as Jane Austin largely ignores the Napoleonic Wars in much of her fiction). My approach is primarily to focus on the psychological reality of the characters as they live within their time, so outside events may or may not play a role. I am not a fan of historical fiction that includes copious amounts of information dumps about historical events and people in order to create an atmosphere of the past for readers. I believe the specific details of life, especially social and psychological, makes the historical context more real than any detailed description of a historical event that may not be relevant to the characters’ conflicts and journeys.
However, this doesn’t mean that historical events don’t have a place in my fiction. In fact, in False Fathers, the Spanish-American War plays an important role in the story, not so much the events of the war itself as its meaning to Jake Alderdice, the protagonist of the book, and other male characters in the book.
The Spanish-American War stands out in the annals of American history for several reasons. First, it was a very short war. War was officially declared on April 21, 1898 and the fighting ended on August 13, 1898 (though the war officially ended four months later). America involved itself in this war for both financial and humanitarian reasons. And the consequences of the war for the United States helped to push the nation toward one of the greatest changes that occurred during the Gilded Age — it hurled the country onto the world stage.
The war involved fighting in Cuba, a colony of Spain at the time. Spanish rule was oppressive to Cuban insurgents, and they had been fighting three years prior. The brutal treatment of the Cubans by the Spanish gained a lot of sympathy in the United States, thanks to the yellow journalism popular at the time. It was very much on the minds of Americans. Author Gertrude Atherton, in her novel Senator North, published in 1900 and set a bit earlier, shows Washington society discussing the war constantly at their dinner parties and picnics, and outlines some of the great debates going on in the Senate about whether America should or should not enter the war. The thing that pushed America to declare war on Spain was the sinking of the battleship USS Maine, which newspapers played up as having been caused by either mines or torpedoes fired by the Spanish army (though it was never established whether this was really true, or whether it was some kind of technical error having nothing to do with the Spanish).
A major player in the war was Teddy Roosevelt, who left his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in order to join in the fighting with a group of soldiers known as the Rough Riders. This short war made Roosevelt a hero and cemented his emerging political career at the turn of the 20th century. The nation insured independence for Cuba (which helped with political and financial trade) and gained control over the Pacific, including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. The war also allowed the United States to declare Hawaii its territory (though Hawaii wouldn’t become a state until 1959).
In False Fathers, which takes place during the summer of 1898, the war is very much on the minds of Waxwood’s resort guests. In one scene, Jake and Stevens, a father figure who guides Jake throughout the book on his journey to manhood, are watching Stevens’ cousin Roger and his friends play billiards, and the subject of the Spanish-American War comes up:
They were, Jake realized, not completely ignorant of all but their tight little world of games and touching the edge of vice. They discussed with some seriousness the war in Cuba, bringing forth different opinions peppered by the usual boyish attitude of having taken words out of the mouths of their fathers or uncles.
“— Says we ought to pull out while the getting’s good,” said Norris Harrington. “It’s not worth the lives already given for it.”
“And let Spain take over?” Andrew Trent scoffed as he spilled two balls in the pocket. “We’re not there for fancy, boy. We’re there so all can see we are a power.”
For these young men who are coming of age in the last years of the 19th century, the war symbolizes the potential for bigger and better things, not only on a national level, but on a psychological level for them as young men going out into the world. The idea of power expands both in the public and private spheres.