Did it really happen that way?
All historical fiction begins with an actual incident, period, or person; how closely the tale then adheres to history depends partly on the novelist’s personal taste and integrity, and partly on how much detail we have for that particular subject. For example, Ms. Sensationalist, setting her tale in Mycenean Greece, enjoys and employs a great deal more latitude than Mr. Fidelity, whose protagonist fights at the Battle of Iwo Jima. Ms. Sensationalist is more concerned with titillating readers, providing plenty of thrills, and importing 21st-century mores to the ancient world than with hewing to history. Aiding her is the lack of much knowledge of or documentation for this era; mostly, clay tablets recording inventories and archaeological finds of palaces tell us about life then. So it’s easy to create a heroine who obsesses over women’s rights and saving the environment while hopping into bed with every guy she meets.
Contrast that with the 1940’s: there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of artifacts — everything from letters and telegrams to contemporary film and the memories of witnesses who are still alive — that testify about those times. If Mr. Fidelity wishes to fictionalize the life of, say, the Japanese general, Tadamichi Kuribayashi, he has set himself a monumental task. Indeed. I would imagine that historians have documented virtually every moment of Kuribayashi’s days at Iwo Jima. But what if the novel’s plot calls for Kuribayashi to be someplace he wasn’t, issue orders he didn’t, or act in ways that aren’t true to his personality? How much the novelist stretches the truth depends on his preferences and honesty.
Halestorm includes an extensive Author’s Note in which I differentiate what I invented from established fact. But of course, despite the very best of intentions and the most rigorous documentation, we’ll never know what really happened — to Nathan or anyone else who preceded us.
Was Nathan really as perfect as you portray?
He’d probably have been a more sympathetic character if he’d had some flaws. But despite exhaustive research, I couldn’t find any. About the worst accusation anyone ever levelled was that he was a tardy correspondent.
Some of that goodness is due to his dying so young. He didn’t have as much time as most other folks do to mess up. And some of it may be retrospective hagiography: he became such a martyr for the Cause that acquaintances who may have known something unflattering kept silent, either because of their own veneration for that Cause or because speaking ill of the dead then earned the gossip a reputation as unspeakably gauche.
You can see the dilemma I faced: do I remain true to history as we have it, or do I invent some sins and scandals? I chose to remain true to history while imbuing Nathan with a few foibles: he steals pies from Benedict Arnold (that entire incident is completely fabricated, though I based it on a fine Yale College issued him for an unspecified infraction); he never wins at checkers; and he loves puns (here I exaggerated: he once punned on his name in a doodle, writing “Nathan Hail,” and I inflated that to a fixation with puns).
In the Author’s Note, you say that Nathan never spoke his most famous line — “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country” — yet those are exactly the words you portray him delivering from the gallows. Why?
Almost everybody who is familiar with Nathan knows him for that line — indeed, it’s often the only “fact” retained from high-school history. Unless folks read my Author’s Note first, they’ll expect those words in the final chapter. I didn’t want to disappoint.
Why Nathan Hale?
I’ve loved Nathan ever since I first heard or read about him — can’t remember which it was because I was very small. His story deeply affected me, perhaps more than it does other children: two weeks before I was born, a truck hit the car my mother’s 16-year-old brother was driving and killed him. I understood firsthand and from an early age the consuming void a young man’s death leaves.
It also happened that my uncle’s name was Dale. As little kids will, I conflated him in my mind with Nathan. Nathan Dale-Hale became a very beloved, even if absent, older brother to me.
Have a question about Nathan Hale or Halestorm that remains unanswered? Email me at libertatem(at)aol.com.