Quill and Quire

Linda Granfield

« Back to
Author Profiles

Granfield brings history alive

Linda Granfield’s childhood, not surprisingly, was steeped in history. Born in a suburb of Boston, a location she describes as “within an hour of everything,” she frequented the sites of the American Revolution, chasing the ghost of Paul Revere, walking the battle lines of Concord. When she read Little Women for the first time, her parents packed her and her siblings up in the car and drove to the former home of Louisa May Alcott and showed her the room and desk where she wrote the novel. She visited Emerson’s house, and read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter while sitting on the front steps of the Customs House where he once worked.

Linda GranfieldNow a resident of Toronto (she came in her 20s to pursue doctoral work in Victorian literature) she has produced a dozen non-fiction books, about topics as diverse as Niagara Falls, newspapers, cowboys, and the Canadian electoral system.

This spring sees the publication of Amazing Grace: The Story of the Hymn. It’s her follow- up to 1995’s multiple-award-winning In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae, which has gone on to be published in the United States and Britain, and has sold more than 20,000 hardcover copies in Canada alone.

In conversation, Granfield’s love of history and research is obvious: she leaps from one topic to another, one century to the next, sentences unfinished. She talks of “meeting” people in her research – people who have been dead for hundreds of years. She is always wondering about the nooks and crannies of history, the tantalizing tangents.

With Amazing Grace, her focus is John Newton, the reformed 18th-century slave trader who went on to write the words to one of the world’s best-known hymns. Like McCrae, Newton is an intriguing and somewhat ambivalent character for the modern reader. McCrae’s famous poem, though so closely linked with Remembrance Day, is hardly a pacifist plea. It combines intense sorrow over the loss of life with a passionate exhortation to keep fighting. John Newton, too, proves a slippery character. Even though he himself was enslaved as a teen on an African plantation, as a God-fearing adult he went on to make three voyages as captain of a slave trader.

“You want people to understand it’s different times,” Granfield says, stressing the importance of historical accuracy. She refuses to whitewash the facts or sensibilities of the period. In her book, she writes that even after John Newton forsook the slave trade and became an ordained minister, it was almost two decades before he wrote a pamphlet condemning slavery. And even then, he began by lamenting the deaths of British seamen as a result of the slave trade. “Of his time,” Granfield insists, “Newton is perfectly in the right, slavery’s perfectly acceptable. And that’s great because it gets the reader all fired up and huffy. ’Cause I want you huffy.”

Granfield’s desire to engage her readers extends to her school visits. For Flanders, she produced a slide presentation: she wanted the kids to see real photographs of war, of soldiers who were not so much older than themselves. “You’ll show a picture of these filthy soldiers sitting in all the holes in the side of the trenches, and the room goes totally quiet, and kids just stare at it.”

Granfield knows it’s people, not dates and political upheavals, that make history come alive. “Kids say history stinks. Well, it doesn’t. You’re history. It’s just you have to ask questions when you go home.” Granfield says that after some of her school visits, teachers will call her and tell her about kids who returned to school with pictures, or anecdotes, or medals. “They’re talking about personal history, and that’s all I care about, because I’m sick of seeing field trips into museums. Forget it.”

Granfield’s also sick of encyclopedias in school libraries. “Every school I go into, I go: ‘Let’s bury those encyclopedias … they’re 20 years old. Have a little funeral.’” But what replaces them? Granfield’s alternative sounds imaginative if somewhat unwieldy. “The kids can learn to use interviews – go talk to your grandmother, learn about the Depression: ‘what did you eat?’ Go look for more books on the subject. Or go start collecting all the crud you throw out in your house, the back of the Quaker Oatmeal wrappers that tell you about five animals. Why not use that to start a science fair? Don’t go look up prairie dogs in the encyclopedias where the stuff is probably wrong anyway. Or the teacher can bring in her junk drawer from the kitchen. Rubber band – is it made out of rubber? Jimmy, go find out. Popsicle stick – who invented it? Go find out. There it is: non-fiction in a drawer. Just get a little more creative.” She laughs. “But I wouldn’t want to correct those papers either.”

Some might think such school exercises lunatic, but they aren’t so different from Granfield’s own preferred methods of inspiration and research. “I spend a lot of my research time in dirty old back rooms,” she admits with relish, “basements of galleries and antique shops – that’s the extra mile on these books, otherwise I’m just producing the same thing as somebody else.” She wants original details to bring a story to life. She’s started using the Internet for leads to sources; she uses her phone and fax machine to access world-class art galleries. Above all she relies heavily on interviews: “Some of my best stuff has been through human stories.” Before approaching a publisher with an idea, Granfield spends a considerable amount of time testing her proposal. She considers it pointless to repeat someone else’s efforts. When she’s not satisfied with what she finds on a topic, she’s more likely to be spurred to write about it.

At times her research can become obsessive. During Flanders, while reading the journals of soldiers in the trenches, she says, “I was having nightmares. I’d wake up and think they were going to throw the lime on me in the pits.” (Lime was used on corpses to help the bodies decompose faster.)

Though Granfield claims she tries to keep a 10- to 12-year- old in mind when writing, her style and vocabulary are in no way juvenile. “At a certain point, I’m not going to pander to a 10- year-old vocabulary. Frankly, if they don’t know a word, it’s a good time to look it up.” It’s a refreshing attitude given the epidemic of books deliberately engineered for impoverished vocabularies and attention spans.

But Granfield certainly doesn’t consider the audience for her books limited to children. Increasingly she sees the dividing line between children and adults as irrelevant, and has started to call her work family books. “It’s intergenerational. An adult could be just as satisfied as the kid in the family, or the student who picks it up.”

She expresses some frustration at how her books are classified by people, especially librarians. Are they picture books or non-fiction? Do they belong in the children’s section, or the adult? Also frustrating is the fact her books are shelved all over a library, depending on subject and time period – unlike fiction writers, whose work appears in one place, allowing it to develop a following. “You don’t build that reputation,” she says.

Nonetheless, 1997 will be a big year for Granfield – more she insists, because of publishing schedules, and the fact she works on more than one project at a time, than a sudden explosion of productivity. Amazing Grace is just the first of three books she will have published this year. Circus: An Album (Groundwood) has been in the making for four years; and Silent Night: The Song of Heaven (Tundra) will be coming out in the fall, well-timed for Christmas. Following the same model as her previous two titles, it has caused Granfield to reflect on how far she will take the “story of” concept, despite its appeal, and the richness of historical exploration it affords. “There are worse things,” she says humorously. “It’s not as if it’s Goosebumps. It’s not as if these ideas are random.” Granfield has book projects lined up until 1999. Regardless of their form, it seems fairly certain her ideas are driven more by fascination with a given subject than any serial cynicism. “I just grew up loving history,” she explains, “so I just keep finding more and more ideas. It’s endless.”