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>Go west, young man, WEST!

>Childlit has been debating historical accuracy in fiction–what’s dramatic license and what’s a betrayal, basically. It makes me think of the many romances of stage, screen and text where Elizabeth R and Mary, Queen of Scots excitingly rail at each other, when in real life they never met.

It also makes me remember when Elizabeth (L) and I saw When Harry Met Sally and laughed about the improbability of these two chipper coeds actually attending the University of Chicago when they were so clearly Northwestern types. We were outraged, however, when the film sent them on their way from Chicago to New York by heading NORTH on Lake Shore Drive, which would only take you to the East Coast if you went via the Soo Locks.
Yesterday I was reading a (terrific) novel which in one spot took its main character to my neighborhood. I got a little worried for him when he got off the subway and walked five blocks east when in real life there is no there there. The street he was on only heads west. A shame, really–he was an intriguing character and the right direction would have practically brought him to my doorstep!
It of course doesn’t matter and few will notice (and fewer care). But maybe it’s a lesson about our standards regarding accuracy–we mostly only notice when it hits home.
Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >I have the same feeling when (and wow, there is no way to say this without sounding like a horrible snobby Brahmin tool) I read fiction about Harvard. It is amazing the stuff they get wrong — and it’s often written by people who went to Harvard, too. Gah.

  2. >Ever read a newspaper article about something that happened with which you had first hand experience? Important facts are always wrong in some way. Now, to my mind, THAT’s something to ponder.


  3. Teacherninja says:

    >I’m always intrigued by what we’ll buy and what we won’t in movies and fiction. No problem with the talking animals, but hey! they don’t have X kind of animal in Y! We’ll also believe Sean Connery is whatever nationality he says he is and he doesn’t even have to change his accent…

  4. >Ok, I’m going to (mostly) skip over the many things I could say about how Harry and Sally could never have gone to U of Chicago as undergrads(way too good looking and well adjusted, and didn’t argue about the Peloponnesian Wars once, just for starters) AND the laughable way Harvard and Boston blue bloods are portrayed in fiction and movies. Instead, I’ll try to get to my point. In movies, putting a subway stop where one doesn’t exist (Rent), shooting a scene in a lecture hall that is actually used as a dining room (Beautiful Mind, a laughable portrait of academics if ever there was one) etc is poetic license–these aren’t documentaries, they are meant to capture the spirit of something, in a sort of crowd-pleasing, not- too-challenging Hollywood way.

    I catch mistakes in historical fiction all the time, and it’s often a question of dialog or music. I won’t name the novel set in the 1870s where they sing Happy Birthday, but that bothers me more than watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, which is basically a romp that happens to be set in the (wildly anachronistic, but who cares) wild west. Butch Cassidy doesn’t claim to be an accurate depiction of an era, but the book I referred to does. And to me, that’s the distinction.

    In other words, how seriously accurate do the books or movies in question claim to be? Are the credentials and purported historical accuracy flogged all over the publicity materials for the book?

    For my money, perhaps the most agonizingly anachronistic movie of all time is Titanic–and what bugs me is how much money James Cameron spent making the ship historically accurate in every detail. You think he could have done the same with the dialog–say when Kate Winslet says to Leonardo diCaprio “They’re off to tell each other they’re masters of the universe.” That phrase, as we know, was coined by Tom Wolfe in the 1980s. But that’s showbiz.

  5. >Oh, yes — my fellow librarians in Pittsburgh always like to point out the moment in Konigsburg’s Father’s Arcane Daughter when the characters walk out of the Carnegie Library and go left towards Squirrel Hill, instead of to the right. But then again, we also get irritated when our Post-It notes aren’t stacked neatly in a caddy.

  6. >When I was in high school, I played bass clarinet because I loved it better than the pipsqueak clarinet. Then I read this mystery novel about some guy finding Beethoven’s 10th Symphony and secretly rehearsing it, Lord knows why, and the conductor said, “Bass clarinet, you need to be louder.”

    And I said, “That symphony is a FRAUD! The bass clarinet wasn’t used until Wagner’s time!”

    So that blew up the plot right there.

  7. >TV’s “Little House on the Prairie” was always good for errors and anachronisms. My favorite is the episode where Laura and Albert help grant their terminally ill friend’s dying wish to see the ocean. They head WEST from Minnesota in the 19th century when the Atlantic would have been so much closer, not to mention easier to reach. And, not only that, when Pa realizes what they’ve done, he immediately heads WEST, too, without even wondering which ocean they’d have gone to. In Hollywood, there’s only one, I guess.

    And, you know, if it’d have been me, I’d have taken him to Lake Michigan and pretended it was the ocean. By then, he was weak and limp and his mouth was trickling blood so he would never have known the difference and he would still have died happy.

  8. >Oh, I hate it when books or movies are in an area I know and mess it up. West Wing became a lot less enjoyable since moving to DC. (Sure, they get the local NBC Breaking News screen right, but they think that Fort Meyer is Maryland? Or that when driving from the White House to the State Department they should go by the National Cathedral?!)

    Little things like these usually don’t bother me unless they’re so obvious to me that they pull me right out of the story.

  9. Fran Hodgkins says:

    >They say the devil is in the details, and they’re right. I’ve had novels that I’ve been enjoying destroyed for me when I run into a factual error. Even the talking animals must live in the right areas! But I bring you an extreme case of being too careful: an editor I worked with at a development house squawked loudly about a historical fiction piece about the livesaving trip to Nome because we had invented a character and placed him on one leg of the journey as a musher. He insisted that we had to use one of the real mushers. So I ask you, was he right or wrong?

  10. rebecca rabinowitz says:

    >What does it say about me that I was bothered by a book scene featuring a quart of a certain flavor and brand of ice cream that only comes in pints?

  11. >Actually, Tom Wolfe was riffing on the Mattel toys/characters when he used the phrase “Masters of the Universe.”

    Factual errors even in blog comments! It can happen anywhere!

  12. Roger Sutton says:

    >Jennifer showed me this about pumping your own gas in New Jersey:

    (Sorry, I’ve lost the imbedding instructions again.)

  13. Andrea -- Just One More Book!! Podcast says:

    >Right or wrong, isn't it thrilling to find your own neighbourhood — where you live & breath — detailed in a book? We recently read "Just call me Ernie" which takes place right on our street, one block from our home. Our girls could not have been more thrilled.

  14. >UC Berkeley students watching The Graduate when it was first released in 1967 howled and booed when Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) drove his convertible the wrong way across the Bay Bridge to see his sweetie – everyone knows that traffic on the upper deck of the bridge (filmed from a helipcopter) goes west from Berkeley to SF, and supposedly Hoffman was driving from SF to Berkeley (to do that he would have to driven on the lower deck, not visible from a helicopter.) Big boos, too, when Hoffman followed Katherine Ross around the “Berkeley” campus – it was filmed at arch-enemy UCLA. These things seem trivial, and they are – in the general scheme of things. They wake us up from the fictive dream, but they’re not really historically inaccurate.

    On the other hand, some people carry historical accuracy a bit far. One person at the IMDB website complains of a “goof” in the movie Titanic (which is full of much bigger goofs) by saying “The button on the left side of Jack’s borrowed jacket is a ‘Kingsdrew’ button, first made in 1922” (ten years after the sinking.)I guess we all have our areas of expertise, from Berkeley to buttons, as well as our tolerance for inaccuracy.

  15. Monica Edinger says:

    >I wonder if this is easier to stomach in a movie? I adore Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild, loosely based on the true event of Alice Hargreaves (nee Liddell) traveling to NYC to receive an honorary degree related to a Carroll celebration. Off the ship they hop into a car with a steering wheel on the right and then then the hall where she receives the degree — definitely NOT Columbia! I always smile at these things, but they don’t bother me. Is it more of a problem in a book where you are creating your own images in your mind and this sort of thing is more jarring as a result?

  16. >For me, the annoyance always comes in when I feel the author is specifically trying for authenticity and failing. A made up subway stop in Rent doesn’t bother me because I never felt that anyone was trying to show me New York.
    On the other hand, I read a book set mostly in Beacon Hill, and I felt the author really wanted to put a lot of details about Boston in. The one that got me was describing her character walking from Kenmore (which she described as sketchy) down Beacon to Brookline, passing many dangerous neighborhoods along the way. I have made that walk at least a hundred times, and I don’t consider BU kids, mansions, and restaurants dangerous. A made up T stop would not have bothered me, but the author going out of her way to describe something and getting it wrong irked me.

  17. >Sometimes even the locals get it wrong. I remember sitting through a screening of Witness here in Amish Country and not being able to hear most of the dialogue because of the running commentary on whether the movie got things wrong or right regarding the Amish. The audience practically screamed at the sight of a can of Campbell’s soup in Rachel’s kitchen cupboard, certain that the Amish do not buy commercially available canned goods. But they do! I’ve been in Amish homes and stores that cater to the Amish, and they’re not above a can of alphabet soup. So–y’know–you can live in a place and still not know everything you think you know.

    (I was personally thrown by how the Amish in that movie all spoke English with German accents, when they have a distinct accent that is all their own.)

  18. >Maybe — actually, certainly — because they were obviously intentional, I loved the planted inaccuracies in The Royal Tenenbaums, which signaled that this was Anderson’s personal New York, not any place for you to fact check. The gypsy cabs, the 375th Street Y, etc.

  19. >My book “Down in the Subway” by Miriam Cohen was called out by Betsy Bird for lack of 125 Street Station subway accuracy in her AOL review many moons ago. It was that review that brought us together later on to become friendly compatriots. Told her I respected that she was doing her job correctly. But also let her know that my directives straight from the author’s lips to my ears that the subway ride I painted was a “trip to no where”. Just in case anyone else wants to correct me 😉 What was I going to do, send out the vigiliante? Teeny tiny me and my 82 year old author?

    Roger, you are now linked to my new blog.

    Cheers, Melanie

  20. >My husband, an ardent birder, rose screaming from his movie seat when we saw “Mary Poppins” in Cardiff, Wales. It happened when the robin was singing and twittering away in a duet with the nun Maria. . .oops, with Mary P.

    It was an American robin, a large thrush with a red breast when everyone in the movie theater knew an English robin is a much smaller non-thrush bird with an orangey breast.

    He didn’t make any kind of fuss about Dick Van Dyke’s accent.

  21. Jennifer Schultz says:

    >I’m very critical of movies set in New Orleans. Characters with the stereotypical Southern accents, Mardi Gras parades in the French Quarter (there are none), Cajuns living in New Orleans….this will ruin a movie for me.

    I am amused, more than annoyed, by the requisite slow ceiling fans (they do have air conditioning there), jazz funeral, and voodoo queen.

  22. >You’re right, Roger. It’s a don’t sweat the small stuff question. It may drive me crazy (and, frankly, make me feel a little smug) to know when someone makes a local mistake. The big problem is when does the small stuff become the big stuff? When does the weight of inaccuracies alter the sense of time and place?

    Betty Carter

  23. Roger Sutton says:

    >I’ve been listening to the audiobook of the second Maisie Dobbs mystery, where at one point the heroine “gri-MACED.” I wondered if this was one of those British pecularities like prin-CESS or ur-I-nal but I got Egmont’s Doug Pocock on the phone to say the word like he was back home. Nope, the narrator simply messed up, much as in that memorable Lily Tomlin routine in which she recalls herself reading aloud in school, and all is fine until she gets to the word “island,” and became known as Lily “Iz-land” Tomlin for the rest of her schooldays.

  24. >More proof Sally went to Northwestern… she faked her Big O.

    Signed, a fellow UC grad

  25. Becky Young says:

    >In Grey’s Anatomy, set in Seattle, the latte capital of the world, Bailey kept asking people to bring her a “mocha latte.” What’s that? She either would order a mocha or a latte.

    And in “Sleepless in Seattle,” there’s no way Tom Hanks and son would have rowed a little boat from their house boat on Lake Union all the way to Alki Beach in West Seattle. They would have had to go through the Ballard Locks with all the big yachts and ocean-going vessels, then out on Puget Sound for quite a distance.

  26. >these errors exist to thrill the copy editors among us

  27. >These things exist to thrill the copy editors among us. Where would we be without our chances to show off?

  28. >I belatedly note that gri-MACE is the pronunciation favored by older British sources and is indeed still considered acceptable. There’s even a poem about the “arriviste” pronunciation GRIM-iss.

  29. Superior thinknig demonstrated above. Thanks!

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