The Atlantic

Using Historical Fiction to Connect Past and Present

The novels offer more than a good story—they can also be integral to critical-thinking skills, especially during periods of political turmoil.
Source: AP / LOC / Getty / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Shanna Johnson, a middle-school language arts teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had just begun teaching the historical-fiction novel Dragonwings when it took on added relevance during the 2016 presidential election.

The book follows a young Chinese boy at the turn of the 20th century as he migrates to the United States to live with his father. The context of the story and its setting in San Francisco is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first major piece of U.S. legislation that restricted immigration and which, in targeting an ethnic group, set the precedent for subsequent restrictive immigration laws. As Johnson pointed out, the book touches on themes of “racism, discrimination, and the anti-immigration attitude of the nation” that uncannily reflect the hostility and divisiveness of the recent election.

These same historical themes and trends came to the forefront over the course of President Donald Trump’s campaign and transition. His surrogates and supporters referenced Japanese American internment as a viable precedent for a possible Muslim registry. Trump loyalists also cheered on his intention to build a wall along the border with Mexico and to deport millions of undocumented immigrants—the latter of which he justified by invoking President Eisenhower

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