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Friday, March 12, 2010

Fact or Fiction? It's Both!

Yesterday, we received a question from a gentleman searching for a term to describe a certain type of fiction he’s interested in. As he described it, this type of fiction is created when you take history and toss in some fictional elements. Historical fiction, right? Not necessarily. As it turns out, the term our dear patron was looking for was fictionalized biography, a sub-genre similar to historical fiction but not quite the same. What’s different? According to some of the resources in the Credo Reference database, fictionalized biography recounts a real person’s life while supplementing the known facts of that person’s life with fictional dialogue, actions, and/or scenes. Historical fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily focus on or even involve real historical figures. Well-known historical figures sometimes make an appearance, however they are rarely the central characters. Rather than explore the life of one person, the goal of historical fiction is to reconstruct the historical events, culture, and social climate of an era.

Learning about all of this, I couldn’t help but think of Charles Pellegrino. If you don’t know him, he’s the author of the book The Last Train from Hiroshima, a former bestseller which was pulled from the shelves after factual questions about the author and the accuracy of his sources arose. It appears that one of Pellegrino’s major sources falsely claimed to have flown aboard an observation plane when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Did I mention that one of the major premises of the book was based on this source and the fact that he claimed the bomb was a dud? As if that weren’t enough, critics began to question the very existence of two more sources, as well as Pellegrino’s academic credentials.

Honestly, I can’t say I’m all that surprised that something like this happened. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. I’ve read both of Pellegrino’s books about the Titanic, Her Name, Titanic and Ghosts of the Titanic. Both books are interesting reads, but I have to admit to being shocked by Pellegrino’s tendency to “recreate” conversations between historical figures by putting words into their mouths, especially in Her Name, Titanic. I mean, this is supposed to be a work of historical non-fiction. Why do parts of it read like something that would be right at home on

Pellegrino could have probably avoided all of this drama. If he’d presented his work as historical fiction, or fictionalized biography at the very least, it wouldn’t have mattered that his main source lied, and no one would have cared that he possibly made up a few sources here and there.

Conan, Neal. "Publisher Pulls Last Train from Hiroshima." Talk of the Nation (NPR). 3/9/10
Credo Reference database
Hoover, Bob. "Another History Bombs." Pittsburg Post-Gazette. 3/7/10


  1. I've never read any of Pellegrino's work, but when you wrote about recreating conversations, I was reminded of earlier historians who did the same thing: Herodotus, Livy, Thucydides, and countless others. Of course, doing so is no longer acceptable, but it's worth mentioning that for a long period it was not only acceptable but expected.

  2. Thanks for pointing this out, carson. I'd forgtotten about them!

  3. Oops! That's supposed to spell 'forgotten'.


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