Learning from the Historical Fiction of Other Writers

I’m just finishing up a debut novel by Debra Dean called The Madonnas of Leningrad, a must-read for art lovers and anyone who wants to know what it was like to survive the terrible winter of the Nazi seige of Leningrad.  The protagonist is a docent in Leningrad’s enormous museum called The Hermitage, but as the Nazis descend, she is called upon to help pack up the art works to be shipped to a safe location, then to spy out fires set by Nazi bombs, then to maintain a water-soaked building.

Juxtaposed against this story in intermittent chapters is the story of her marriage and descent into Alzheimers in old age.

The dramatic fracture the juxtaposition causes is not disorienting, though I am continually evaluating which story most intrigues me.  The stories each inform the other, so for example, the Leningrad material gradually reveals how the marriage actually came about, and the Alzheimer’s story (interesting in itself) is delivering material that might be delivered in an epilogue in a linear novel.

In addition to the time being fractured, so is place.  The historical Leningrad setting is radically different from the contemporary American locale of the Alzheimer’s story, where we meet the protagonists eventual family as they meet for a wedding and struggle to deal with the problem of how to secure their elderly parents’ increasingly endangered lives.

(Being an art lover myself, an additional intrigue is all the named paintings.  Many of the paintings I’ve seen in person–living in a city with a wonderful art museum as well as traveling to many I’m wanting to reread the book with a computer so I can  examine all the details.)

The madonna motif is presented in many paintings, then completed by the mysterious pregnancy of the protagonist, this in utero character appearing as an adult in the contemporary story.

I really love this novel.  Though the protagonist is not a famous person as in my fictional biographies, the structure serves as a paradigm for a way to set up a life where the time frame is not limited to 17 months as in my Darwin novel.

Here’s the Hermitage Museum website:


Here’s an interesting interview with the author where she describes her process:


The Madonnas of Leningrad Debra Dean The Hermitage Museum, Leningrad Da Vinci’s Litta Madonna

About Nancy Pinard

Professionally-speaking, Nancy Pinard is an author-educator who spends her days writing, teaching, reading, and researching for her writing and teaching. She is the author of two published novels, Shadow Dancing and Butterfly Soup, and numerous short stories. She has taught the craft of fiction writing in many venues including Sinclair Community College, University of Dayton Life-Long Learning Institute, Antioch Writers' Workshop, Mad Anthony Writers' Workshop, and Molasses Pond Writers' Workshop. Personally, her faith is what sustains, inspires, and motivates her to continue to explore meaning through literature. "You are right in demanding that an artist approach his work consciously, but you are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist." — Anton Chekov to Alexei Suvorin, October 27, 1888
This entry was posted in Debra Dean, Fictional biography, Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact, Hermitage, historical fiction, methods for creativity, reading, Siege of Leningrad, The Madonnas of Leningrad, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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