What Diaries—Fictional and Real—Can Teach Us About History

What Diaries—Fictional and Real—Can Teach Us About History

Even as a kid I was a history nerd. It started with the American Girl dolls and branched into Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, Little Women, and Anne of Green Gables. My sister, our friends, and I would dress up in home-made dresses and bonnets. We’d then parade around the neighborhood with a Radio Flyer wagon covered in hula hoops and a sheet as a makeshift covered wagon, pretending that we were on the Oregon Trail. As a preteen I discovered the ultimate book series for a budding historian, the Dear America series by Scholastic.

Book cover of "The Winter of Red Snow: The Revolutionary War Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart / Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 1777" blue border, oval portrait of young girl in 18th century bonnet. background image of Revolutionary War soldiers.
Written by Kristiana Gregory, this is the second published book in the Dear America series.

Each book in the series was written as a diary from the first-person perspective of a fictional young girl witnessing a notable period of American history. The main characters were ordinary, often living on the edge of poverty, and bore witness to events that were at times mundane, and at other times extraordinary. The second book of the series is The Winter of Red Snow: The Revolutionary War Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart. In this book, the main character, Abigail lives with her family in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania when the continental army decides to spend the winter encamped there.

Her mother is hired to be General Washington’s laundress, giving Abigail the opportunity to visit headquarters and see the comings and goings of important historical figures. She joins Martha Washington as she visits the soldiers in camp and witnesses the hardships of disease and the winter elements. Being an 11-year-old with two sisters, we also hear about daily life and family dynamics. She shares her mother’s recipe for egg nogg as well as the process of inoculating soldiers against smallpox.

podcast art: painted portraits of two women looking at each other, banner above reads "The Ribbon Book Club." Text below reads "A Dear America Podcast." Painted landscape background.
Available on all major podcast platforms

I have often cited this series as the inspiration for my love of history and my choice to pursue it as a career. Years later, I’ve decided to revisit the series in a podcast called The Ribbon Book Club, named for the ribbon bookmark that came attached to the fictional diary. For the podcast, my co-host, Cate Reed and I provide a recap of each book while inserting commentary and historical insight. We also use our network of colleagues to find and interview experts on each topic.

What drew me to these books still fascinates me about historical research: the ability of primary source accounts to create an immersive view of history. Real-life diaries have often been a prized source for historical research. One of the most famous diaries is the one kept by the German-born Jewish girl Anne Frank while she and her family hid from Nazis during World War II. In her writings, Frank describes world events, the realities of life in hiding, and the excitement and heartbreak of having her first crush.

In the collections of Heritage Hall, we have several diaries that provide a similarly valuable insight into daily life. One such diary was kept by Diet Eman from 1939-1945. Eman was a devout Christian and proud Dutch woman. She wrote extensively about the horror she felt at the Nazi occupation of her country which led to her joining the Dutch Resistance. In one passage, she despairs over losing a pair of friends to the Nazi ideology:

July 8, 1940:

I cannot STAND it that Rie and Jet also belong to THEM! I don’t want to do anything with them anymore. But maybe it is your will that I still see them and in love, try to point out the errors in that system, but I CANNOT DO that from myself. Right away I am fanatic!

Eman served alongside her fiancé, Hein Sietsma, though they were often separated by circumstances. Eman wrote about the pain she felt at their separation, and the grief and despair of learning that he had been imprisoned and killed at Dachau only a few months before the end of the war.

June 7, 1945:


Why did I have to come through it all. Why could not I also have died?

Hein, why did you leave me alone? I cannot live without you. What am I going to do without you? But I am still very happy that I can go to Rev. de Ruyg and hear about you.

I think to be the survivor is the most difficult, and then, I am happy that I am the one for it also would have been so difficult for you if it had been reversed. May I be so egotistic to wish you back here, for you are now in heaven? Yes, I may.

You were ready.

Diet Eman was lucky to survive the war. She married and moved to the United States after the war, settling in Grand Rapids. Eventually she wrote about her experiences in a book called Things We Couldn’t Say and donated her papers to Heritage Hall. The traumas of her experiences stayed with her throughout her life.

Studying diaries both real and fictional is a great way to learn about what ordinary life was like at different time periods. Details such as what people wore and what they ate might seem insignificant when discussing broad historical events. But they play an important role in preserving the history of people and customs that may otherwise be overlooked.

Diaries also allow us to experience historical events as they were perceived at the time they happened. For example, reading the WWII-era diaries of Diet Eman and Anne Frank, we can see the slow encroachment of Nazi power taking over the Netherlands. We see the initial shock of the invasion followed by the mounting concern about each new decree.

Most importantly, diaries give us the ability to empathize with people across time. Instead of reading a list of cold dates and facts, we can step into the writer’s shoes and see the world from their perspective.

Fictional diaries can’t replace the real thing. But surviving examples of diaries written by ordinary people are rare. By imitating real diaries, the authors of the Dear America series try to capture that immersive view of history from the viewpoint of ordinary children and adults. Each book aims to teach readers about the real events and figures of different time periods in American history while also giving an on-the-ground figure to relate to. Reading these books can often result in increased levels of empathy, an interest in the nuances of social and cultural history, and in some cases, a career in archives.  

Jen Vos is an assistant archivist at Heritage Hall at Calvin University

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *