Mr. and Mrs. Martin Luther have been the subject of two important books in the last year.
The first, Luther and Katharina: a Novel of Love and Rebellion by Jody Hedlund, won last year’s Christy Award for the best historical fiction of the year.
It’s a novel, therefore it’s fiction.
The second came out in January 2017: Michelle DeRusha’s Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk.
DeRusha’s book is a biography, therefore fact.
What does the intersection between fact and fiction mean for the reader?
As both a biographer and a novelist, I’ve walked a fine line between using fiction to improve my biography and tripping over fact while keeping my historical fiction interesting.
So, I present these two books about Martin and Katharina Luther for your examination. I liked them both–for different reasons.
Whether reading fiction or nonfiction, a reader needs to trust the writer got the facts correct.
As a reader, I’ve tossed aside historical romances because the author didn’t do enough homework.
(Girls running between houses and calling each other on the phone to chat in 1901? Unlikely.)
I usually allow one or two questionable “facts,” but each one makes me suspicious of what else the writer distorted.
You need to use historical fact when writing historical fiction.
A nonfiction writer should use elements of fiction–particularly description–to tell their stories well.
The quality of the writing is always important–no matter the genre.
Challenges with the Luthers
The Luthers lived 500 years ago.
While books about Martin Luther number in the hundreds, books about Katharina von Bora are few.
Only eight letters she wrote still exist according to biographer Michelle DeRusha.
None were to her husband and most were written after Martin’s death.
To compile an authentic story of her life required DeRusha to infer much about Katharina from her husband’s letters to her. (Sort of like only hearing half of a phone conversation).
DeRusha researched the type of life Katharina would have led as a nun to provide context and background about her.
In so doing, DeRusha painted a wider picture of the Luther marriage than has been written before.
Based on meticulous research; it’s all true.
Lots of room for embroidery
DeRusha’s challenges were Jody Hedlund’s beginning.
Hedlund not only had to understand the same facts about medieval life–including German and medieval vocabulary for everyday devices–but also enliven them through story.
Like DeRusha, Hedlund read biographies and poured over historical documents to get a feel for world in which Katharina von Bora lived.
Several questions ran through her mind as she researched and Hedlund used that curiosity to fashion Katharina’s character in her novel.
(Hedlund was particularly intrigued Katharina had been a nun and thus had taken a vow of celibacy. How did she end up getting married?)
Once she reached a certain spot in her research, Hedlund began writing an inspirational romance novel–which is what she’s known for.
Focusing on the relationship between Martin and Katharina, she fashioned a romantic tale of attraction that was denied, responsibility assumed and danger that never ended.
The book is dashing and exciting; thrilling and romantic–words one does not usually associate with Martin Luther.
My reaction to the two books
They’re a good pair to read together.
I read Hedlund’s Luther and Katharina: a Novel of Love and Rebellion first and while I enjoyed it, several scenes made my historian eyebrows go up.
She’s writing a romance, so the genre requires the chapters to weave between the hero and the heroine’s point of view.
No problem there, but in chapter 12, Katharina is kidnapped by her former abbot–who wants her and all his former nuns back under his oversight and to punish.
There’s no record that happened–though Hedlund undoubtedly based the scene on what outraged abbots did to their former nuns.
Scenes of Martin riding up on a horse to rescue Katharina held a taint of “Martin Luther Superhero,” to me.
I shook my head when it happened a second time. Martin was old for the times and his health was problematic. Really? dashing off to rescue her?
Hedlund’s book did a fine job of describing life so long ago. She made people I’ve read about in books come alive with foibles, strengths, weaknesses and love.
That, indeed, is why we read historical fiction.
As an historian and biographer, I felt more at home with DeRusha’s Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk.
She included romance in her biography, of course, but placed it within the broader context of a church in turmoil.
My blood boiled to read about the abuse and spiritual blindness of so many nuns and monks. I didn’t realize the depravity of the times for so many wedded to Christ.
It was heartbreaking.
Like Hedlund, DeRusha recognized Martin and Katharina loved each other–but not necessarily at first.
They soon, however, came to a deep and close marriage and what Martin learned from loving a wife has benefitted the Protestant church, at least, ever since.
DeRusha provided similar insight into the time and culture. I appreciated her explanations of the religious background so I could better understand why Martin Luther’s life was at risk.
I trusted DeRusha’s research and knew the information I read was true.
Read them together.
Michelle DeRusha loved Jody Hedlund’s book about Martin and Katharina.
Her own book hasn’t been out long enough for Jody Hedlund to weigh in.
Many of my Lutheran friends, however, can hardly wait to get their hands on DeRusha’s book.
Fact, fiction and Mr. and Mrs. Luther. Click to Tweet
Comparing a biography and a novel about the Luther marriage. Click to Tweet
Deciphering the Luther courtship in fact and fiction. Click to Tweet