Reading List

The Best Historical Fiction Books that will make you travel through time

We read historical fiction to travel through time and space. Generally speaking, historical fiction is any story that is set in a time period in the past. It is no longer considered as bodice-rippers rife with anachronisms or depressingly dull textbooks dressed up in barely discernible plots. Historical fiction is now gaining the respect of readers and critics alike, regularly appearing on bestseller lists and on shortlists for major literary awards around the world. Whether or not you consider yourself a fan of historical fiction, you’ve heard the names Hilary Mantel , Eleanor Catton, Anthony Doerr and Kristin Hannah repeatedly over recent years.

What is Historical Fiction?

“Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past.”

A historical fiction definition seems simple enough: it’s fiction that takes place in the past. Typically, historical fiction books are written about 30–50 years after the event has taken place. The read historical events and the time period of the book play as crucial of a role in the story as any character or plot twist. In addition, historical fiction is usually considered more realistic in nature. Though some of the Genre-bending books have added a bit of fantasy or magical realism flavour to enhance our understanding of the past.

Adding all historical fiction books into one manageable list is quite impossible, truly. This list, I believe, will give you the broadest view of our world’s shared past. Let us know in the comments below if we missed your favorite historical fiction book.

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Time Period and Setting: 1920s, Russia
Publication Year: 2019

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to house arrest, except his ‘house’ arrest is confinement to the luxurious hotel Metropol. Should he leave the Metropol, he will be shot immediately. You get a view of his life by looking from the outside in. You see him living, working, entertaining, and growing over many years of his life in the hotel. His friendships with the staff at the hotel, his interactions with Anna, Nina, Sophia, and others are just wonderful. You hear of the many changes that occur in Russia over a long period of time. And you come to see that Count Rostov, is the luckiest man in all of Russia.

Count Rostov is a true gentleman. He has exquisite taste, loves literature, and has the most excellent manners. And he expects the same from others (well, manners at least). Having read Towles first book, I felt that he was really striving for this sense of elegance. But he just did not achieve it. Perhaps it was due to his character. In this book, he found that particular character and did achieve an elegant novel.

As in his first book as well, you can see his love of literature that is often discussed in this book. You get detailed descriptions of not only classic literature, but history, food, politics, and more. Oh the wonderful descriptions of the food will leave you salivating.

 

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Time Period and Setting: 1960s-1970s, U.S.
First Publication: 2018

Deeply moving and poignant, Where The Crawdads Sings is a coming of age tale like no other. Abandoned by her family as a small child, and shunned by society, Kya, the so-called ‘Marsh Girl’ grows up on her own on the fringes of society. With few friends, she gets by with the company of the marsh and sea birds that surround her home.

One day Kya chances across Tate, a friend of her long lost brother, who takes her under his wing and teaches her to read, opening up a whole new world for her. Years later another young man from the town, Chase, is found dead at the bottom of an old fire tower, and suspicion immediately falls on ‘The Marsh Girl’.

A touching tale, Delia Owens tells a emotional story of an outcast, who the townspeople rally against because she is ‘different’. This is a book to savor as Kya grows up amongst nature, surviving in her own way. The setting in the marsh comes alive as we befriend the birds, fish, and hunt for shells and mussels with Kya. She is a tragic figure, but has an amazing inner strength about her. A truly memorable character.

 

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Time Period and Setting: 1500s, England
First Publication: 2009

Wolf Hall provides an immersive experience into the 16th century court of Henry VIII. The plot involves the rise of Thomas Cromwell from humble beginnings to one of the most influential people in the realm. His character is articulated extremely vividly – ambitious, intelligent, flawed, at times ruthless. Other deeply drawn characters include Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More.

This historical fiction novel elevates Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII, from villain-hood (as portrayed in “A Man For All Seasons”) to sympathetic character. It also pulls Thomas Moore’s reputation down from its saintly perch. Moore in this story is a sniveling sanctimonious character running his own inquisition searching for heretics (utilizing torture and burning at the stake). Cromwell on the other hand is portrayed as the consummate administrator, accountant and politician astute at reading people. He is portrayed as a family man hardened by his personal losses and with skeptical regard for the merits of religion.

In this historical fiction, Hilary Mantel imagines and interprets her characters but remains true to historic events. No wild inventions are needed to provide the intrigue, romance, power plays, and betrayals characteristic of the period. The people are portrayed in a manner that feels authentic.

 

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Time Period and Setting: France and Germany during WWII
First Publication: 2014

All the Light We Cannot See has two main storylines–about a French girl and a German boy–that intersect during the bombing of Saint-Malo on the French coast in 1944. Marie Laure is a blind French girl who leaves Paris with her father during the Nazi occupation to stay with her great uncle in Saint-Malo. Her devoted father has taught her to be self-reliant by building model cities of miniature buildings so she could learn her way around Paris, and later Saint-Malo. Marie Laure uses her sense of touch to become proficient at identifying sea creatures, and loves to read the nautical adventure stories of Jules Verne in her Braille books.

Werner is a precocious German orphan who is very skillful at fixing radios. Although he dreams of becoming an engineer, the boys in his village are destined to work in the coal mines. After he repairs the radio of a Nazi, he receives a recommendation to the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta. The light blond, blue-eyed boy fits the Aryan profile, and he’s soon on his way to becoming a soldier. The chapters about the school are exceptionally chilling where the students often have to choose between their own survival and their personal moral code. Werner often has his sister’s voice in his mind, reminding him what is ethically right, but he knows he will be crushed if he displays any weakness. Werner is assigned to a unit that works to detect the radio signals of Allied citizens, including the French Resistance in Saint-Malo.

The presence or absence of sensory perceptions is at the heart of the story with Marie Laure coping with blindness, Werner involved in listening to radio communication, and the citizens of both countries feeling cold and hungry. In this historical fiction book, Anthony Doerr puts his lyrical gifts to work in beautiful sensual descriptions. Marie Laure and Werner were sympathetic and courageous, two bright lights set against the background of a brutal war.

 

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Time Period and Setting: 1800s, Canada
Publication Year: 1996

Alias Grace is a riveting fictional account of one of the most notorious women from Canada in the mid-nineteenth century. Grace Marks, at sixteen years of age, was convicted of the brutal murders of her wealthy employer, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper and mistress, Nancy Montgomery.

Subsequent to their sensational trial, her alleged accomplice, James McDermott was hanged in Toronto as punishment for the murders. However, Grace Marks was spared and sent for a period of time to the lunatic asylum in Toronto. When she is later sent to prison for life, she is thought by many to be innocent although Grace does not have any memory of the crimes. There are many who believe in her innocence and work for her pardon. Dr. Simon Jordan is enlisted to work with Grace to try to recover her memory and/or determine the veracity of her claims of amnesia.

This novel explores whether Grace Marks is indeed an evil and cold-blooded killer or a victim herself. Metaphorically, each section of the book is named after quilt block as the myriad pieces of Grace’s life story become known. Grace Marks is a beautiful seamstress as well adding to the “patchwork theme.”

 

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Time Period and Setting: Late 1800s, U.S.
Publication Year: 1987

Beloved is a devastating portrayal of the horrific tragedy of slavery in the aftermath of the civil war. Sethe escaped from slavery but her freedom has brought her little joy. The house is haunted by her dead daughter (a fact we learn almost immediately). The novel is compelling while almost unremittingly painful–Morrison does not soften the impact of slavery and the ongoing racism that continues.

The pain and suffering of slavery can, as we discover, haunt people in many heartbreaking ways, even ones who haven’t directly experienced it. Morrison is brave enough to ask, not if we can let go of that pain (because that is impossible), but how we will give that pain a place in our life.

The female relationships – between Sethe and her daughters, between Sethe and Baby Suggs, and even between Sethe and the village women – give so much depth and color to the story, and yet I don’t want us to forget the brave, loyal men we meet.

 

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

Time Period and Setting: Late 1700s, Jamaica
Publication Year: 2009

The Book of Night Women follows Lilith, an enslaved black woman on a plantation in Jamaica in the late 1790s-early 1800s. Lilith’s mother died giving birth to her, and she was raised by an unloving prostitute and kind but insane man (both slaves). She is eventually brought into the “great house” to work in the pantry and kitchen, where she comes under the tutelage of Homer, who often speaks in riddles and cares for Lilith’s wellbeing.

The Book of Night Women provides an incredibly detailed and horrifying look at slavery. James spares no details when it comes to the torture, rape, and murder of the slaves, the cruelty and sadism of the masters and mistresses. You have to have a pretty strong stomach to read the book. The account it provides of the horrors of slavery will stay with you.

The book is written in Jamaican patois, but is quite easy to understand, and you get into the flow after a few pages. Some of the elements (such as the slaves all having classical Greek names) are quite clever. The Book of Night Women is a moving look into the life of a slave.

 

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Time Period and Setting: 1930s, Germany
Publication Year: 2005

This book is set during WWII Germany and tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Her younger brother has died and her mother has been “taken away.” She has been taken in by a German couple who are scraping out a meager existence.

Liesel learns to read with the help of her accordion playing foster father. She develops a love of books and cannot help stealing them when the opportunity presents itself. She forms a closed relationship with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau. Liesel also forms another close friendship with a boy who has hair the color of lemons, Rudy Steiner. Two people who will have an impact on her life. “The Book Thief” is narrated by Death. It’s an unlikely narrator, but a very appropriate one for a book set during the Holocaust.

 

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Time Period and Setting: Early 1900s, U.S.
Publication Year: 2011

Told in first person collective, this beautiful elegy of an entire generation of Japanese women will stay with me for a long time. Its short length belies its powerful impact. Continuing the history of women leaving their homes in search of a better life in America, despite their lack of experience or knowledge, the book begins with the steamer bringing picture brides to their husbands in California.

Upon arrival, they meet these husbands for the first time and discover what their lives will consist of, in most cases, not what they had bargained for.

The book tracks their experiences through childbirth and rearing, the difficulty of keeping traditions alive and struggles against racism and brutality and in most cases, ignorance. The final two chapters addressing the interment that people of Japanese lineage faced at the beginning of World War II is particularly wrenching. Anyone who reads this book will have knowledge of what happened, but it has never been presented in such a visceral, haunting way before.

 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Time Period and Setting: Mid-1700s, Ghana
Publication Year: 2016

This historical fiction story traces the fortunes of an African family, split into two strands. Effia Otcher leaves her village to marry a British slave trader and live a comfortable life in the Cape Coast Castle of Fanteland, which later become part of Ghana.

Underneath the castle in filthy, overcrowded dungeons, terrified captives await their fate, sold to the Europeans by the local tribes. Conditions are appalling, with “so many bodies stacked into the women’s dungeon that they all had to lie, stomach down, so that women could be stacked on top of them.” Among them is Effia’s half-sister, Esi. In alternating chapters we follow the bloodlines of these two characters: Esi’s offspring are doomed to toil in cotton fields for merciless American masters, while Effia’s descendants are left to live with consequences of collusion with the slave traders.

Homegoing is an ambitious first novel with great historical scope and sweep, set over almost three centuries; it is also a set of 14 short stories. It starts in Ghana when it was known as the Gold Coast in the eighteenth century. The novel follows two strands of the same family. One strand remains in Ghana until the twentieth century and the other is in America in the slavery system. Each chapter looks at one character, seven from each strand from the eighteenth to the late twentieth century.

 

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Time Period and Setting: 1900s, Chile
Publication Year: 1982

This is a beautifully written family saga and a lovely example of magical realism. It spans three generations and depicts a country undergoing drastic political change. The patriarch is Esteban Trueba, a man with a violent, manic temper and rigid ideals, while the matriarch is Clara del Valle, who is a clairvoyant, kind, and gentle soul.

This historical fiction book follows four generations of women, Nivea del Valle, her daughter Clara del Valle Trueba, Clara’s daughter Blanca Trueba, and finally Blanca’s daughter Alba Trueba. These women are all strong in their own ways, finding methods of surviving in both a turbulent household and country. In a way, this story is as uplifting as it is sad, because it shows that cruelty and horror don’t have to win, that love is a stronger force than indifference, even if it comes too late.

I admired many aspects of this story, especially the characters. I liked how the relationship between Garcia Tercero and Esteban Trueba evolved, near the end, and their last conversations. Esteban Trueba’s granddaughter Alba was a richly drawn, strong woman who becomes wise with her experiences and shares some fascinating insights about love and fate. The author depicts the people in her story world with compassion, something that made everyone memorable and the storyline relevant forever.

 

The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman

Time Period and Setting: 1900s, Australia
Publication Year: 2012

Such beautiful descriptions of the loneliness and stark beauty of the sea in 1924 Australia as a lighthouse keeper and his wife discover a dead man and a lost baby. The novel reverts back to the history that brought the couple there, and it’s absolutely impossible to put down.

The light keeper and his wife have lived a lovely life isolated 100 miles from shore for several years, but it hasn’t been without tragedy, as they have lost several pregnancies. So when a baby shows up, the dingy landing by chance on a piece of land with nothing surrounding it for 100 miles, wouldn’t it seem like fate? It is so hard not to sympathize with these characters and the choices they make. Of course, then the story gets more complex, you start to see things from the other side, and as they aren’t the only players involved any more, this happily ever after starts to feel a bit more tarnished. This was so hard to put down. Absolutely captivating storytelling.

 

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Time Period and Setting: 1950s, Italy
Publication Year: 2012

This historical fiction book is a wonderful tale of an unusual friendship between two girls growing up in a working class neighborhood of Naples in the 50s and 60s. Each envies qualities and advantages that the other has, leading to a balance between interdependence and competition between Elena and Lila. Elena is more practical and studious, while Lila is more quixotic and courageous.

All the travails and challenges of dysfunctional families, the drive for academic achievement in the face of extensive bullying and malevolent teachers, the burden of class privilege and diminished prospects for females, and the pressures and exhilaration of young love and burgeoning sexuality are explored in a fresh way in the context of this friendship. Loyalty and trust boom and bust at various crossroads, often in relationship to family conflicts and expectations. Elena come to learn how to be more self-reliant and take more risks like Lila, while Lila gains the ability to compromise and focus on goals like Elena. Much warmth and humor in this story rounds out the dangers, desperation, and tragedies.

 

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Time Period and Setting: 1300s, Italy
Publication Year: 1980

Umberto Eco gives the reader a historical fiction, a treatise of theology, a lesson on 14th century life in an abbey, and a twistedly complicated murder mystery that can only be dealt with by using the science of semiotics. The protagonists of our narrator Adso, a young novice, and his master, Brother William of Baskerville are a wonderful pairing somewhat reminiscent of Watson and Holmes, respectably.

The young Adso is naive, idealistic, and worshipful – a perfect sponge hungry for knowledge. Brother William is a knowledge hound himself, suffering from pride and perhaps a touch of pessimism when it comes to his fellow man and the church, but a true devotee to the powers of logic, observation, and Roger Bacon. Adso, the stand in for the reader and William seemingly the stand in for Eco, passing on his knowledge through this device.

 

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Time Period and Setting: 1800s, Colombia
Publication Year: 1967

One Hundred Years of Solitude is the historical fiction story of the rise and fall of the town Macondo, founded by José Arcadio Buendía, through a span of 100 years. It starts telling the story of that said man and his family – the complications that surge, the relationships between them and other people, etc – and continues with his heirs, but the story itself is about the town. It tells the tender truths and lies of a family from the life of each member by blood and marriage, the passage of time told by the relationships of members who scarcely realize the depth to which their daily actions resonate back to generations before. Habits and quirks are passed on between family, noted only by the eldest family members, their every action and observation poetic.

No one writes magical realism how this author does. There were many mentions of magic, prophecies and aspects not common on real life, however, the story never leaves its reality. It’s just a fusion of fantasy and realism, with the latter one predominating.

The fantastic elements never once distract from characters as flawed and real human beings, a boy followed by yellow butterflies, a girl so beautiful she transcends to heaven, the cryptic documents left by a gypsy older than the town itself who appears as a ghost to the Buendia family. Marquez depicts the realities of a family that is constantly reborn in the form of a solitary air, clairvoyant eyes, the craft of small toy animals, or a passion for making things to unmake them in such a way that is flowing, cyclical, and yet always unique.

 

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Time Period and Setting: Early 1900s, Japan
Publication Year: 2017

Pachinko is an epic historical fiction saga following a Korean family through four generations as they fight for survival in Korea and Japan. At its heart, the book is a tribute to the immigrant experience and the need in all of us to find a place that we can call home and feel like we truly belong.

The portrayal of what it’s like to be a Korean living in Japan while the Japanese viewed them with loathing and knowing that Koreans back home viewed them as traitors is visceral and haunting. The author managed to depict each character with so much humanity while their circumstances strove to strip that from them. I didn’t know much going in about the conflict between the Japanese and Koreans, and it was eye-opening to learn the feelings of hostility and resentment that endured even decades after the war had ended.

The book also captures so much of immigrants’ hopes and dreams for their children to live a happy life free from war and famine. The author masterfully delves into the search for success and belonging while having to make unthinkable trade-offs.

 

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Time Period and Setting: 1100s, England
Publication Year: 1989

Set in England during the latter part of the 12th century, Pillars presents a sweeping tale of medieval feudal life. The story centers around Prior Philip, a sincere and devoted monk who desires to honor God through the building of a cathedral. The plethora of characters whose lives readers will follow include citizens of all classes. From the stoic and humble Tom Builder to the menacing Bishop Waleran, the members of the cast will continue to compel you throughout the story.

Pillars of the Earth is a massive undertaking and Follett’s audience includes a wide variety of reading appetites. Those who fancy a tale of romance will enjoy the love story of clever Jack Jackson and the beautiful Lady Aliena. Those who delight in works of historical fiction, as well as those who have an interest in the architectural genius of medieval masons and carpenters will enjoy the author’s careful research. The villainous William Hamleigh will raise the ire of each reader, and the independent Ellen will inspire.

 

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Time Period and Setting: Ancient Middle East
Publication Year: 1997

Historical fiction based on the biblical story of Jacob, as told through the eyes of Dinah, his youngest child and only daughter. In the Bible, Dinah has no voice, but Anita Diamant has provided a voice for her through this imaginative story of her life that offers a convincing portrait of a community of women in ancient times. The titular red tent is a place where women gather for rituals such as monthly cycles, recovery from illness, and childbirth.

Written from a first person POV, the story follows Jacob’s family (his four wives, his 12 male children, all of these Bible-accurate), as told by Dinah. She paints the world of this family very vividly, but particularly the female side of it is given a lot of attention. The Red Tent is in fact an actual red tent where women were obliged by custom to go to when their periods came. Men were not allowed in, and it might very well seem like confinement and suppression – except these women were the masters of the secret of life, and they were grateful for having a few days every month when they were not required to work at all.

It genuinely feels like a journey of exploration and discovery on which you’ve been invited by a character who might not be anything like you, but is completely human in all of her beliefs, feelings, thoughts and actions.

 

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Time Period and Setting: 1800s, U.S.
First Publication: 2013

Alma Whittaker—the book’s protagonist—lives a fascinating life amid the backdrop of the 19th and early 20th century competitive and lucrative international plant and herbology trade, which was the nascent pharmaceutical industry.

Alma is the heir to her ruthless father’s botanical empire. She is an only child with an unusual proclivity for her father’s business from an early age. She’s as brilliant as she is plain-looking—a point her father isn’t shy to point out often. The members of the Whittaker family in general are an impersonal bunch who don’t suffer fools easily and value intellect above all else.

In the wake of a tragic fire on their estate, Alma’s mother insists on adopting a groundskeeper’s child who is left an orphan. Prudence receives a crash course in what it means to be a Whittaker and becomes somewhat of a one-dimensional stoic figure who in most respects is the polar opposite of Alma. Prudence is refined and stunningly beautiful while Alma is more of a bull in a china shop, challenging a myriad of educated guests for sport that frequently dine at her father’s palatial home.

The author’s prose reads and feels simple and easy, but the complexity of her thought process to bring Alma and her supporting cast to life was no easy feat.

 

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Time Period and Setting: Ancient Turkey
First Publication: 2018

In this historical fiction book, Pat Barker has given us something completely different than those, however, offering a complete reevaluation of perspective. In The Silence of the Girls, the Iliad’s story is not told as Achilles tragedy, but rather that of Briseis, the woman Achilles takes as his concubine after sacking Lyrnessus. She becomes the object of conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon when the latter demands her as his prize after being forced to give up his own war spoils, Chryseis, resulting in Achilles refusal to continue to fight against the Trojans. This series of events leads to the eventual death of Achilles closest comrade and likely lover Patroclus and the revenge killing of Hector, the latter of which determines Achilles own tragic fate.

This story line most know well but here we are not lauded with details of gory battles and political intrigue, but instead forced to confront the reality that most women must face in times of war. Briseis and others become the spoils, forced to become slaves, the daily subject of torture. The flowery poetics of Homer celebrating the extra human strength and courage are replaced by the fear that the likes of Briseis carry.

 

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Time Period and Setting: Ancient Greece
First Publication: 2011

The Song of Achilles is a modern retelling of The Iliad. Miller tells this tale from the perspective of Patroclus, son of Menoetius. Patroclus at the tender age of ten is exiled from his father’s kingdom for accidentally killing the son of a nobleman and is fostered out to King Pelius of Phthia. It is there that he meets Pelius’s golden haired son, the prince Achilles.

Soon thereafter Achilles chooses Patroclus as his companion and they become fast friends spending their childhood growing and basking in each others company. Achilles mother, the sea-nymph Thetus, however, does not like Patroclus, feeling he is unworthy of being the friend of a future god.

To separate the two after having seen them in an intimate embrace, Thetis sends her son away to be taught further by Chiron, the centaur on Mount Pelion. But unable to cope with the loss of his best friend, Patroclus soon follows, joining Achilles on Mount Pelion where they spend many idyllic seasons together, as their friendship blossoms into something more, being taught about war, medicine and survival by Chiron. But this too will pass as all good things must. Achilles is summoned back to Phthia where he learns that war is imminent against Troy.

 

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Time Period and Setting: 1800s, China
First Publication: 2005

Taking place in rural 19th century China (by our calendar, that is), Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is about Lily, now a remarkably old lady in her eighties, writing her private memoir from her days as a girl growing up poor and her friendship with Snow Flower. Taught the secret women’s written language of nu shu by her aunt, when she is six the matchmaker arranges for her to have a laotong – like an official best friend – and agrees that with her feet, her mother should not bind them until she is seven, but that she will have the smallest “golden lilies” and will be able to get a rich and important husband in the nearby village of Tongkou – a very high aspiration indeed.

It is her friendship with Snow Flower, the daughter of a wealthy and important family in Tongkou, that is the driving force of this story, the focal point, the ugly truth that Lily now wants to tell us. We are silent witnesses to an old lady unburdening herself.

Rich in cultural detail, this historical fiction book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is powerful not just in its story – a story about women in a land where the women wholeheartedly believe they are worth nothing – but in its historical accounting.

 

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Time Period and Setting: 1800s, Nigeria
First Publication: 1958

Things Fall Apart is a fascinating historical fiction book that describes an African society both before and after the coming of Western European Imperialism. The first part of the book describes daily life in an area of Nigeria during the 19th Century. During this part, the novel focuses on Okonkwo, an ambitious and driven man who hopes to become a powerful person in his clan. Okonkwo is outwardly strong, but inwardly he is consumed by fear. The fear that he will become like his father: lazy, weak, and unable to support his wives and children. This fear causes him to consciously become everything his father is not. He is an angry and violent man, whose actions are often self destructive.

The characterization of Okonkwo and the overall characterization of the African society is one of the books strong points. Too often, these type of books portray their native characters as noble and their societies as idyllic Edens ultimately destroyed by western Imperialism.

Achebe chooses to portray Okonkwo as all too human and flawed and the Nigerian society he describes is far from idyllic. The clans war on each other and many of their customs are cruel by contemporary standards (twins are considered evil and are abandoned in the forest to die). Still, it is a vibrant culture rich in heritage and beliefs and Achebe does a good job of describing it and making it come alive. In the 2nd half of the book, white missionaries arrive and the society begins to change as their customs are deemed evil and many of their people embrace the new religion.

Written in the 1950’s in the years immediately preceding Nigeria’s independence when the British were losing their hold on Africa, Achebe reasserts the position of African identity in his poignant and seminal novel, Things Fall Apart. In context of when Achebe was writing, pervading dehumanizing stereotypes of Africans were commonplace (in part, a vestige of Conrad’s, Heart of Darkness) and deeply ingrained. When one reads the book in this light, it becomes clear how Achebe redresses the balance and beautifully rewrites the narrative of his ancestors to offer a truer reflection of reality.

 

Doc by Mary Doria Russel

Time Period and Setting: Late 1800s, U.S.
Publication Year: 2011

Doc by Mary Doria Russel is a historical fiction novel focused on the life story of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. Holliday is a fascinating character. Plagued by tuberculosis, he moves West for the climate. He is very well educated and longs for worldly companionship which he ultimately finds in unusual places.

A precursor to Epitaph, Doc chronicles the early days of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp’s partnership in Dodge City. Even more than the later novel, Russell eschews most Western cliches, with only a few bursts of quick, sudden violence rather than elaborate action scenes. Instead, she treats us to a moody character piece, from Doc’s divided identities (as a genteel dentist and short-tempered gunfighter, a Southern Democrat who pals around with Midwestern Republicans, a tubercular tough guy) to the fission among the Earp brothers (the politically ambitious Wyatt resents James’ meddling in prostitution) and the curious camaraderie that develops among them (especially Morgan learning to appreciate Dickens and Dostoevsky from Doc).

 

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Time Period and Setting: Ancient Israel
Publication Year: 2011

The Dovekeepers is a historical fiction story of four women living in 75 C.E. C.E. means Common Era a measurement of time that is gaining popularity in literature. The Roman Empire is set about to dominate and these four women are trapped in King Herod’s former compound with about 1000 others who have fled their homeland. They work in a dovecote-a place that houses thousands of doves. They gather their eggs and more importantly, their excrement which is used as fertilizer for their fragile orchards.

Alice Hoffman did an incredible job of historically researching this novel. The daily lives, passions, family and diet are all well documented. Hoffman recreates a fictional account of the historical events leading up to the final zealous act, told through four distinct voices, the women who kept the doves at Masada. Even though in their culture they were little more than possessions, these four managed to hold onto their individuality by weaving new patterns, fitting feathers to arrows, baking bread for the enemy, and passing on healing knowledge.

 

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Time Period and Setting: 1800s, England
Publication Year: 2002

Fingersmith is a fast paced historical fiction novel, chock full of twists and turns and with a cast of colourful characters including some excellent Dickensian villains. The novel is a three part tale, written as a postmodern feminist rendition of a Victorian melodrama in its Gothic, Dickensian (Oliver Twist) splendor, with ample touches of the decadent extravagance of the Greek gods Priapus and Venus, as well as the somewhat toned-down values of Brontë and Poe. Greed, treachery, love, and moral ambiguities splashes the otherwise all too familiar theme of Gothic terror, intrigue and madness with some unique plot points and introduces an alternative version of love to this historical fictional saga.

Parts one and three are told from the viewpoint of Sue, a young woman who has been brought up among petty thieves and crooks and is part of a plan to defraud Miss Maud Lilley, a rich young lady, of her fortune. Part two is told from the viewpoint of Maud. It is difficult to write too much about the plot without giving away spoilers so I will just say that all is not what it seems, and leave it at that!

 

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Time Period and Setting: 1960s, India
Publication Year: 1997

India’s insane caste system. Forbidden love. Consequences of small actions, guilt, duplicity, anger and ultimately tragedy this story weaves a gripping tale. The twins Estha and Rahel are forever scarred by a tragedy when their young English cousin comes for a visit.

Growing up in Kerala by a river where there mother Ammu is trying to live with her family that tolerates her but worships her brother Chacko who is an overgrown spoilt child in an adults body. Chacko goes to Oxford where he meets an English woman and marries her. They have a baby girl and then divorce with the mother keeping the daughter. He goes back to India to manage the families pickle factory. It is a time in India of political upheavals and he faces unrest from a communist union organizer. In this atmosphere his ex wife Margaret arrives with his daughter Sophie for a holiday after her second husband dies suddenly. Consequently, events happen that will influence their lives forever more.

The description of the countryside, heat evokes images in the mind. This historical fiction book also captures tenderness, compassion and brutality. This at times funny, tragic and poignant novel is a worthy Man Booker prize winner. I also found out a sequel has been written called the Ministry of Happiness.

 

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Time Period and Setting: Early 1900s, U.S.
Publication Year: 2013

It’s a charming tale that brings together the exotic magic of an Arabian Nights fable and the bustling reality of immigrant neighborhoods in turn-of-the-century New York. Magical creatures are thrown into the mix with humans, all struggling to find their place in the New World.

The story alternates viewpoints, following the two title characters, the Golem and the Jinni, along with the humans who become important in their lives. The Golem, Chava, a creature of earth, and the Jinni, Ahmad, a creature of fire, at first seem to be opposites. She is driven to serve and please others, while he is completely self-absorbed and feels only impatience for the needs and wishes of others.

Both Chava and Ahmad, upon their arrival in New York, are fortunate to immediately come in contact with humans who believe their supernatural origins (since Ahmad materializes out of a copper pot, he can hardly be disbelieved). These two people, a rabbi and a metalsmith, are compassionate and generous enough to take in their otherworldly charges and support them while giving them guidance on how to adjust to this new environment. The struggles of Chava and Ahmad to fit into this foreign land mirror the difficulties of the immigrants themselves, although the Golem and the Jinni also have to remember to act human, which is equally foreign to them.

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Time Period and Setting: 1800s, U.S.
First Publication: 2016

Colson Whitehead takes history and spins it into something new by bringing to life the Underground Railroad- literally! Cora, an orphaned slave on a Georgia Plantation decides to take her future into her own hands and escape to the North. Cora’s mother- Mabel, escaped when Cora was only 13, leaving her behind to grapple with being alone and abandoned. Mabel is presented as idealistic, as she was never captured and returned to the farm. In fact, the owners and the slave catcher see her as “the one that got away”- and they take out their frustrations on Cora. Cora meets many interesting characters throughout this book and makes an attempt to take her life back.

This novel is both brutal and beautiful. It is the story of slaves in Georgia trying to escape to freedom using the Underground Railroad, and along the way we see innumerable scenes of how horrible life could be for a black person in the American South.

What gives this book a twist from other historical fiction of the same period is that Colson Whitehead made his Underground Railroad a real railroad, with trains and tracks and tunnels and stations.

 

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Time Period and Setting: Early 1800s, Barbados
First Publication: 2018

This historical fiction novel takes a 19th century tale of adventure and scientific discovery, and places at its center a runaway slave named George Washington Black – Wash for short. Wash’s mentor/master is Christopher Wilde, aka Titch, a gentleman scientist trying to build a hydrogen-powered balloon (referred to as his ‘Cloud-cutter’ in a lovely bit of nomenclature).

The complicated relationship between Wash and Titch is the book’s beating heart. Titch is a complex character, he abhors slavery, yet his family’s Barbados plantation (worked by slaves) funds his scientific endeavors; he is kind to Wash, yet he exploits Wash’s precocious intellect for his own gain.

Wash himself, with his genius for drawing and science, struggles to outrun his past, to pursue his talents (knowing full well his achievements will never be given due credit) and to reconcile his conflicted feelings about Titch. As a character he is beautifully drawn, and your heart breaks at every ordeal he faces while his story takes him to the corners of the globe. But he finds hope, and kindness too, along the way.

 

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Time Period and Setting: 1743, Scotland
First Publication: 1991

This historical fiction novel is set, initially, in 1946 Scotland, where a couple take a second honeymoon after the Second World War. Whilst not a huge presence in the piece, WW2 is something that feeds into the motivations of Claire, the protagonist, and informs the story. Through magic, science, coma, act of God or who knows what else, Claire Randall finds herself in mid eighteenth century Scotland. She meets the fearsome ancestor of her husband, English officer, Jack Randall, and finds herself put in danger through his suspicions that she is a spy. Given refuge by the MacKenzie clan, she embarks upon numerous journeys of self discovery, and a journey of impossible love.

The romantic lead of the piece is Jamie Fraser. Strong, young, witty, and a little innocent, he is everything that Claire’s husband in 1946 is not. The love between Jamie and Claire is beautifully paced, and the main focus of the novel. Something that shows Diana Gabaldon’s skill as a storyteller particularly well is the way that history is integrated with fiction.

 

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Time Period and Setting: 960s in Jackson, Mississippi
First Publication: 2009

This is a historical fiction book about what it is like being a black woman in the South in the 1960’s. The Help is a wholesome attempt to throw light on the plight of the black maids working for the white ladies of Jackson, Mississippi. The year was 1962. The year after which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech at Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. He declared that the time had come to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. It was a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet, justice was a dream standing yonder. It was in such a climate that Kathryn Stockett chose to gently lay the foundation of the story on.

The Help, at its core divulges the alienation and the segregation suffered by the black maids, who were trusted enough to play a pivotal role, or sometimes the only role, in raising the white babies. The irony be in the fact that they were considered good enough for shaping the morals of the toddlers but not enough to leave them alone with the silverware. And while the white ladies were playing bridge and laying gossip on the vine, the maids were taking care of the house, their men, their babies.

 

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Time Period and Setting: Nazi occupied France during the second world war.
First Publication: 2015

‘The Nightingale’ is a historical fiction, set in German-occupied France during WWII. Spanning the years of the war, this riveting story follows two sisters as they struggle to survive and persevere through the Nazi invasion. As the reader, you get to see the war that was taking place on the home front from each sister’s unique vantage point. It is a heart wrenching, beautiful and tragic story.

As the older sister, Vianne feels responsible for keeping her younger sister, Isabelle, safe. When the occupation begins, Isabelle is sent to stay with Vianne in the country, being cast out of Paris by her father. Vianne’s husband, Antoine, has been called to report to the Army, leaving Vianne and their young daughter, Sophie, behind. As the Germans invade Paris, Isabelle begins the trek to her sister’s home, witnessing the atrocities committed by the invading troops firsthand.

By the time that Isabelle arrives on Vianne’s doorstep, she is determined to join the resistance and make a difference. Young and impulsive, Vianne is certain that her younger sister will get herself, if not all of them, killed. Their relationship is tenuous, at best, and Vianne struggles to get through to her strong-minded sibling. Vianne is naive, having not witnessed the actions of the invading Nazis, as her sister had. She believes that if they keep their heads down and don’t draw attention to themselves, they’ll be okay. She follows the rules and tries to reign in Isabelle’s defiant behaviors before it is too late.

However, as time passes and the occupation grows increasingly difficult, the sisters go their separate ways. Each of them sets out on a different course, trying to survive the best way they know how. Despite the distance between them, each sister ends up fighting the Nazi invasion in different ways. The bold and daring Isabelle actively assists allied airmen in their escapes, while the mild-mannered Vianne begins helping hide away Jewish children.

 

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Time Period and Setting: Kyoto, Japan, before, during, and after World War II
First Publication: 1997

An engrossing historical fiction novel about a girl with extraordinary eyes named Chiyo and how she became a celebrated geisha named Sayuri. The path of her life was not always easy, but like water flowing over bumpy rocks, she braves the rapids and, eventually, reaches the ocean of her dreams.

Chiyo and her sister, Satsu, live in the fishing village of Yoroido, on coastal Japan. Her father gives them to Mr. Tanaka Ichiro. He sells Satsu into a brothel and Chiyo into a geisha house. Satsu escapes but nine year old Chiyo does not. Because Chiyo tried to run away with her sister, she is demoted to a maid for two years.

Life in the okiya (geisha house) is difficult. Hatsumomo, a geisha who lives in the okiya, is cruel and manipulative. She lies and twist events around so that Chiyo gets in trouble. Luckily for Chiyo, Mameha, another geisha, takes an interest in Chiyo. She becomes Chiyo’s older sister. Soon Chiyo’s training as a geisha begins and her name will change to Sayuri.

 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Time Period and Setting: 1946 as London emerges from the Second World War
First Publication: 2008

A historical fiction drama about life under Nazi occupation on this tiny island in the English channel. Ms Juliet Ashton is an author looking for a subject for her next book while she is still promoting her previous work. In the middle of all this she receives a letter from Mr. Dawsey Adams of Guernsey, who wrote to her how he’d found a book by Charles Lamb which once belonged to her. Through his letter Juliet get to know about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and she became infatuated with this Society which over the time change into lifelong bond of friendship. & now she also knew what her next book was going to be about.

whereas she first knew people of literary society only by their letters and what they suffered during the War, but once she was in Guernsey she realized that these people were survivors and they were doing their best to clear the scars that the World War had left on their lives.

 

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Time Period and Setting: 17th-century Delft, Holland
First Publication: 2000

In 1664 16-year old Griet, a protestant, joins artist Johannes Vermeer’s household in the Papist Quarter of Delft, Holland, as a live-in maid. The few coins she earns per 6 day week is to feed her own family after her father was left blind in an industrial accident. The Vermeer’s and their soon to be 6 children live with the wife’s mother and her maid, in a chaotic household, where furnishings and food are much grander than at Griet’s own home, yet she quickly becomes aware of simmering tensions and that the family, though well-respected, is not as wealthy as it seems. Vermeer produces only 3 paintings a year and is dependent on his patron, the sleazy Van Ruijven, and commissions from businessmen around the town.

Griet is given a bed in the cellar, her main tasks to handle the household laundry – fetching water from the canal to heat on a stove; cleaning (she is fastidious and careful around Vermeer’s studio in the attic), and running errands to the market where she catches the eye of the butcher’s son. When the 6th child is born and a nurse moves in to feed the baby the household is even more crowded and Vermeer suggests that a bed be made for Griet in the storeroom next to the attic studio.

We follow Griet’s progress over three years through personal loss, as she graduates from a humble maid to assisting Vermeer in the preparation of pigments, and eventually, secretly posing for him in the famous painting, wearing his wife’s pearl earrings.

 

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Time Period and Setting: Clayton County and Atlanta, both in Georgia, during the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era.
First Publication: 1936

Margaret Mitchell received 38 publishing rejections before the lucky Macmillan publishers accepted Gone With The Wind. Her only novel published in her lifetime, this historical fiction book sold 30 million copies (with two sequels authorised by Mitchell’s estate published more than a half century later). Mitchell won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for this epic of the highest order, of more than a thousand pages.

Set in the American Civil War and Reconstruction, this tracks the cunning antics of wealthy Southern plantation owner Gerald O’Hara’s daughter, Scarlett, who must do what she must to survive sudden destitution.

There’s a touch of the Scarlett O’Hara in the best of us. Tainted more with her Father’s forthright Irish blood than her gracious mother Ellen’s French ancestry, she’s strong-willed, self-centred, at times petulant, but ultimately practical and ever true to her own heart. This complexity makes her the great literary heroine she is and not simply a spoilt Southern princess who deserves a good slapping down. No wonder Hollywood interviewed 1400 actresses before settling on the extraordinary Vivien Leigh to capture her fabulous persona for the 1939 film, which won eight Academy Awards.

 

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Time Period and Setting: 1941, Lithuania,
First Publication: 2011

A beautifully written account of the mass arrests of the Lithuanian people by the soviets during Stalin rule in WW2 era. The detailed descriptions of the horrid treatment and living conditions these people endured in Siberian gulags is outlined in this historical fiction story.

Between Shades of Gray depicts the atrocities faced by the Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians during the Soviet Union occupation beginning in 1939. As stated in the epilogue, the Kremlin had lists of “anti-Soviet” persons who would later be murdered, imprisoned, or deported to Siberia and enslaved.

This is a fictionalized account of real historical events which occurred during the 1940’s and 1950’s; fifteen-year old Lina is the brave heroine of this story. Along with her always kindhearted and graceful mother, Lina and her 10 year old brother, Jonas, were separated from their father and sent thousands of miles by train to Siberia where they were forced to live and work in the most horrific conditions.

Despite all this, Lina had hope of someday being reunited with her father; and she found solace in her artwork, always done in secret, and in reading the one precious Dickens book she was able to hide with her meager belongings. She used her artistic gift to leave clues for her father; clues that she believed would one day enable him to find and rescue her and her family. Her sketches represent real clues left by individuals who endured the cruelty of Stalin’s rule while the rest of the world remained ignorant to their suffering. The author tells us that more than a third of the population of the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were lost to genocide during this time period; however, the strength, hope and fortitude of the survivors was something to be admired.

 

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Time Period and Setting: 1945, East Prussia
First Publication: 2016

Salt to the Sea opens in the closing months of World War Two, as the Russian forces advance across Poland and East Prussia towards Germany. The story follows four characters – Emilia, Florian, Joana and Alfred – as they flee ahead of the Russian Army and converge on the ill-fated Wilhelm Gustloff for a voyage which would go on to be the greatest maritime disaster of all time with six times the death toll of the Titanic.

For our four characters this ship is their last chance to make it back to Germany before the Russians arrive and they’ll do almost anything to get a ticket. Each character has a distinct voice and personality, and the short chapters make it surprisingly quick to read despite the often harrowing content.

 

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Time Period and Setting: 1943, Nazi-occupied France
First Publication: 2012

Heartbreaking is the best way to describe this wrenching tale of the friendship between 2 young women in WW 2, one a pilot and the other a spy for Great Britain.

Verity and Maddie met during the war when they were both just lowly wireless operators and translators. But each is tenacious and quickly they move up in the ranks so to speak. Maddie becoming a pilot and Verity becoming a spy. We meet Verity when she has already been captured by the Gestapo and has decided to sell her story to them for her clothing, a blanket and some paper. She knows that once she is done telling her story they will kill her but this is her last chance to draw out her execution. She decides to write everything from the PoV of her best friend Maddie.

Bound to make you cry if you can reach the end, Code Name Verity is a standalone novel which will throw you in a tornado that never stops twisting your heart and soul. It also incorporates elements of betrayal, trust, friendship and courage.

 

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Time Period and Setting: 1942 in Germany
First Publication: 2006

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas tells the story of Bruno, a nine year old German boy whom his father serves as a commander in the Third Reich and is tasked with overseer of the horrific conditions at Auschwitz. Bruno, along with his father, mother, and sister and various servants move from their quaint home in Berlin to live in a house on the outskirts of the prison where Bruno and his sister Gretel can view the unfortunate occupants living behind the fence.

Without friends or much to do besides his studies and books, Bruno befriends Shmuel, a young Polish boy of Jewish descent who lives on the other side of the fence. The two meet up over a year or so, and while seemingly different at first, the two come to learn that they have a lot in common.

Author John Boyne targets the rather ignorant innocence and refusal to face facts of a portion of the German population at the time under the Third Reich (personified as Bruno), to mixed results.

 

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Time Period and Setting: 1932, Joliet, Illinois; Ithaca, New York
First Publication: 2006

As 93 year old Jacob Jankowski sits outside the nursing home despairing the imminent loss of his favorite caretaker and awaiting his family escort to the circus, he reminisces about the fateful day during depression times when as a young lad he ditched a final exam at Cornell and hopped aboard a freighter carrying the Benzini Brothers traveling Circus.

As a near graduate, he’s taken on as the shows veterinarian and is thrown into the mix of colorful characters and excitement that is the circus. Times are tough and though the performers try their best to maintain the grand illusion under the big top, what goes on behind the scenes is not pretty as Jacob finds out after falling for Marlena the beautiful horse trainer, whose husband August has a ruthless temper.

Throw in an obstinate elephant named Rosie, a dwarf bunk mate, a drunk stow away, and an animal stampede, and you’ve got a fine bit of storytelling which includes a surprise ending.

 

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Time Period and Setting: 1943 in Nazi occupied Denmark
First Publication: 1989

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry takes place in Denmark during World War II and the Holocaust. The story begins with an introduction to the cruelty of German soldiers who are occupying Denmark. From there, this YA historical fiction novel tells a tale of bravery of a Danish family in the middle of WWII who helped a family of Jews escape from the Nazis. As the Afterword explains, much of the story was based on real people and historical events.

Soon after the beginning of the story, the Nazi soldiers begin attempting to take Denmark’s Jewish citizens away to concentration camps. As this happens, other Danish citizens and members of a secret movement, the Resistance, protect their Jewish neighbors and begin smuggling them to safety in Sweden. Eventually, Annemarie’s family smuggle Ellen Rosen, a young Jewish girl, to their relative’s house near Sweden. It is there that the story unfolds and the suspense begins.

One of the best things about Number the Stars was the way Annemarie demonstrated quiet bravery in the face of danger. Her character showed that it doesn’t take brute strength and power to be a hero.

 

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Time Period and Setting: 1942, Paris, France
First Publication: 2006

Sarah’s Key is a historical fiction story told from the perspectives of a young Jewish girl living in France in 1942 and a middle-aged American woman also living in France 60 years later. Julia, like many other people, did not know of France’s involvement in the Holocaust during World War II.

As a journalist, she is assigned to write an article on the 60th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup that many of the French would rather forget ever happened. In her research, she comes across a personal link to Sarah and the atrocities she endured so many years before. Julia is determined to find out everything possible about Sarah and to locate her if at all possible.

 

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Time Period and Setting: 1947, France & England
First Publication: 2017

This powerful historical fiction consists of 2 stories with alternating timelines (1925 & 1947). As indicated by the title, it tells the stories of a real life group of brave, selfless female agents operating in WWI, France and England who risked and gave their lives in an effort to stop Nazis. The characters are extremely well developed. They are strong, but flawed women. It is based on the life of Louise de Bettignies, alias Alice Dubois.

This book leaps forward in history and tackles the little known spy ring of the Alice Network during WWI. A dual narrative that engages readers in the events of 1915 and 1947 England and France. American Charlotte (Charlie) St Clair and Brit Eve Gardiner are two very memorable characters.

 

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Time Period and Setting: 1945, Barcelona
First Publication: 2001

This historical fiction is a story about Daniel, growing up in Barcelona after the World War II. His father took him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and allowed him to pick one book which he’s expected to “save”. He picks a novel by Julian Carax titled “The Shadow of the Wind” and is immediately sucked into the story. Daniel feels compelled to seek out information about the author, who is rumored to have died under mysterious circumstances. When the details of Carax’s life begin to unravel, many parallels between his and Daniel’s life unfold.

In the end, Daniel finds himself in the exact same mental place as Carax. He tries to locate other works by Carax and discovers that someone has been going around burning all of his works. Daniel realizes he may have stumbled upon the only remaining copy of Carax work.

Carax’s novel finds its way into Daniel’s life, especially when their lives begin to intertwine. The problems arise when it becomes apparent that someone wants to make sure that all of Carax’s books are burned and destroyed completely and that someone won’t stop at nothing until every last evidence burns.

 

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Time Period and Setting: the present day and the late 1920s, 1930s in Maine
First Publication: 2001

Orphan Train is a well written historical fiction about friendship, hope, and finding family. In Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline seamlessly weaves together two stories from different time periods and two character’s points of view. Along the way, she infuses just enough history about the trains that carried Orphans across the county from 1854 to 1929 in search of new families to intrigue without belaboring the story.

On the surface Molly and Vivian, the two point-of-view characters, seem to be worlds apart. Molly is an at-risk foster teen who has just narrowly escaped a stint in juvenile detention after stealing of all things, a book from the library. Her foster mother is fed up with her—the feeling is mutual—and her foster father, while a bit more supportive, mostly doesn’t want to cross his wife. Molly has bounced around far too many disappointing foster families, and is cynical and ambivalent.

Vivian is a 91 year old rich widow, living alone in a waterfront mansion with too many unused rooms and a cluttered attic she needs cleaned out and organized. Her housekeeper is the mother of Molly’s boyfriend. Through that connection Molly and Vivian meet and agree that Molly fulfill her community service hours by helping Vivian organize her attic.

As Molly and Vivian sort through boxes of Vivian’s history, the heart of the story unfolds. They learn they have a great deal in common, form an unlikely friendship, and together learn the meaning of family.

 

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Time Period and Setting: Krompachy (Slovakia) and Auschwitz (Poland) during World War II
First Publication: 2018

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is an incredibly sad story of a young mans experience as a prisoner in the concentration camp during the holocaust. The cruelty and horrors that he went through just to stay alive were heartbreaking.

Written based on oral testimony from the protagonist Lale, this is a harrowing tale but with a feel-good ending about life and even love inside Auschwitz. The book details the true story of Lale Sokolov, a young man from Slovakia, who sent to Auschwitz in April of 1942. Lale is determined to survive, and so he becomes the tattooist of Auschwitz, tattooing numbers into the skin of every prisoner to arrive at the concentration camp.

Feeling guilty for collaborating with the germans, while being an outsider in the eyes of the other prisoners, Lale feels alone. But then one day he meets Gita, a female prisoner. Gita becomes Lale’s greatest source of happiness in an otherwise grim world. He may have tattooed the number on her arm that marks her as a prisoner of Auschwitz, but she ends up leaving a mark on his heart as well.

 

Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris

Time Period and Setting: Auschwitz (Poland) during World War II
First Publication: 2019

Cilka’s Journey is the second novel by Australian author, Heather Morris and is a sequel to The Tattooist of Auschwitz, featuring one of the secondary characters from that story, Cecelia Klein (Cilka). When Russian soldiers liberated Birkenau in January of 1945, Cilka hardly dared believe her ordeal was over. And it seemed that it wasn’t.

The Russian agency overseeing the camp quoted from a report on Cilka stating that she collaborated with the Nazis (a position of privilege in a concentration camp, double-edged sword that it is, is bound to engender resentment). For this, she was found to be an enemy of the Russian state and a spy, and was sentenced to fifteen years’ hard labour, to be served at Vorkuta Gulag in northern Siberia.

Even though she had already experienced much of what the were being subjected to, it seemed, at first, that each new day brought some fresh hell. Wary of doing anything that might set her apart as in Birkenau, Cilka hesitated when a doctor at the short-staffed hospital, impressed by her languages and her speed of learning, encouraged her to train there as a nurse. When she reluctantly agreed, she made sure to share any advantage her position gave her with the women in her hut.

 

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Time Period and Setting: 1939, Memphis
First Publication: 2017

Before We Were Yours is a historical fiction novel inspired by the real-life events surrounding the Tennessee’s Children Home activities during the 1920s and 1930s. It is written in two timelines – the past and the present. We follow the lives of two strong characters – Rill Foss and Avery Stafford. These characters are fictional but are based on true people.

Rill Foss and her brother and sisters are taken from their river boat shanty and placed as wards of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society (TCHS) under Miss Georgia Tann, the director. Rill was left with the care of her sibling. One of her sister’s, Camillia, has disappeared and the rest, including her brother, are being adopted by affluent families. Unable to stop Miss Tann from adopting out her siblings, Rill sees no other alternative but to try to escape.

Avery Stafford has returned home to help her father, Senator Wells Stafford, through a medical complication. She is also being groomed for his senate seat. It is during a visit to a nursing home for a political photo opportunity that Avery runs into a patient with a mysterious connection to her grandmother. This opens the door to hidden secrets and connections of the past.

 

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Time Period and Setting: 1666, Eyam, Derbyshire, England
First Publication: 2001

In 1666, the bubonic plague struck England. Geraldine Brooks based her fictional novel on the true events of a small town Eyam in northern England. Two third of the people died that year, most notably the young.

Based on a real preacher and his wife’s attempt to keep the town’s people from losing their reason, their stable heads drive the story as told by a young woman, Anna’s point of view. During a time when women were suspected of being witches and outed, often wrongly, by the water test or the high degree of uneducated people making rash decisions, the story literally bounces from one disaster to another.

Brooks writes a skillful story. All three main characters are believable and their attempts to save the town are admirable even with failures. Anna befriends a woman who teaches her about using herbs for medicine during a time when doctors were not well talented in saving patients.

The preacher’s wife was well educated in her Latin and used a historical medical book based on an earlier Arabic manuscript. Somehow in a small town this seemed more far fetched but I gave it the benefit of the doubt. The townspeople were dropping like flies and any help was needed.

As the title suggests, the time frame for the novel spans a year. This historical fiction story drives on from bad to worse although hope is always front and centered. Religion and spiritualism clash with almighty death.

 

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Time Period and Setting: 1935 To 1999, England And France
First Publication: 2001

Atonement opens in 1935 at an English country estate, continues in rural France during the retreat to Dunkirk during WWII, and moves to a hospital in London in 1940. It mostly takes place during WWII, though it is not about the war itself.

This historical fiction is a story of the lives of Briony Tallis, her sister, Cecilia, and her sister’s beau, Robbie. Briony makes a terrible mistake that devastates the lives of these young people and their families. At the time of her error, Briony is thirteen years old. She is an aspiring writer with a vivid imagination, which is, in part, the cause of her misjudgment. Her mind is filled with the stories in her head, and her ambition to be a writer influences her judgment, so she “sees” events that coincide with what she believes to be true. This is the story of Briony’s atonement for her grievous error, trying to overcome almost unbearable remorse and guilt.

 

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Time Period and Setting: Late 1700s and early 1800s, in Virginia
First Publication: 2010

A tragic tale of a young Irish girl who’s childhood is forever changed by the death of her parents aboard a ship bound for America. Upon her arrival a prominent tobacco plantation owner purchases her along with other slaves to help work his plantation.

Her young life was a happy one growing up with love and nurturing by the slaves who took her in as one of their own, and eventually became her secure and only family. Her budding years were spent with a prominent white family connected to the owners wife, where she received an education and elocution lessons. When she is thrown into a tailspin of the need to marry she ends up marrying the owners son.

After their return to the plantation her whole existence is changed upon the owners death and the son’s inheritance, she unfortunately learns very quickly, the difference between the father and the son. The father was a virtuous man who achieved success through respect and hard work, the son on the other hand looses everything due to his downright meanness, intoxication, greed and a never ending, right of entitlement.

 

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Time Period and Setting: 1964, in Tiburon, South Carolina (United States)
First Publication: 2001

Lily Owens is a 14-year-old girl who only wants a place to belong after running away from her miserable father with her black nursemaid Rosaleen. With nowhere else to go, Lily and Rosaleen are taken in by three eccentric sisters: black beekeepers who hold the clues to Lily’s past, and quite possibly her future. Expertly set in 1964 in the heart of the American South, Lily witnesses the everyday atrocities of a society in which color matters and fairness doesn’t.

Lily’s narrative voice is so strong in this piece that we are taken through her world as if it were our own. Lily desperately wants to be understood and through her moving narration we live her life and understand.

 

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Time Period and Setting: 1910-1940, Rural Georgia
First Publication: 1982

This historical fiction tells the story of Celie, a black woman who finds herself in one abusive situation after another. Her stepfather molests her, her husband beats her, and she is worn down by bearing and caring for children. Over the course of the book, however, Celie learns to stand up for herself and, more importantly, learns to love.

Celie’s personal development is prompted by her relationship with Shug Avery, a singer and her husband’s former lover, who comes to live with them for a while during an illness. Their relationship shifts dramatically, from competitors for Celie’s husband to friends, then lovers, and finally family. Her personal development is helped along even further through her correspondence with her sister Nettie, who is working as a missionary in Africa with Celie’s children that she was forced to give away.

Through Shug, Celie learns about love, physical pleasure and desire, and the possibilities of creative outlets; through Nettie, Celie learns about the larger world and begins to see that her life is only one of many possibilities. She learns that her life could be different and through that gradual realization, she makes her life different.

 

Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark T. Sullivan

Time Period and Setting: Milan, Italy during World War II
First Publication: 2017

Beneath a Scarlet Sky is a historical fiction account of the Italian Pino Lela, a boy pushed into the the thrust of war, rebellion, and intrigue all at the young age of 17.

Pino Lella is a typical teenager in Milan in the early 1940s. He in interested in girls and music and girls. He pays little attention to the Nazi occupation until the Allies start to bomb the city on a daily basis. His parents decide to send him to a boys school in the mountains that he has been to before, to keep him safe. He is anything but safe when he starts leading downed Allied pilots and people escaping from Italy to safety over a treacherous mountain route to Switzerland. He is called home by his parents who insist that he join the German Army – they felt it was safer to be in the German Army than the Italian Army and despite his misgivings, he follows his parents orders. Once again, he puts himself in danger and works for the resistance while he is a member of the German Army.

This is wonderful novel about a brave man during the war and its also the coming of age story of his life from being an innocent teenager to a young man who is searching for love and a peaceful life.

 

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Time Period and Setting: 1866, New Zealand’s South Island
First Publication: 2013

The winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2013, The Luminaries is a multi-layered tour-de-force historical fiction, running about 820 pages, that tells the story of mysterious events, including a disappearance and a possible murder, taking place in a gold-mining town of Hokitika, New Zealand, in 1865 and 1866.

The story takes place in Hokitika, New Zealand, in January, 1866 in the midst of the New Zealand gold rush. The book starts with thirteen very diverse men in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel. Each man has a story to tell and secrets to conceal involving the death of a hermit prospector, a missing fortune, a missing rich and popular young man, and the apparent attempted suicide of the town’s most fetching prostitute. This is the longest section of the book (360 pages), in which the stage is set. The remainder of the book explores in detail these stories and how each of these pieces of the puzzle contributes to the whole.

The structure of the novel is complicated and is based on astrology. There are 12 “stellar” characters who correspond to the Zodiac signs and seven “planetary” characters, as well as one “terra firma” character – the hermit prospector whom the mystery revolves around.

 

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Time Period and Setting: Germany and Luxembourg during World War II, Ilium, New York during the post-war period
First Publication: 1969

Slaughterhouse-Five is the story of the fictional Billy Pilgrim, who goes through some the very real events, events Vonnegut himself experienced (the firebombing of Dresden during WWII, about 25,000-40,000 people died). Billy also at one point stars travelling in time, without meaning to or wanting to he starts randomly jumping from one moment to another. The story, as such, has no chronology. Things merely happen out of order.

Vonnegut even reveals the climax and the ending in the very first chapter – a chapter that contains a myriad of references, and is mostly Vonnegut talking about his own life and the troubles he had writing this book. The story of Billy starts in chapter two.

 

Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

Time Period and Setting: 1878, London, England
First Publication: 2010

In Clockwork Angel there is evoked a sense of old-world glamour that was Victorian London, a place of creeping fog that obscures lamplight and horse-drawn carriages that clatter through the cobblestone streets in heavy silence punctuated by the heaving rhythm of the Thames.

When Tessa’s Aunt dies, she heads off to London in search of her older brother. What she doesn’t expect to find is a supernatural world that she never knew she was a part of. Forced to uncover her hidden powers, Tessa is much more than the average American girl she thought she was. Soon, Tessa finds herself under the protection of Shadowhunters, running from a man called The Magister who wants Tessa’s powers for herself. With a clockwork army, The Magister is willing to do anything to get Tessa in his grasp, and the Shadowhunters will do anything to protect her.

 

Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally

Time Period and Setting: 1939, Krakow (Kraków), Poland
First Publication: 1982

This historical fiction book tells the shocking yet inspiring story of Oskar Schindler, a small German industrialist who managed to save the lives of hundreds of Jewish workers who he employed in his factory during the course of World War Two, first in Cracow and later, as the Russian advance closed in on Poland, relocating to Moravia.

Schindler spent the war persuading the Nazi regime that they were better served by keeping his ‘skilled workforce’ alive and productive rather than by sending them to the concentration camps – his task was aided by some profligate spending on bribes and ‘presents’ for the various Nazis whose help he had to enlist but, even so, his success bred envy from some people who denounced him for various ‘crimes’, leading to his arrest by the Gestapo on three occasions.

This was an incredibly written and thought-provoking book without over powering the reader. The focus of the story on Schindler and the 1100 Jewish people he saved actually makes the Holocaust all the more real as you can relate to each individual person rather than being overcome with the shear numbers of people involved.

The portrayal of Schindler is well written and doesn’t preach to the reader about how great a man he was, it simply describes what he did and how he did it and allows the reader to draw his/her own conclusions about him.


 

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