Historical Fiction

DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP by Willa Cather

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As a young man, the French priest Father Latour was assigned as a missionary to the Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Over the course of his life, he served the diverse community, learning much about the Mexicans, Indians, and Americans who lived there and striving to help the poor, spread the faith, and work for justice.

This Willa Cather classic is a work of fiction based on the life of the real French bishop of Santa Fe.  Laid out as a series of vignettes about different people and circumstances, the story provides a beautifully written, poetic glimpse into a romanticized Old West.

Written in the early 20th century, the book contains prejudicial language and ideas about the various Latino and American Indian populations, some of which are less common today.  Since Cather (and her characters) are trying to understand and respect the people and cultures she writes about, it provides an interesting historical perspective on race relations during the late 19th and early 20th century–and forces today’s white readers who believe themselves to be enlightened and tolerant to examine their own language and behavior for unwitting prejudice.

Although it is short, don’t expect this to be a quick read! The rich, dense prose deserves to be savored.  Fortunately, the vignette formate makes it easy to read in bite-sized chunks.

DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland

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Jane would have grown up a slave if not for the War Between the States. Instead, she grew up helping her white mother defend the plantation against the onslaught of the undead who began to rise after the Battle of Gettysburg. Although the agreement to end the War so that North and South could join forces against the undead shamblers included the abolition of slavery, Black people are far from equal—arguably not even free. When Jane was rounded up with the rest of the Black teens on the plantation and sent to a finishing school where she would train to defend wealthy white women from shamblers, she hoped it would be an opportunity to gain some sort of liberty and life experience. Instead, she finds herself hampered by the racism and sexism that pervade her society. But when she and a classmate uncover a deadly conspiracy, they find themselves in grave danger and caught between the desire for self-preservation and the knowledge that if they don’t do something, the entire world could be lost to the undead.

This novel is stunning: well-written, nuanced, thought-provoking, timely, and with a gripping and richly imagined historical sci-fi that is nearly impossible to put down. Jane is a compelling and complex protagonist, and it is a pleasure to root for her against both the zombies and the disturbing social institutions that try to hold her back. For all of its thrilling adventure, it never shies away from a powerful and disturbing look at racism and its impact. I loved every page and highly recommend it to teen and adult fans of sci-fi, dystopia, or even historical fiction.

THE MORE THEY DISAPPEAR by Jesse Donaldson 

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Sheriff Lee Mattock was popular in the small town of Marathon, KY. No one could believe it when he was murdered. But as deputy Harlan Dupee soon learns, Lew may not have been as innocent and he seemed. Harlan follows the trail of Leo’s killer, gradually uncovering the complicated web of Marathon’s underground Oxycotin trade.  Meanwhile, teenaged Mary Jane finds that getting rid of Lew hasn’t led to the immediate freedom she and her boyfriend thought it would, and the drugs no longer seem to provide enough of an escape. 

Not quite a mystery, Donaldson’s novel is a harsh glimpse into prescription drug abuse in the ’90s and its impact on individuals and communities.  The book may grab some mystery readers due to its subject matter and the puzzle-like way that the whole picture gradually develops, but it will likely appeal most to readers who enjoy gritty, realistic stories about dysfunctional communities, corruption, and seedy small town life. 

HOTEL AT THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET by Jamie Ford

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When Henry was young and attending  a school in a white neighborhood, his father insisted that he wear a button that said “I Am Chinese.” At first, Henry thought that his father’s pride in their heritage was an embarrassment. But he soon realized that his father was concerned for his safety. It could be dangerous to be mistaken  for a Japanese person during the war. Decades later, when the belongings of Japanese families who had been taken to internment camps are rediscovered in the basement of the Panama Hotel, Henry relives  a part of his past that he has kept secret even from his son.  For the first time, he shares his memories of life during the war and his forbidden friendship with a Japanese girl named Keiko.

 Jamie Ford crafts a beautiful historical fiction novel with a mildly suspenseful plot, compelling characters, and a rich and immersive setting.   I highly recommend this book to adult and teen readers who enjoy character-driven historical fiction.

THE BIRTH HOUSE by Ami McKay

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Many people in town believed Ms. B was a witch, perhaps because of her Cajun past, her Catholicism, or her many herbal remedies for women’s illnesses.  But Dora always looked up to the midwife.  She began helping Ms. B deliver babies when she was still a child herself.  She delivered healthy babies to their mothers’ arms, rocked dying babies in their few moments of life, and observed Ms. B’s methods for helping desperate women prevent or end pregnancies.  When a doctor arrives in town and opens a women’s hospital on the other side of the mountain, Dora’s philosophy of birth is suddenly threatened. The technological advances of the hospital come at the price of women’s freedom and individualized care.  As Dora finds herself at the forefront of the fight against Dr. Thomas, she risks becoming the new town outcast. 

Set against the historical backdrop of the Suffrage and Temperance movements, the story of a town midwife’s struggle against the medical profession shows how seemingly beneficial progress can be twisted into a form of oppression.  This book will likely resonate most with readers who enjoy slow-moving historical fiction, especially those readers who have given birth or have an interest in birth practices.

FUNNY GIRL by Nick Hornby

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As she walks onto the stage as Blackpool’s beauty queen, Barbara suddenly gets a glimpse of her future; she will marry a local business owner, have kids, get fat, get old, and die.  She will never do anything noteworthy.  She will never be Lucille Ball.  Unless, that is, she escapes now.    In London, two disillusioned radio writers, a timid BBC producer, and a bitter radio actor prepare to film a crappy TV show pilot, unaware that a quick-witted and determined comedienne is about to change their lives forever.

Set in the 1960s, Funny Girl tells of the transformation not only of its principal characters but also of the British entertainment industry.  Quirky and endearing characters keep the story engaging as it spans decades of their lives and changing situations.  I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy being immersed in the world of the (not too distant) past  and even readers who enjoy realistic fiction about relationships.  I also recommend the audiobook.

If you liked Funny Girl,  you might like Landline by Rainbow Rowell.

AUDACITY by Melanie Crowder

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Clara always loved learning. But in her small Jewish community, women were not meant to be scholars. And her father was determined that not even his sons would ever learn Russian, the language of their oppressors.  Still Clara dreamed of being a doctor, and taught herself in secret how to read and how to speak Russian. When a violent pogrom destroyed their community, Clara and her family moved to America, and the opportunity for her to pursue her studies seemed more real than ever. But when the need to support her family forced Clara to work in a sweatshop, she discovered the horrible plight of the working immigrant woman – and child – and her dreams of becoming a surgeon began to conflict with her desire to pursue justice for the oppressed women around her.  Still a teenager, Clara formed a union, and endured terrible hardships as she pursued her new dream.

Inspired by Clara’s real life love of poetry, Crowder tells the true story of Clara Lemlich as she imagines Clara would have experienced it in beautiful poetic verse. The story is exciting, informative, and inspiring. Teen readers may see parallels between Clara’s struggle for justice and many injustice is in our world today. The book concludes with a detailed description of what is true and what is fictionalized in the novel, as well as interviews with Clara’s surviving relatives. I highly recommend this book to teen readers who enjoy historical fiction.

THE BOOK OF LIES by Mary Horlock

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The police think that Nicolette’s death was an accident—a drunken teenager wandering too close to the edge of the cliff.  They are wrong.  Cat killed her—a fact which still surprises Cat, to some extent.  It shouldn’t surprise her, though.  It was her fate as a Rozier.  Ever since the German occupation of their Guernsey Island home, Roziers have been falling into dangerous friendships with fatal consequences and covering it all up in blankets of lies.  But now Cat is ready to uncover the truth, both about Nic’s death and her Uncle Charlie’s experience with the Nazis.

This intriguing novel is part historical fiction, part mystery, and part angsty-and-self-destructive-rebellious-teen fiction.  Both the contemporary and historical plots keep you turning pages.  The novel is marketed for adults, although some teens will certainly enjoy it as well.  I would recommend this book to readers who are interested in WWII historical fiction and readers who like suspenseful stories about dysfunctional families/friendship drama.

BOXERS and SAINTS by Gene Luen Yang

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In two companion novels, Yang tells the story of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China from the perspective of a member of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists and the perspective of a Chinese Christian.  These National Book Award recognized graphic novels are violent, though-provoking, challenging, and perhaps even inspiring.  Yang exposes both virtue and corruption in characters on both sides of this historical tragedy, while violence undermines, propels, but ultimately balks before spirituality.  I would recommend these novels (which must be read together, in the order listed) to anyone who enjoys truly thought-provoking historical/war fiction—and who doesn’t mind a fair bit of violence.

Boxers

Bao grew up loving the opera stories of the ancient Chinese gods.  When he sees his a foreign Catholic priest smash a statue of one of his gods, he is infuriated.  His father goes on a journey to seek justice for the actions of the foreigner and the Chinese Christians (“secondary devils”) who were with him, but the foreign army beats him nearly to death.  In response, Bao joins a secret society which vows to honor the ancient Chinese traditions, protect their families, and eradicate the devils (foreign and Chinese) from their land.  Through a cleansing ritual, Bao and his brethren become possessed by the ancient gods when the fight.  They are all but invincible.  But as they through travel China, slaughtering foreigners and secondary devils, Bao finds that his values are frequently called into question as he struggles to balance justice and mercy.  And when a woman wishes to join their order, he must decide whether he accepts the ancient belief that too much involvement with women can taint a man’s soul.

Saints

Four Girl has grown up without a name, the only one of her mother’s children to survive infancy and believed by her grandfather to be cursed.  Deciding she will live up to her nickname as a “devil,” Four Girl makes horrible faces whenever anyone looks at her.  Her mother takes her to an acupuncturist to be healed of her “devil face.”  The kind man “heals” her by making her laugh.  But Four Girl is intrigued by the crucifix on the man’s wall.  She begins asking him questions about Christianity.  After having several visions of the Christian warrior woman Joan of Arc, Four Girl decides to convert to Christianity and takes the Christian name Vibiana.  But when her family learns of her conversion, they have her beaten.  She runs away and seeks refuge at a Christian stronghold.   In her new life, Vibiana feels called to pursue justice and protect her Christian community from the violence that threatens it.  Thinking it an obvious course of action given her calling, she starts training to be a warrior maiden like Joan.   But Vibiana’s calling may not be as simple as she thinks.

 

GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

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When the Civil War tears through Margaret Mitchell’s romanticized vision of the Old South, a noble civilization is burned to ash and swept away by the Yankee army.  The weak whither and fade in the dust of their lost world, but the strong rise from the ashes and reclaim the land that was their own. 

Before the war, Scarlett O’Hara is the belle of the county, desperately in love with Ashley who—despite his love for Scarlett—has chosen to marry the more practical Melanie.  Scarlett marries his cousin to spite him, but the war leaves her a widowed mother, impoverished, and compelled by her love of Ashley to help support his wife and child.  Realizing that money is the only thing that matters, Scarlett is prepared to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to build her fortune again.  The only person that she can’t seem to dominate is the infamous blockade runner, Rhett Butler, whose ego, sarcasm, and impropriety make him both attractive and infuriating.

Although I grew up loving the film, every time I eyed the 1,000 page tome on which it was based, I balked.  I don’t usually enjoy long books; I often spend half the time slogging through painfully verbose descriptions, wondering when the action will.  Additionally, I don’t usually enjoy romance novels, and romance certainly features prominently in Gone With the Wind. But when a fourteen year old boy told me that Gone With the Wind was one of the best books he had ever read, I was so intrigued that I picked it up.  And from that moment, I could not put it down.

As much as it is a romance between Scarlett and Rhett, Gone With the Wind is a romance between Margaret Mitchell and the Old South.  She wrote the book in the 1920s and 1930s based on stories told to her by her grandparents’ generation, and her romanticized fiction should not be mistaken for historical fact.  Deeply entrenched, lingering racism and classism is present not only in the thoughts of the characters but also in Mitchell’s omniscient narration.  But it is easy to see how the audience that read Mitchell’s book when it was released in 1936—people who had lost so many loved ones and sacrificed so much in a Great War of their own and were then living through a horrible period of economic uncertainty—found the story of the courage, pride, and survival so compelling. 

And the well-written, heartrending story still captures the imagination today.  The world Mitchell creates and destroys is so beautiful yet flawed, and her account of the ups and downs of the war so agonizing, that even knowing how it would end, I couldn’t put the book down.  But it is the characters that truly drive the story forward.  Scarlett’s self-interested passion and determination is a foil to Melanie’s quiet, selfless, and commanding strength.  Far more than in the movie, Captain Butler’s deep goodness shines through the mask of his weaknesses and vices.  It is difficult not to both hate and pity Scarlett for failing to see through his studied nonchalance to the love he conceals out of fear that she will manipulate him, as she does all other men. 

If you love the movie, you must read the book.  The movie is a good adaptation, but even 4 hours of film cannot capture the depth and nuance of this 959 page novel.  Additionally, Hollywood’s added “I love yous” and eliminated references to sex and pregnancy cause subtle yet important changes to the Rhett-Scarlett-Ashley love triangle.  Be prepared for a glimpse into the racism of the Old South (and the 1930s South), but also for a perhaps not-entirely-inaccurate view of the hypocrisy and ruthlessness of the Yankees.  And be prepared to watch in agony the slow demise of a relationship—and a civilization—due to foolishness, pride, and miscommunication.

Thank you for the recommendation, Max!  I will second your vote: this is definitely one of the best books I have ever read.