Historical Fiction

FUNNY GIRL by Nick Hornby

Posted on

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

Posted on

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

Posted on

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

Posted on Updated on

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

Posted on Updated on

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 watching 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.

Gone With the Wind is the most problematic book I have ever read. It would be easy to decry it if it were all racist manifesto and easy to praise it if it were all enthralling love story. Unfortunately, it is both.

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. Long passages expound up on the “virtue” of slavery and the “inferiority” of all people of African descent. Although 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 mythology of the courage, pride, and survival so compelling, it is deeply troubling that the racist arguments she makes shaped society then and even today. I was horrified to realize that some of the racist ideas she encompasses in her pro-slavery thesis were taught to me in school in the 1990s and are echoed by white nationalists today. In that sense, this book is beyond bad. It is evil.

And yet … the love story is one of the most well-crafted, engaging stories I have ever read. It is a story of contradictions. 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 will love 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. BUT–and this is critical–be prepared to face the racism of the Old South (and the 1930s South). Do not go into this book blindly. I believe that reading this level of racism can be eye-opening and informative, illuminating racism we didn’t realize we had internalized ourselves, but only if we READ CRITICALLY. If not, this book will continue to perpetuate the racism that has permeated our country since its foundation.

If you liked Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Posted on

I’m still working my way through Gone with the Wind (which is excellent, but long), so in lieu of a review, today I’ve posted a recommendation list.

Whether you like the Game of Thrones books or the miniseries (or both!), check out some of these books, movies, and miniseries you may enjoy.

 

 

WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE by Julie Otsuka

Posted on Updated on

The woman read the notice with relatively little emotion.  Things hadn’t been the same since the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Her husband had been gone for months, and the house hardly seemed the same.  Now because they were Japanese-Americans, she and the children would have to leave as well.  They did not know where they would be going.  Nor did they know what would happen to their house and their possessions while they were gone.  They could take only what they could carry.  So the family packed their belongings and left for the hot desert where they would live for years until the end of the war.  And though they would one day return, their lives would never be the same.

Julie Otsuka’s writing style is quiet and distant.  She never gives her characters names, but allows the reader to experience the thoughts of all three major characters–mother, son, and daughter–as they live in the internment camps.  Though the writing style is subdued, there is disturbing content, so it is not a “gentle read.”  But it will be more enjoyable to readers who like a gentle writing style than those who enjoy suspenseful or plot driven novels.  Personally, the quiet style did not engage me, but it may be more engaging to other readers.  The historical content itself was certainly interesting.

THE BONE GARDEN by Tess Gerritsen

Posted on Updated on

When Julia bought an old fixer-upper house in rural Massachusetts, she was looking forward to gardening–a relaxing project to keep her mind off of the divorce.  But when she unearths a human skeleton which shows signs of premortem trauma, she finds herself getting swept up in a mystery that began in 1830s Boston.  She meets Henry Page, an 89 year old man with family connections to her new estate, and they begin searching through boxes of old letters, many of them written by the famous Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes.  Along with Julia, the reader begins to hear the story of seventeen-year-old Irish immigrant Rose Connolly and medical student Norris Marshall, the son of a lower-class farmer.  While Norris, Wendell, and their fellow doctors try to discover the cause and treatment for a fever epidemic that claimed the life of Rose’s sister and many other recently pregnant women in the hospital, Rose tries to protect her late sister’s child from her abusive brother-in-law, Eben.  Norris and Rose’s stories become intertwined when nurses and doctors from the hospital begin to be murdered and mutilated with a distinctive pattern of knife wounds.  Norris and Rose are the only two people to have seen the murderer (a figure cloaked in black with a mask like a skull), but no one believes them, and due to their lower-class status and circumstantial evidence, they both become murder suspects.  Meanwhile, it seems people besides Eben are after Rose’s baby niece.  The key to the mystery may be found in an old locket that Rose pawned to pay for her sister’s burial.

If you like thrillers and find medical history interesting, then this is the book for you!  Gerritsen weaves details about Victorian medical knowledge (or lack thereof), body-snatching surgeons, and the medical education system of the time into a suspenseful mystery plot.  The present day plot is kind of cheesy, but only comprises a small fraction of the novel.  Readers who like suspenseful forensic mysteries or historical fiction thrillers will likely enjoy this novel.

If you liked The Bone Garden as a historical mystery, you may be interested in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale.  If you liked The Bone Garden as a medical thriller, you might like the Lincoln Rhyme books by Jeffrey Deaver.

THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak

Posted on Updated on

The first time Death met Liesel Meminger, the book thief, she was on a train with her mother and her little brother, traveling to a foster home near Munich where the children could escape the shadow of their father’s identity as a Kommunist. It was the little brother’s soul that Death had come to collect.  As he cradled the little boy’s soul in his arms and watched the living grieve, Death did not know that he would meet the book thief two more times during her childhood, nor that he would find her journal in the wreckage of a bomb-torn city and would read it again and again, memorizing her story and always carrying it with him.  He shares Liesel’s story with the readers in his own way–recounting the mischief she concocts with Rudy Steiner, the complicated but ultimately loving relationships in her foster family, the struggle of learning to read, poverty and hunger in the Third Reich, the terrifying business of hiding a Jew and the powerful friendship that results from it, the complex intertwining of patriotism, loyalty, and morality–all over-layed with Death’s observations of the tragedy of war and the enduring hope and beauty of life.

Ultimately, it is the words—of the author, of the characters, of the past—that bring the story to life so vibrantly and unforgettably.  This is a book to be savored.  It is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming.  There are no real plot twists; Death tells you the ending at the beginning.  The book is about the journey of the characters and their complex, beautiful relationships.  Zusak does not neglect even the minor characters, making them all irresistibly complicated and human.  I warn you, you will fall in love with characters in this book, and their stories will stay with you–as they did for the narrator, Death.  Your heart will likely break at some of the tragedies they endure.  But it is worth it for the journey you share with them, just as Death demonstrates that even the shortest lives captured in Liesel’s journal have profound and enduring beauty and meaning.  The Book Thief has been my Favorite Book Of All Time since I first read it in 2006, and it will take an extraordinary book to ever supplant it in my affection.  I cannot recommend it highly enough for teens and for adults.

If you liked The Book Thief for its themes and characters, you might like The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.

If you liked The Book Thief for its subject matter and narrative style, you might like Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut

Posted on Updated on

Kurt Vonnegut tried for years to write a book that captured his experience as an American soldier in a Dresden POW camp during the night of bombing that claimed 135,000 lives–most of them civilians–in World War II.  He finally does so through the story of Billy Pilgrim, a former soldier who has come unstuck in time, traveling back and forth through moments of his life without any control over his movements.  He has also had the unique experience of being abducted by the Trafalmadorians, an alien race which understands time very differently from Earthlings.  His story is told in the style of Trafalmadore: brief moments packaged together in an order that makes no sense linearly but can be experienced as a unified whole.

Vonnegut uses time and science fiction to frame an event that can only be grasped with an appropriate backdrop of absurd horror.  The story is powerfully told, and is a book that I find I must savor, reading it slowly, taking pauses, and allowing the writing and meaning to fully sink in.  It is a great book for adults and older teens who enjoyed The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and/or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.  If you enjoy Slaughterhouse-Five and have not read the aforementioned, you might enjoy them as well.