There’s no doubt that my favorite genre is historical fiction, and I’m always coming across new titles I can’t help but passionately recommend. Each of these nine novels provides a unique look into a different time and place, from pre–World War I Seattle, to Prohibition-era Georgia, to 1930s San Francisco. Through the eyes of diverse characters and cultures, they give new and fascinating perspectives into history and our world.
9 Historical Novels That Offer New Perspectives of Our World
Ernest Young, a 12-year-old half-Chinese orphan, finds himself up for auction “to a good home” at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, where the winning ticket belongs to the madam of a high-class brothel. Deftly navigating past and present, Ernest tries to hide his complicated past from his adult daughters. This novel is my favorite recent work of historical fiction.
Beginning in 1980s Egypt, this novel transports us to another, somewhat earlier, time and culture. The unnamed narrator is six years old in the opening pages, living in a sprawling family home overlooking the Nile. Her quiet childhood is haunted by mystery and loss, as people—including her own father—disappear overnight. CHRONICLE OF A LAST SUMMER follows an Egyptian woman’s coming-of-age as her nation changes around her.
Ruby, Helen, and Grace become friends after auditioning to be showgirls at the same “Oriental” nightclub in San Francisco in 1938. In the years that follow, the three girls rely on each other as World War II and racism against Chinese and Japanese Americans consume the United States, testing the girls’ loyalty to each other. I particularly love this novel because it shows an underrepresented side to World War II, against the backdrop of nightclub glitz and glamour.
Three young women from different backgrounds meet at San Francisco’s exclusive Forbidden City Nightclub and become fast friends. When their dark secrets are exposed, a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.
In Georgia during Prohibition and the Depression, after two babies—one with light skin, the other dark—are born to Elma, a white sharecropper’s daughter, a black field hand is accused of having raped her and is murdered. In the years that follow, as Elma begins the difficult task of raising her babies, everyone on the farm is forced to contend with the actions that led to this man’s death.
Orphaned aboard a ship from Ireland, seven-year-old Lavinia is sent to a tobacco plantation, where she lives and works in the kitchen house with the slaves. Raised by the master’s illegitimate daughter, Belle, Lavinia bonds with her adopted family. But with her light skin setting her apart, she is forced to make choices that may risk her loved ones’ lives.
When a white indentured servant violates the delicate order of plantation society, she unleashes a tragedy that exposes the best and worst in everyone tied to the estate. Sweeping from 1790–1810, this is a heartbreaking, but ultimately hopeful, story of class, race, and familial bonds.
Some of my favorite works of historical fiction are based on the lives of real people and bring to light individuals who may otherwise be forgotten to history. In this novel, we are introduced to Mary Bowser, a courageous freed slave who risked her freedom and her life by returning to the South during the Civil War to spy on Confederate soldiers.
Emma Donoghue is most noted for ROOM, but her historical fiction is just as good. In THE WONDER, Lib Wright, one of Florence Nightingale’s colleagues, is hired to observe an 11-year-old girl who claims to have survived for months without food. While tourists and journalists flock to witness this “miracle,” Lib finds herself fighting for the child’s life.
On Erin’s wish list
Emma Donoghue is one of my favorite authors, so it’s taken every bit of my self-restraint to wait for the holidays to get a copy of her new book. In THE WONDER, a nurse is called to a small Irish village to observe the “miracle” of a girl said to have survived without food for months. Donoghue has already proved to be a skilled and remarkable writer in ROOM, FROG MUSIC, and SLAMMERKIN, giving me confidence that her newest novel will be another amazing read.
At 880 pages, this novel can be a bit intimidating, but, in all fairness, so is the city that serves as its main character. The aptly titled NEW YORK provides a sweeping history of the Big Apple through the eyes of various often-related characters, from the city’s beginnings as a Native American village up to September 11, 2001.
Set in the world of American vaudeville, this novel follows Nell, a widow, and her three teenage daughters as they set out on the vaudeville circuit to support themselves. Among an array of diverse performers, the four women find a new sense of freedom, but they also must face the seedy and dangerous side of early-twentieth-century American theater.
Read with a Whiskey Sour
Pour yourself a whiskey sour and dive into the world of this compelling historical novel set against the turbulent backdrop of American vaudeville. In THE TUMBLING TURNER SISTERS, four sisters embark on an unexpected adventure in the company of traveling vaudeville acts in a last-ditch effort to rescue their family financially.