5 American Historical Fiction Novels That Beautifully Depict a Kaleidoscope of Experiences

July 21 2020

Lately, we’ve been thinking deeply about the United States and all the historical happenings that shaped us as a country. These heartrending, hopeful, and impassioned tales, all set in the United States, illustrate a kaleidoscope of American experiences. Let these books remind you of the incredible figures—both real and imagined—who have crafted our understanding of America, its failings, and its potential. From rural, working-class warfare to the trials and triumphs of the immigrant experience, these books refuse to define American identity as a singular entity but rather embrace the always-expanding vision of what country, nation, and home must mean. 

This Tender Land
by William Kent Krueger

In this big-hearted odyssey, four homeless children set out during the Great Depression on a journey down the Mississippi River. Odie, an orphan trapped at the Lincoln Indian Training School, sets out with his brother, his best friend, and a mysterious girl named Emmy on a journey of self-discovery, and a trip to uncover if there is a place left in America for them to call home. A heartfelt portrait of the America that both inspires and haunts us, THIS TENDER LAND is a classic coming-of-age adventure story. 

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This Tender Land
William Kent Krueger

For fans of Before We Were Yours and Where the Crawdads Sing, “a gripping, poignant tale swathed in both mythical and mystical overtones” (Bob Drury, New York Times bestselling author) that follows four orphans on a life-changing odyssey during the Great Depression, from the New York Times bestselling author of Ordinary Grace.

1932, Minnesota—the Lincoln School is a pitiless place where hundreds of Native American children, forcibly separated from their parents, are sent to be educated. It is also home to an orphan named Odie O’Banion, a lively boy whose exploits earn him the superintendent’s wrath. Forced to flee, he and his brother Albert, their best friend Mose, and a brokenhearted little girl named Emmy steal away in a canoe, heading for the mighty Mississippi and a place to call their own.

Over the course of one unforgettable summer, these four orphans will fly into the unknown and cross paths with others who are adrift, from struggling farmers and traveling faith healers to displaced families and lost souls of all kinds. With the feel of a modern classic, This Tender Land is an en­thralling, big-hearted epic that is “more than a simple journey; it is a deeply satisfying odyssey, a quest in search of self and home” (Booklist).

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The Women of the Copper Country
by Mary Doria Russell

Annie Clements knows that her copper-mining hometown of Calumet, Michigan, has problems. The men go underground to die in mining disasters or to earn a meager living. The women slave away in the homes of elite landowners. Fed up with this treatment, Annie begins a movement in 1913 that will go on to earn her the moniker of “America’s Joan of Arc,” fighting for the rights of her people and her own independence. The battle is dangerous and may have personal consequences, but as it continues, Annie learns that she will sacrifice everything for her cause. 

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The Women of the Copper Country
Mary Doria Russell

From the bestselling and award-winning author of The Sparrow comes “historical fiction that feels uncomfortably relevant today” (Kirkus Reviews) about “America’s Joan of Arc”—the courageous woman who started a rebellion by leading a strike against the largest copper mining company in the world.

In July 1913, twenty-five-year-old Annie Clements has seen enough of the world to know that it’s unfair. She’s spent her whole life in the mining town of Calumet, Michigan, where men risk their lives for meager salaries—and have barely enough to put food on the table for their families. The women labor in the houses of the elite, and send their husbands and sons deep underground each day, dreading the fateful call of the company man telling them their loved ones aren’t coming home. So, when Annie decides to stand up for the entire town of Calumet, nearly everyone believes she may have taken on more than she is prepared to handle.

Yet as Annie struggles to improve the future of her town, her husband becomes increasingly frustrated with her growing independence. She faces the threat of prison while also discovering a forbidden love. On her fierce quest for justice, Annie will see just how much she is willing to sacrifice for the families of Calumet.

From one of the most versatile writers in contemporary fiction, this novel is an authentic and moving historical portrait of the lives of the crucial men and women of the early labor movement “with an important message that will resonate with contemporary readers” (Booklist).

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American Spy
by Lauren Wilkinson

Inspire by true events, AMERICAN SPY is the story of FBI agent Marie Mitchell, a brilliant young black woman trapped between her country and her beliefs. Marie is tired of paperwork, so she jumps at the opportunity to join a task force aimed at bringing down Thomas Sankara, the Communist president of Burkina Faso. But as Marie turns spy and becomes Sankara’s lover, she begins to see that her own ideology aligns more with his than with her employer’s. Lauren Wilkinson’s novel is a poignant family drama, passionate romance, and bracing spy thriller, all in one.  

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American Spy
Lauren Wilkinson

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The Nickel Boys
by Colson Whitehead

New York Times bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, THE NICKEL BOYS is a daring, heartrending story of far-reaching systems of abuse. Elwood Curtis, a black boy in the 1960s, finds himself trapped in the horrific juvenile detention center Nickel Academy. There, he befriends the jaded Turner, who grows close to Elwood despite seeing him as naïve. As the abuse inside the institution increases and tension between the boys mounts, an explosive decision will change their lives, as well as the lives of everyone else at the Academy. 

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The Nickel Boys
Colson Whitehead

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Dominicana
by Angie Cruz

At only fifteen-years-old, Ana Cancion agrees to marry middle-aged Juan Ruiz, not out of love, but for his promise to take her to New York City. Despite hating her lonely, loveless life in Washington Heights, Ana stays, hoping to ensure future immigration for her family. But as she falls in love with Juan’s younger brother—and the more independent lifestyle he would provide—Ana must again decide between her heart and her familial obligations. A celebration of the joys of freedom, DOMINICANA is an energetic and deeply felt coming-of-age story. 

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Photo Credit: Vadmary/iStock

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