Hidden Histories: 10 Novels That Illuminate Lesser-Known Events

April 27 2021
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Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a bona fide history nerd. As someone who loves learning about history, I am consistently excited when I discover something or someone new to learn about. During college, I was able to whet my appetite through my history major, but now that I’ve been a college graduate for a little over a year, I have had to get creative in how I’ve sought out new topics to delve into.

Recently, I realized that historical fiction is an excellent avenue to accessing overlooked areas of history. Engaging plots and compelling characters bring the history to life, giving readers both an unforgettable story and history lesson. Here are ten historical fiction novels which exquisitely illuminate lesser-known areas of history.

Letters Across the Sea
by Genevieve Graham

Genevieve Graham’s historical fiction frequently spotlights Canadian history, and LETTERS ACROSS THE SEA is no exception, showcasing the efforts of Canadian soldiers, veterans, and reporters during World War II. The book begins in Toronto at the height of the Great Depression, with protagonist Molly Ryan attempting to find work while beginning a love affair with her best friend’s older brother, Max Dreyfus. The strength of their love is tested as Toronto is beset with anti-Semitic attitudes that come to a head in a riot, and as Max is shipped off to fight in the Pacific while Molly works as a reporter on the home front.

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Letters Across the Sea
Genevieve Graham

Inspired by a little-known chapter of World War II history, a young Protestant girl and her Jewish neighbour are caught up in the terrible wave of hate sweeping the globe on the eve of war in this powerful love story that’s perfect for fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

If you’re reading this letter, that means I’m dead. I had obviously hoped to see you again, to explain in person, but fate had other plans.

1933

At eighteen years old, Molly Ryan dreams of becoming a journalist, but instead she spends her days working any job she can to help her family through the Depression crippling her city. The one bright spot in her life is watching baseball with her best friend, Hannah Dreyfus, and sneaking glances at Hannah’s handsome older brother, Max.

But as the summer unfolds, more and more of Hitler’s hateful ideas cross the sea and “Swastika Clubs” and “No Jews Allowed” signs spring up around Toronto, a city already simmering with mass unemployment, protests, and unrest. When tensions between the Irish and Jewish communities erupt in a riot one smouldering day in August, Molly and Max are caught in the middle, with devastating consequences for both their families.

1939

Six years later, the Depression has eased and Molly is a reporter at her local paper. But a new war is on the horizon, putting everyone she cares about most in peril. As letters trickle in from overseas, Molly is forced to confront what happened all those years ago, but is it too late to make things right?

From the desperate streets of Toronto to the embattled shores of Hong Kong, Letters Across the Sea is a poignant novel about the enduring power of love to cross dangerous divides even in the darkest of times—from the #1 bestselling author of The Forgotten Home Child.

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Sin Eater
by Megan Campisi

Elizabethan England serves as the backdrop for Megan Campisi’s SIN EATER, a speculative, dystopian novel that explores the historical practice of sin eating, as well as the intersections between female bodies and empowerment. For the crime of stealing a loaf of bread, fourteen-year-old May’s punishment is to become a Sin Eater: a woman outcast from society who is forced to hear the transgressions of the dying and eat ritual foods symbolizing their sins. When an older Sin Eater refuses to eat the deer heart on the coffin of a royal governess, she is imprisoned and killed, and May must figure out who put the deer heart on the coffin and why.

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Sin Eater
Megan Campisi

“For fans of The Handmaid’s Tale...a debut novel with a dark setting and an unforgettable heroine...is a riveting depiction of hard-won female empowerment” (The Washington Post).

The Sin Eater walks among us, unseen, unheard
Sins of our flesh become sins of Hers
Following Her to the grave, unseen, unheard
The Sin Eater Walks Among Us.

For the crime of stealing bread, fourteen-year-old May receives a life sentence: she must become a Sin Eater—a shunned woman, brutally marked, whose fate is to hear the final confessions of the dying, eat ritual foods symbolizing their sins as a funeral rite, and thereby shoulder their transgressions to grant their souls access to heaven.

Orphaned and friendless, apprenticed to an older Sin Eater who cannot speak to her, May must make her way in a dangerous and cruel world she barely understands. When a deer heart appears on the coffin of a royal governess who did not confess to the dreadful sin it represents, the older Sin Eater refuses to eat it. She is taken to prison, tortured, and killed. To avenge her death, May must find out who placed the deer heart on the coffin and why.

“Very much reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale…it transcends its historical roots to give us a modern heroine” (Kirkus Reviews). “A novel as strange as it is captivating” (BuzzFeed), The Sin Eater “is a treat for fans of feminist speculative fiction” (Publishers Weekly) and “exactly what historical fiction lovers have unknowingly craved” (New York Journal of Books).

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Bronte's Mistress
by Finola Austin

While the novels of the Brontë sisters have delighted readers for generations, there is a lesser-known history with regards to the family—the affair between Branwell Brontë and Lydia Robinson, a married woman eighteen years older than Branwell. Historically, Lydia Robinson has been cast as the villainess in this narrative, with writers and historians claiming that Lydia caused Branwell’s descent into alcoholism and an opium addiction as early as 1857. BRONTE’S MISTRESS places the narrative back in Lydia Robinson’s hands and questions why a monied, married woman and mother of five would seek out an affair with the much younger Branwell. The book begins with Lydia losing her young daughter and mother in the same year, and her growing restlessness in her cold marriage. When Branwell Brontë arrives to tutor her son, his presence is a breath of fresh air for Lydia, and soon the two begin a passionate affair. However, when Branwell’s behavior becomes more erratic, it is up to Lydia to ensure that her reputation remains intact.

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Bronte's Mistress
Finola Austin

“[A] meticulously researched debut novel…In a word? Juicy.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

The scandalous historical love affair between Lydia Robinson and Branwell Brontë, brother to novelists Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, gives voice to the woman who allegedly brought down one of literature’s most famous families.

Yorkshire, 1843: Lydia Robinson has tragically lost her precious young daughter and her mother within the same year. She returns to her bleak home, grief-stricken and unmoored. With her teenage daughters rebelling, her testy mother-in-law scrutinizing her every move, and her marriage grown cold, Lydia is restless and yearning for something more.

All of that changes with the arrival of her son’s tutor, Branwell Brontë, brother of her daughters’ governess, Miss Anne Brontë and those other writerly sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Branwell has his own demons to contend with—including living up to the ideals of his intelligent family—but his presence is a breath of fresh air for Lydia. Handsome, passionate, and uninhibited by social conventions, he’s also twenty-five to her forty-three. A love of poetry, music, and theatre bring mistress and tutor together, and Branwell’s colorful tales of his sisters’ imaginative worlds form the backdrop for seduction.

But their new passion comes with consequences. As Branwell’s inner turmoil rises to the surface, his behavior grows erratic, and whispers of their romantic relationship spout from Lydia’s servants’ lips, reaching all three Brontë sisters. Soon, it falls on Mrs. Robinson to save not just her reputation, but her way of life, before those clever girls reveal all her secrets in their novels. Unfortunately, she might be too late.

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Yellow Wife
by Sadeqa Johnson

Sadeqa Johnson depicts the horrors of slavery and the courage of the enslaved in equal turns in YELLOW WIFE. The novel follows Pheby Delores Brown, an enslaved woman based on Mary Lumpkin, the enslaved concubine of the owner of the infamous slave-trading post Devil’s Half Acre. Although enslaved, she receives elevated status as both the daughter of the plantation’s medicine woman as well as the favorite of the Master’s sister, and is promised freedom by her eighteenth birthday. However, a tragic turn of events finds Pheby enslaved at Devil’s Half Acre, where she must outwit her cruel jailer in order to stay alive. Pheby’s courage in the face of tragedy, as well as the exquisite research Sadeqa Johnson undertook to bring this novel to life, make YELLOW WIFE an unforgettable, must-read work of historical fiction.

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Yellow Wife
Sadeqa Johnson

“A fully immersive, intricately crafted story inspired by the pages of history. In Pheby, Sadeqa Johnson has created a woman whose struggle to survive and to protect the ones she loves will have readers turning the pages as fast as their fingers can fly. Simply enthralling.” —Lisa Wingate, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Before We Were Yours

Called "wholly engrossing" by New York Times bestselling author Kathleen Grissom, this harrowing story follows an enslaved woman forced to barter love and freedom while living in the most infamous slave jail in Virginia.

Born on a plantation in Charles City, Virginia, Pheby Delores Brown has lived a relatively sheltered life. Shielded by her mother’s position as the estate’s medicine woman and cherished by the Master’s sister, she is set apart from the others on the plantation, belonging to neither world.

She’d been promised freedom on her eighteenth birthday, but instead of the idyllic life she imagined with her true love, Essex Henry, Pheby is forced to leave the only home she has ever known. She unexpectedly finds herself thrust into the bowels of slavery at the infamous Devil’s Half Acre, a jail in Richmond, Virginia, where the enslaved are broken, tortured, and sold every day. There, Pheby is exposed not just to her Jailer’s cruelty but also to his contradictions. To survive, Pheby will have to outwit him, and she soon faces the ultimate sacrifice.

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Vera
by Carol Edgarian

The best historical fiction brings humanity to a tragic event, and Carol Edgarian’s VERA succeeds, immersing readers in 1906 San Francisco before, during, and after the catastrophic earthquake that set fire to the city. The book focuses on fifteen-year-old Vera Johnson and her struggle to reconcile her two worlds: the alluring yet dangerous world of her birth mother, and the domestic upbringing under her adopted mother. When the earthquake strikes the city, Vera and her sister, Pie, team up with Vera’s former rival Tan to bring together a colorful band of survivors in order to navigate the disaster together. Deeply researched and featuring some of San Francisco’s most notable historical figures, VERA is a sweeping, cinematic tale filled with hope and perseverance.

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Vera
Carol Edgarian

New York Times bestselling author Carol Edgarian delivers an astonishing feat of imagination, a grand adventure set in 1906 San Francisco—a city leveled by quake and fire—featuring an indomitable heroine coming of age in the aftermath of catastrophe and her quest for love and reinvention.

Meet Vera Johnson, the uncommonly resourceful fifteen-year-old illegitimate daughter of Rose, notorious proprietor of San Francisco’s most legendary bordello and ally to the city’s corrupt politicians. Vera has grown up straddling two worlds—the madam’s alluring sphere, replete with tickets to the opera, surly henchmen, and scant morality, and the violent, debt ridden domestic life of the family paid to raise her.

On the morning of the great quake, Vera’s worlds collide. As the shattered city burns and looters vie with the injured, orphaned, and starving, Vera and her guileless sister, Pie, are cast adrift. Vera disregards societal norms and prejudices and begins to imagine a new kind of life. She collaborates with Tan, her former rival, and forges an unlikely family of survivors. Together they navigate their way beyond disaster.

In Vera, Carol Edgarian creates a cinematic, deeply entertaining world, in which honor and fates are tested; notions of sex, class, and justice are turned upside down; and love is hard-won. A ravishing, heartbreaking, and profound affirmation of youth and tenacity, Vera’s story brings to life legendary characters—tenor Enrico Caruso, indicted mayor Eugene Schmitz and boss Abe Ruef, tabloid celebrity Alma Spreckels—as well as an unforgettable cast that includes Vera’s young lover, Bobby, protector of the city’s tribe of orphans, and three generations of a Chinese family competing and conspiring with Vera.

This richly imagined, timely tale of improbable outcomes and alliances takes hold from the first page, gifting readers with remarkable scenes of devastation, renewal, and joy. Told with unflinching candor and wit, Vera celebrates the audacious fortitude of its young heroine and marks a stunning achievement by an inventive and generous writer.

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The Dictionary of Lost Words
by Pip Williams

Lexicography, the practice of compiling dictionaries, is not commonly discussed, yet lexicographers have the immense power of creating “definitive” guides to language, thus shaping vocabulary as we know it. Pip Williams’s debut novel THE DICTIONARY OF LOST WORDS explores this idea through the eyes of Esme, a lexicographer’s daughter. It’s 1901 in Oxford, and Esme spends her days under the sorting table, as her father and a team of lexicographers attempt to assemble the first Oxford English Dictionary. One day, Esme catches a slip of paper with the word bondmaid written on it, and soon makes it her mission to collect all of the words discarded by the lexicographers. Esme’s journey takes her beyond Oxford as she meets the women and common folks whose words and experiences are often unrecorded, challenging the lexicographic status quo established by her father with her Dictionary of Lost Words.

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The Dictionary of Lost Words
Pip Williams

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Hidden Histories: 10 Novels That Illuminate Lesser-Known Events

By Sharon Van Meter | April 27, 2021

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Rhapsody
by Mitchell James Kaplan

Music history is one area of history I particularly love to explore, and I have joked with my dad that we have watched every music history documentary on Netflix at this point. However, as the documentary well dries up, I am excited to turn my sights towards historical fiction to get my music history fix, specifically Mitchell James Kaplan’s RHAPSODY.

George Gershwin is one of the United States’ most well-known composers, having penned iconic classics such as “Rhapsody in Blue.” However, few people know of the woman Gershwin had an affair with, Katharine “Kay” Swift, a talented pianist and composer in her own right. Set with the backdrop of 1920s Jazz Age New York City, RHAPSODY first takes readers into Swift’s early life, from childhood and her marriage to wealthy banker James Warburg, to her first encounter with Gershwin at a concert. After Kay and George meet, they begin a ten-year-long affair, marked by Kay’s conflicted loyalty to James and her own tumultuous musical career.

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Rhapsody
Mitchell James Kaplan

“Mitchell James Kaplan [brings] his impressive knowledge of history, composition, and the heart’s whims to bear on this shining rendition of Swift and Gershwin’s star-crossed love.” —Therese Anne Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of Z and A Good Neighborhood

“A lilting, jazzy ballad as catchy as a Gershwin tune…Rhapsody will have you humming, toe-tapping, and singing along with every turn of the page.” —Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Alice Network and The Huntress

One evening in 1924, Katharine “Kay” Swift—the restless but loyal society wife of wealthy banker James Warburg and a serious pianist who longs for recognition—attends a concert. The piece: Rhapsody in Blue. The composer: a brilliant, elusive young musical genius named George Gershwin.

Kay is transfixed, helpless to resist the magnetic pull of George’s talent, charm, and swagger. Their ten-year love affair, complicated by her conflicted loyalty to her husband and the twists and turns of her own musical career, ends only with George’s death from a brain tumor at the age of thirty-eight.

Set in Jazz Age New York City, this stunning work of fiction, for fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank, explores the timeless bond between two brilliant, strong-willed artists. George Gershwin left behind not just a body of work unmatched in popular musical history, but a woman who loved him with all her heart, knowing all the while that he belonged not to her, but to the world.

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Exile Music
by Jennifer Steil

In a topic so extensively written about as World War II, it’s hard to imagine that there are still relatively unexplored areas in its history, yet EXILE MUSIC brings a unique story to the forefront with its focus on the building of a Jewish refugee community in Bolivia. EXILE MUSIC begins in 1930s Vienna, where protagonist Orly spends her childhood immersed in her family’s music and games with her best friend, Anneliese. Orly’s life is upended in 1938 with the Nazi invasion of Vienna, and she and her parents are forced to flee to La Paz, Bolivia.

As the years pass, Orly begins to build her life in La Paz while struggling to reconcile what and who she left behind in Vienna. When the war ends, Orly must decide where her heart and her home truly lie. Heartbreaking yet tender, this Lambda Literary Award–nominated novel is sure to captivate and educate in equal turns.

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Exile Music
Jennifer Steil

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The Island of Sea Women
by Lisa See

I have been finding myself recently gravitating towards books about female community and female empowerment, so when I read the premise for Lisa See’s THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN, I was immediately intrigued. The book focuses on Mi-ja and Young-sook, best friends living on Korea’s Jeju Island; the two join their village’s haenyeo, an all-female diving collective who served as their families’ breadwinners. THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN follows Mi-ja, Young-sook, and the haenyeo from 1938 through 2008, depicting the exciting and dangerous world of diving over the course of colonialism and wars, as well as the strain put on Mi-ja and Young-sook’s friendship due to their different upbringings.

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The Island of Sea Women
Lisa See

THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

“A mesmerizing new historical novel” (O, The Oprah Magazine) from Lisa See, the bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and devastating family secrets on a small Korean island.

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility—but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook find it impossible to ignore their differences. The Island of Sea Women takes place over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

“This vivid…thoughtful and empathetic” novel (The New York Times Book Review) illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge and the men take care of the children. “A wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women” (Publishers Weekly), The Island of Sea Women is a “beautiful story…about the endurance of friendship when it’s pushed to its limits, and you…will love it” (Cosmopolitan).

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Fifty Words for Rain
by Asha Lemmie

Asha Lemmie’s striking and emotional debut novel focuses on colorism, tradition, and family in post–World War II Japan. At the age of eight, Nori Kamiza, the illegitimate daughter of a married Japanese aristocrat and her African American GI lover, is abandoned by her mother with one lesson: “Do not question. Do not fight. Do not resist.” As Nori progresses through childhood, she does not fight her confinement in the attic of her grandparents’ estate, nor does she fight the daily chemical baths they give her to lighten her skin. However, when Nori meets Akira, her half-brother and destined inheritor of the estate, the two form a powerful bond that allows Nori the opportunity to finally question and fight her grandparents’ destiny for her.

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Fifty Words for Rain
Asha Lemmie

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