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6 Intriguing Novels About Lesser-Known Historical Figures and Events

November 19 2021
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As a student of history, I often imagine what it would be like to spend time with some of the world’s most interesting historical figures. Maybe dinner with Abraham Lincoln. Drinks with Marion Davies. Or even ping-pong with Pablo Picasso (I’m sure he’d pick it up pretty quickly). The beauty of injecting such historical characters into the work of fiction is that you can do just that: explore the most intriguing personalities of all time while dining on a perfectly paced plot.

If, like me, you live to learn about the people and moments that defined the past, here’s a list of novels about overlooked historical figures and events that will make you love historical fiction more than ever before!

Bachelor Girl
by Kim van Alkemade

In New York City history, the name Colonel Jacob Ruppert is synonymous with the Yankees, but as author Kim Van Alkemade explores in BACHELOR GIRL, his life and eccentricities were full of so much more than baseball. Helen Winthrope Weyant is a “bachelor girl”: an independent woman working and living in the city during the early twentieth century. Following a botched surgery that has seemingly ruined her acting career, Helen finds herself in the company of Jacob Ruppert, millionaire owner of the Yankees. It isn’t long before Ruppert takes Helen on as a type of protégé. She and Ruppert’s secretary, Albert Kramer, serve the millionaire’s every wish, receiving gifts and fortunes in exchange for their loyalty. Albert and Helen develop a close personal relationship that eventually blossoms into a romance—that is, until Ruppert dies. With that comes the revelation of secrets that challenge Helen and her budding relationship. A deep dive into New York’s Jazz Age, BACHELOR GIRL is a fascinating exploration of the real-life Jacob Ruppert and the company he kept.

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Bachelor Girl
Kim van Alkemade

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The Dickens Boy
by Thomas Keneally

Few names in literary history are referenced as often as Charles Dickens, but what do we know of his role as a father? That’s exactly the question Thomas Keneally, bestselling author of SCHINDLER’S LIST sought to answer in his novel THE DICKENS BOY about Edward Dickens—the tenth child of Charles. The story follows young Edward during his adventures in the Australian outback. Looking to prove his own worth—and not that of his famous father—Edward finds himself in unchartered territory amongst Aboriginals, colonials, ex-convicts, and very few women. And, while his relationship with his father is estranged, Edward maintains a secret that many literary fans would never understand: he’s never read a single word of his father’s writing. Vibrant and mesmeric, THE DICKENS BOY comes out next spring and is a portrait of Charles Dickens that has seldom been experienced and few will ever forget.

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The Dickens Boy
Thomas Keneally

The award-winning author of modern classics such as Schindler’s List and the “complex and mesmerizing” (The Christian Science Monitor) Napoleon’s Last Island is at his triumphant best with this vibrant and engaging novel about the adventures of Charles Dickens’s son in the Australian Outback during the 1860s.

Edward Dickens, the tenth child of England’s most famous author Charles Dickens, has consistently let down his parents. Unable to apply himself at school and adrift in life, the teenaged boy is sent to Australia in the hopes that he can make something of himself—or at least fail out of the public eye. He soon finds himself in the remote Outback, surrounded by Aboriginals, colonials, ex-convicts, ex-soldiers, and very few women.

Even on the other side of the world, Edward encounters the same rabid veneration of his father that exists in England. But Edward has a secret: he has never read a single word of his father’s beloved writing. Determined to prove to his parents and more importantly, himself, that he can succeed in this vast and unfamiliar wilderness, Edward works hard at his new life amidst various livestock, bushrangers, shifty stock agents, and frontier battles.

By reimagining the tale of a fascinating yet little-known figure in history, this rollicking, high-spirited tale offers penetrating insights into Colonialism and the fate of Australia’s indigenous people, and a wonderfully intimate portrait of Charles Dickens, as seen through the eye of his exiled son.

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Little
by Edward Carey

Revolutionary Paris is not an uncommon backdrop for a novel, but Edward Carey’s LITTLE offers a twist: a witnessing of the city’s activities and royal personalities from the perspective of a fictional orphan who becomes the famed Madame Tussaud. Readers follow young Marie as she grows and furthers her unique talents, starting from her beginnings in a remote village, working as a physician’s housekeeper—watching him create wax models of organs and body appendages—to her eventual move with the same doctor to Paris, where the two open a wax museum. In addition to understanding the path and passion of the future Madame Tussaud, Carey’s novel explores other historical figures like that of Charles Dickens and the Brothers Grimm. Dark, captivating, and often quirky, LITTLE is a tale of art, revolutionaries, and a meditation of how a legendary reputation is formed.

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Little
Edward Carey

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The Fortune Men
by Nadifa Mohamed

Another historical figure who most aren’t familiar with is Mahmood Hussein Mattan, a Somali sailor charged with a murder he didn’t commit. THE FORTUNE MEN is Nadifa Mohamed’s novelization of a true story about a father and petty criminal. Set in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in 1952, amongst the busy life on the docks, a shopkeeper is discovered dead and believed to have been murdered. Initially, as the community’s suspicions fall on Mahmood, he remains unconcerned. A “relatively” clean worker, he believes that the truth will eventually be borne out and that he will no longer suffer the ire of the public. But what Mahmood doesn’t suspect, and what Mohamed does brilliantly to bring the novel to life is to outline a police conspiracy that ultimately condemns Mattan. She intricately describes his rich life and love for his wife, Laura, and readers follow along as an innocent man is charged, convicted, and eventually hanged. This is a gripping tale of a little-known historical figure that will leave you deeply affected and eager to recommend.

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The Fortune Men
Nadifa Mohamed

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Leonora in the Morning Light
by Michaela Carter

Speaking of a novel that explores true events, Michaela Carter’s LEONORA IN THE MORNING LIGHT illuminates the life of surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington. Leonora is only twenty when she meets one of Europe’s most talked about artists: Max Ernst. Much older than her, Max brings Leonora to Paris where she meets a community of artists looking to truly capture the Surrealist movement—including Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, and Salvador Dali. Amid such a talented crowd, Leonora is inspired to create some of her very best works, most of which bring to life the stories of her youth. All is well until the shadow of war begins to blanket all of Europe leaving her group to be labeled “degenerates.” The novel follows the many adventures of Leonora and Max, including their love affair and eventual efforts to help those persecuted by the Nazi regime. Featuring dozens of historical figures and true events, LEONORA IN THE MORNING LIGHT is a dazzlingly vivid account of a painter, her work, and her coming-of-age journey.

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Leonora in the Morning Light
Michaela Carter

One of O, The Oprah Magazine’s “Most Anticipated Historical Fiction Novels That Will Sweep You Away” and LitHub’s “Most Anticipated Books of 2021.”

For fans of Amy Bloom’s White Houses and Colm Tóibín’s The Master, a page-turning novel about Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington and the art, drama, and romance that defined her coming-of-age during World War II.

1940. A train carrying exiled German prisoners from a labor camp arrives in southern France. Within moments, word spreads that Nazi capture is imminent, and the men flee for the woods, desperate to disappear across the Spanish border. One stays behind, determined to ride the train until he reaches home, to find a woman he refers to simply as “her.”

1937. Leonora Carrington is a twenty-year-old British socialite and painter dreaming of independence when she meets Max Ernst, an older, married artist whose work has captivated Europe. She follows him to Paris, into the vibrant revolutionary world of studios and cafes where rising visionaries of the Surrealist movement like Andre Breton, Pablo Picasso, Lee Miller, Man Ray, and Salvador Dali are challenging conventional approaches to art and life. Inspired by their freedom, Leonora begins to experiment with her own work, translating vivid stories of her youth onto canvas and gaining recognition under her own name. It is a bright and glorious age of enlightenment—until the shadow of war looms over Europe and headlines emerge denouncing Max and his circle as “degenerates,” leading to his arrest and imprisonment. Left along as occupation spreads throughout the countryside, Leonora battles terrifying circumstances to survive, reawakening past demons that threaten to consume her.

As Leonora and Max embark on remarkable journeys together and apart, the full story of their tumultuous and passionate love affair unfolds, spanning time and borders as they seek to reunite and reclaim their creative power in a world shattered by war. When their paths cross with Peggy Guggenheim, an art collector and socialite working to help artists escape to America, nothing will be the same.

Based on true events and historical figures, Leonora in the Morning Light is an unforgettable story of love, art, and destiny that restores a twentieth-century heroine to her rightful place in our collective imagination.

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Light Perpetual
by Francis Spufford

Equally as interesting as some of history’s most famous figures are specific events that captured an era and inspired questions of “what could have been?” Award-winning author Francis Spufford does just that in his novel LIGHT PERPETUAL, in which he documents the 1944 bombing of London Woolworths—a V-2 rocket attack during World War II that killed 168 people, including fifteen children. Spufford elects to “save” five of those young victims and gives them an opportunity to evade death by imagining their futures. With this as the premise, readers follow the five children into adulthood, watching as they grow with the theme of war snaking through each of their lives, especially as they occasionally intersect. Amid all manner of societal transformation, we begin to understand each of these five souls that were spared through their interactions and personal progresses (and setbacks). An ingenious novel that creatively explores a historical tragedy, Spufford’s LIGHT PERPETUAL illuminates the preciousness of life.

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Light Perpetual
Francis Spufford

From the critically acclaimed and award‑winning author of Golden Hill, a mesmerizing and boldly inventive novel tracing the infinite possibilities of five lives in the bustling neighborhoods of 20th-century London.

Lunchtime on a Saturday, 1944: the Woolworths on Bexford High Street in southeast London receives a delivery of aluminum saucepans. A crowd gathers to see the first new metal in ages—after all, everything’s been melted down for the war effort. An instant later, the crowd is gone; incinerated. Among the shoppers were five young children.

Who were they? What futures did they lose? This brilliantly constructed novel lets an alternative reel of time run, imagining the life arcs of these five souls as they live through the extraordinary, unimaginable changes of the bustling immensity of twentieth-century London. Their intimate everyday dramas, as sons and daughters, spouses, parents, grandparents; as the separated, the remarried, the bereaved. Through decades of social, sexual, and technological transformation, as bus conductors and landlords, as swindlers and teachers, patients and inmates. Days of personal triumphs, disasters; of second chances and redemption.

Ingenious and profound, full of warmth and beauty, Light Perpetual illuminates the shapes of experience, the extraordinariness of the ordinary, the mysteries of memory and expectation, and the preciousness of life.

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MENTIONED IN:

Author Picks: 6 Literary Quotes That Stuck with Me

By Ash Davidson | November 29, 2021

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By Sarah Woodruff | November 24, 2021

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By Sarah Walsh | November 23, 2021

6 Book Club Novels Where Past and Present Collide

By Holly Claytor | November 22, 2021

6 Intriguing Novels About Lesser-Known Historical Figures and Events

By Chris Gaudio | November 19, 2021

Staff Picks: 5 Books We’re Extra Thankful For This Year

By Off the Shelf Staff | November 18, 2021

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Photo credit: iStock / FabrikaCr

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