9 Historical Fiction Reads About Inspiring Women

March 14 2022
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Reading about the strength and resilience exuded by female literary icons always feels empowering. Whether I’m learning about a heroic historical figure or enthralled by a modern-day royal, I find that women book characters feel like my friends. So, in celebration of Women’s History Month, I’ve rounded up a list of empowering reads that emphasize just how spectacular women truly are.

Carolina Built
by Kianna Alexander

Celebrate the previously untold story of real estate magnate Josephine N. Leary in the years after emancipation. Josephine set down roots in North Carolina after moving from the plantation she was born on. With a whole life of freedom ahead of her, Josephine is determined to make something of herself. Amid the turmoil of marriage and parenting, she still teaches herself to be a businesswoman, to manage her finances, and to make smart investments in the local real estate market. This inspiring story is filled with passion and perseverance.

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Carolina Built
Kianna Alexander

A vivid and moving novel based on the incredible life of real estate magnate Josephine N. Leary—a previously untold story of passion, perseverance, and building a legacy after emancipation in North Carolina.

Josephine N. Leary is determined to build a life of her own and a future for her family. When she moves to Edenton, North Carolina from the plantation where she was born, she is free, newly married, and ready to follow her dreams.

As the demands of life pull Josephine’s attention—deepening her marriage, mothering her daughters, supporting her grandmother—she struggles to balance her real estate aspirations with the realities of keeping life going every day. She teaches herself to be a business woman, to manage her finances, and to make smart investments in the local real estate market. But with each passing year, it grows more and more difficult to focus on building her legacy from the ground up.

Moving and inspiring, Josephine Leary’s untold story speaks to the part of us that dares to dream bigger, tear down whatever stands in our way, and build something better for the loved ones we leave behind.

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The Last Dance of the Debutante
by Julia Kelly

It’s 1958, the last year debutantes will be presented at court to curtsy in front of the Queen. To appease her traditional mother, Lily Nichols agrees to go through the motions of the Season and become a debutante. On her journey, she befriends two very different girls, Leana and Katherine. But when a secret threatens to be unveiled and destroy her entire family, the glitz and glam of being a debutante fades. 

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The Last Dance of the Debutante
Julia Kelly

The author of the “sweeping, stirring, and heartrending” (Kristin Harmel, author of The Room on Rue Amélie) The Light Over London returns with a masterful, glittering novel that whisks you to midcentury Britain as it follows three of the last debutantes to be presented to Queen Elizabeth II.

When it’s announced that 1958 will be the last year debutantes are to be presented at court, thousands of eager mothers and hopeful daughters flood the palace with letters seeking the year’s most coveted invitation: a chance for their daughters to curtsey to the young Queen Elizabeth and officially come out into society.

In an effort to appease her traditional mother, aspiring university student Lily Nichols agrees to become a debutante and do the Season, a glittering and grueling string of countless balls and cocktail parties. In doing so, she befriends two very different women: the cool and aloof Leana Hartford whose apparent perfection hides a darker side and the ambitious Katherine Norman who dreams of a career once she helps her parents find their place among the elite.

But the glorious effervescence of the Season evaporates once Lily learns a devastating secret that threatens to destroy her entire family. Faced with a dark past, she’s forced to ask herself what really matters: her family legacy or her own happiness.

With her signature “intricate, tender, and convincing” (Publishers Weekly) storytelling, Julia Kelly weaves an unforgettable tale of female friendship amid the twilight days of Britain’s grand coming out balls.

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Dancing with Butterflies
by Reyna Grande

Reyna Grande tells the Mexican immigrant experience through the lens of four very different women in her new book, DANCING WITH BUTTERFLIES. Using alternating voices, the women’s lives are brought together through their love for their Mexican heritage and a dance company called Alegría. Between death, violence, love, and abandonment, readers are empowered by the lives of these fictional women in a lyrical and beautiful story.

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Dancing with Butterflies
Reyna Grande

In Dancing with Butterflies, Reyna Grande renders the Mexican immigrant experience in “lyrical and sensual” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) prose through the poignant stories of four women brought together through folklorico dance.

Dancing with Butterflies uses the alternating voices of four very different women whose lives interconnect through a common passion for their Mexican heritage and a dance company called Alegría. Yesenia, who founded Alegría with her husband, Eduardo, sabotages her own efforts to remain a vital, vibrant woman when she travels back and forth across the Mexican border for cheap plastic surgery. Elena, grief-stricken by the death of her only child and the end of her marriage, finds herself falling dangerously in love with one of her underage students. Elena's sister, Adriana, wears the wounds of abandonment by a dysfunctional family and becomes unable to discern love from abuse. Soledad, the sweet-tempered illegal immigrant who designs costumes for Alegría, finds herself stuck back in Mexico, where she returns to see her dying grandmother.

Reyna Grande has brought these fictional characters so convincingly to life that readers will imagine they know them.

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The Marriage of Opposites
by Alice Hoffman

Set in St. Thomas in the early 1800s, THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES follows Rachel, a young Jewish girl who dreams of a faraway life in Paris. Despite her dreams, her mother has married her off to an older widower with three children, in the hope of saving her father’s business. But when this older man dies, Rachel gets a taste of freedom. A young Frenchman arrives to help settle the estate, and it is then that Rachel knows she must take her life into her own hands.

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The Marriage of Opposites
Alice Hoffman

Wendy’s Fictional Dinner Party Guest: Rachel Pomié Petit Pizzarro

Rachel Pomié Petit Pizzarro is a woman full of fire and life. A businesswoman, a romantic, a renegade, she’s quite the nineteenth-century badass, not taking anyone else’s advice on how to live her life. I respect and admire her passion, vulnerability, and fearlessness in the face of the judgment of her insular St. Thomas community. She followed her heart, suffered for it, and lived the life she wanted—with a great love and many children, one of whom was the artist Camille Pissarro, father of Impressionism. No doubt, she would command the room.

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A Girl During the War
by Anita Abriel

In Rome 1943, Marina has just learned that her father has been killed for hiding a Jewish artist in their home. In fearful haste, Marina makes the decision to flee to her father’s friend’s villa in Florence. This friend, Bernard Berenson, is the famed American librarian who curated the J. P. Morgan’s library. With all the unrest surrounding them, Marina begins to help Bernard hide precious cultural artifacts in his library from the Germans, before he makes his trek to Switzerland. On top of it all, Marina finds love with the Berenson’s charming young neighbor, Carlos. But when Carlos disappears, Marina is left alone to travel halfway across the world.

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A Girl During the War
Anita Abriel

The author of the “unforgettable story of strength, love, and survival” (Jillian Cantor, USA TODAY bestselling author) The Light After the War returns with a sweeping and evocative story of love and purpose in WWII Italy.

Rome, 1943: University student Marina Tozzi is on her way home when she finds out that her father has been killed for harboring a Jewish artist in their home. Fearful of the consequences, Marina flees to Villa I Tatti, the Florence villa of her father’s American friend Bernard Berenson and his partner Belle da Costa Greene, the famed librarian who once curated J.P. Morgan’s library.

Florence is a hotbed of activity as partisans and Germans fight for control of the city. Marina, an art expert, begins helping Bernard catalog his library as he makes the difficult trek to neutral Switzerland, helping to hide precious cultural artifacts from the Germans. Adding to the tension, their young neighbor Carlos, a partisan, seeks out Marina for both her art expertise and her charm. Marina, swept up in the romance, dreams of a life together after the war.

But when Carlos disappears, all of Marina’s assumptions about her life in Florence are thrown into doubt, and she’ll have to travel halfway around the world to unravel what really happened during the war.

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The Island of Sea Women
by Lisa See

Two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju begin working at sea in an all-women diving collective. From Japanese colonialism to World War II to the Korean War, the two girls live through extremely tumultuous times. Despite their strong friendship and love for each other, it gets hard to ignore the stark difference in their upbringings. ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN is a beautiful story of enduring friendship that highlights a truly remarkable group of women. 

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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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The Ballad of Laurel Springs
by Janet Beard

Grace is taught at a young age to be careful of men and their desires. Her family tree is entangled with a dark legacy in which the lives of generations of women are affected by violence. This legacy is written about in Appalachian folksongs that remind women to know their place or risk sin. But behind the haunting music and tragedy is strength and passion. As these women fight to find a safe place in the world, readers are inspired by their resilience.

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The Ballad of Laurel Springs
Janet Beard

From the internationally bestselling author of The Atomic City Girls, a provocative new novel about multiple generations of women in one East Tennessee family haunted by violence and redeemed by their rich inheritance of folk music.

Ten-year-old Grace is in search of a subject for her fifth-grade history project when she learns that her four times-great grandfather once stabbed his lover to death. His grisly act was memorialized in a murder ballad, her aunt tells her, so it must be true. But the lessons of that revelation—to be careful of men, and desire—are not just Grace’s to learn. Her family’s tangled past is part of a dark legacy in which the lives of generations of women are affected by the violence immortalized in folksongs like “Knoxville Girl” and “Pretty Polly” reminding them always to know their place—or risk the wages of sin.

Janet Beard’s stirring novel, informed by her love of these haunting ballads, vividly imagines these women, defined by the secrets they keep, the surprises they uncover, and the lurking sense of menace that follows them throughout their lives. With the same rich sense of place as Bloodroot or Serena, The Ballad of Laurel Springs is an unforgettable portrait of women fighting to make a safe place in the world for themselves and the people they love.

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Almost Famous Women
by Megan Mayhew Bergman

In Megan Mayhew’s collection of stories, ALMOST FAMOUS WOMEN, she details inspirational heroines who deserve the spotlight. From a cross-dressing heiress to an aviation-expert to an all-girl swing band, Mayhew offers a literary and imaginative look at the female experience.

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Almost Famous Women
Megan Mayhew Bergman

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An Elegant Woman
by Martha McPhee

AN ELEGANT WOMAN is a multigenerational saga, following one woman’s life through the twentieth century. In an effort to frame her deceased grandmother’s story, our main character, Isadora, comes to understand more about her own life. This story takes the reader from a Montana farm to a Victorian house in Maine; from the halls of a psychiatric hospital in London to a wedding-gown fitting at Bergdorf Goodman; from a house in small town Ohio to a family reunion in New Jersey. Through this gorgeous depiction of family history, we learn about the familial connections between women.

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An Elegant Woman
Martha McPhee

“A portrait of self-creation in the vein of F. Scott Fitzgerald”,” (The Wall Street Journal) An Elegant Woman is “a rich exploration of legacy and memory” (Entertainment Weekly) that follows four generations of women against the sweep of 20th century American history.

Drawn from the author’s own family history, this powerful, moving multigenerational saga from National Book Award finalist Martha McPhee masterfully explores the stories we tell ourselves, and what we leave out.

As Isadora, a novelist, and two of her sisters sift through the artifacts of their forebears’ lives, trying to decide what to salvage and what to toss, the story shifts to a winter day in 1910 at a train station in Ohio. Two girls wait in the winter cold with their mother—the mercurial Glenna Stewart—to depart for a new life in the West. As Glenna campaigns in Montana for women’s suffrage and teaches in one-room schoolhouses, Tommy takes care of her little sister, Katherine: trapping animals, begging, keeping house, cooking, while Katherine goes to school. When Katherine graduates, Tommy makes a decision that will change the course of both of their lives.

Told “with an easy grace many historical novels lack” (Los Angeles Times), An Elegant Woman follows one woman over the course of the 20th century, taking us from a drought-stricken Montana farm to a yellow Victorian in Maine; from the halls of a psychiatric hospital in London to a wedding gown fitting at Bergdorf Goodman; from a house in small town Ohio to a family reunion at a sweltering New Jersey pig roast. Framed by Isadora’s efforts to retell her grandmother’s journey—and understand her own—the novel is “sharp, precise, and, yes, elegant” (The Boston Globe) in its gorgeous depiction of one hundred years in a family’s history.

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Photo credit: iStock / Nadezda_Grapes

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