6 Reflective Historical Novels That Explore Changing Eras

July 20 2022
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The changing of eras is far more than a contentious topic you debate with your parents or grandparents. It is an opportunity to reflect on the progress we’ve made as a society—and, too often, the stagnation we’ve succumbed to over decades. The beauty of a novel that captures the transition between eras is its ability to express such transformations and their immediate impact on the characters that make up the story.

This collection of novels seeks to exhibit the evolutions (or lack thereof) a society can undergo over the course of several decades or centuries, while also offering a commentary on those, sometimes dramatic, changes—for better or worse.

Fellowship Point
by Alice Elliott Dark

One of the most significant transformations of society in American history is the repercussions of land ownership and the role that it plays in American life. Such is the central theme that drives Alice Elliott Dark’s powerful novel FELLOWSHIP POINT, about two Quaker families and their long-standing vacation property in Maine, spanning the twentieth century. Lifelong best friends Agnes Lee, a childless children’s book writer, and Polly Wister, devoted wife and mother, have known each other since youth as neighbors spending every summer on Fellowship Point—a secluded peninsula in Maine. Both shareholders in a generations-old land partnership, Agnes seeks to convince Polly to create a trust to donate the land to so that’d it’d always be protected, and forgo her allegiance to her family and her history. What follows is the revelation of long-buried memories and secrets that shake the women’s friendship and the land upon which they spent so much of their time together. With a plot twist that will make you gasp, FELLOWSHIP POINT is a portrait of class divides, land disputes, and familial bonds that will stay with you for years to come.

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Fellowship Point
Alice Elliott Dark

The masterful story of a lifelong friendship between two very different women with shared histories and buried secrets, tested in the twilight of their lives, set across the arc of the 20th century.

Celebrated children’s book author Agnes Lee is determined to secure her legacy—to complete what she knows will be the final volume of her pseudonymously written Franklin Square novels; and even more consuming, to permanently protect the peninsula of majestic coast in Maine known as Fellowship Point. To donate the land to a trust, Agnes must convince shareholders to dissolve a generations-old partnership. And one of those shareholders is her best friend, Polly.

Polly Wister has led a different kind of life than Agnes: that of a well-off married woman with children, defined by her devotion to her husband, and philosophy professor with an inflated sense of stature. She exalts in creating beauty and harmony in her home, in her friendships, and in her family. Polly soon finds her loyalties torn between the wishes of her best friend and the wishes of her three sons—but what is it that Polly wants herself?

Agnes’s designs are further muddied when an enterprising young book editor named Maud Silver sets out to convince Agnes to write her memoirs. Agnes’s resistance cannot prevent long-buried memories and secrets from coming to light with far-reaching repercussions for all.

Fellowship Point reads like a classic 19th-century novel in its beautifully woven, multilayered narrative, but it is entirely contemporary in the themes it explores; a deep and empathic interest in women’s lives, the class differences that divided us, the struggle to protect the natural world, and, above all, a reckoning with intimacy, history, and posterity. It is a masterwork from Alice Elliott Dark.

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The Good Left Undone
by Adriana Trigiani

Speaking of familial bonds, THE GOOD LEFT UNDONE is Adriana Trigiani’s expansive novel following three generations of Tuscan artisans, with a focus on the women who have been outcast for their decisions over the decades. Beginning with Matelda Cabrelli, the family’s matriarch, readers learn of her own mother’s experience witnessing the banishment of a dear friend. Domenica, as Matelda tells us, soon finds herself exiled when the church learns of her role in aiding a young mother, forcing her to Scotland where her marriage to a Scottish military officer is derailed following Italy’s involvement in World War II. Matelda’s daughter, Anina, now ready to marry herself, must reckon with the family’s secrets and the many struggles the Cabrelli women faced in pursuit of their own happiness and the small freedoms available to them in the early twentieth century. An epic story of the strong women that occupied several generations, THE GOOD LEFT UNDONE is a unique insight into the sacrifices women make to preserve their family’s existence and their dignity.

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The Good Left Undone
Adriana Trigiani

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No Country
by Kalyan Ray

A novel based on geographical displacement and the violent happenings that caused them, NO COUNTRY, is Kalyan Ray’s American debut about two Irish “brothers,” Padraig and Brendan in the nineteenth century. When Padraig is forced onto an East India Company trading ship (following a grave mistake), it is Brendan who must play father to the child that Padraig unknowingly left behind. As Padraig prospers in India, Brendan and Maeve, Padraig’s daughter, narrowly escape the deadly potato famine aboard a “coffin ship,” which is shipwrecked off the coast of Canada. Father and “daughter” make their way to Vermont, then we follow the family to New York, where tragically Maeve’s own daughter, Bibi, perishes in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. From there, Padraig’s and Brendan’s familial lines only move closer, coming together in a brutal murder of an Indian American family in upstate New York. Full of twists and turns, Kalyan Ray delicately, but deftly, navigates the violence that separates an unconventional family and, ultimately, brings them back together in a fascinating portrait of immigration and the coincidences and circumstances that touch each of the family members.

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No Country
Kalyan Ray

“A novel as easy to read as the latest bestseller, No Country is a rousing adventure made up out of the blood and guts and dreams of people on three continents and nearly 150 years of troubled history” (Alan Cheuse, NPR).

In the poverty of rural Ireland in 1843, Padraig Aherne and Brendan McCarthaigh grew up as brothers, inseparable, even when Padraig falls in love with their beautiful classmate, Brigid. But when Padraig makes a dangerous mistake that forces him onto a ship bound for India, and the deadly potato famine sweeps through their tiny village, Brendan is left alone to care for his best friend’s child, an infant daughter Padraig never knew he had. Eventually, Brendan flees with her aboard one of the infamous “coffin ships,” to begin a new life in America. As Brendan’s and Padraig’s two family trees take root on opposite sides of the world, their tendrils begin to intertwine, moving inexorably toward a disastrous convergence more than a century later.

Unfurling against the fickle backdrop of history that includes terrorism on the Indian subcontinent, an East European pogrom, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City, and the terrible intimacy of a murder in a sleepy New England town, the fallout from lives torn apart in No Country smolders for generations.

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I Will Die in a Foreign Land
by Kalani Pickhart

Eras will come and go but the need for political revolutions always remains constant. Such is the basis for Kalani Pickhart’s incredible debut, I WILL DIE IN A FOREIGN LAND. Following four characters in the events that preceded the violent 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, this novel jumps between points of view to deliver a haunting look at human perseverance amidst tragic turmoil. There’s Katya, a Ukrainian American doctor; her patient Aleksandr Ivanovich, a former KGB agent; Misha, an engineer in Kyiv where the protests take place; and Slava, an activist on the front lines of the revolution. Each has a role to play in the volatile Ukrainian winter, which brings our characters' plotlines together in face of a turbulent period in their country’s history. Perhaps more relevant than ever, this work injects folklore and Slavic history to make Kalani Pickhart’s book a deafening depiction of political violence and the collateral damages that come of it.

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I Will Die in a Foreign Land
Kalani Pickhart

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The Incarnations
by Susan Barker

Nothing quite captures the changing of eras like a premise about reincarnation of a thousand years. Susan Barker’s masterpiece THE INCARNATIONS is the tale of Wang Jun, a Beijing taxi driver who learns of his many previous lives through the mysterious letters that fall from the driver’s side visor of his cab. Claiming to be from his “soulmate,” readers are treated to story after story of Wang’s former incarnations. Apparently, in addition to his present life as a husband, father, and taxi driver in Beijing on the eve of the 2008 Olympics, Wang has been a slave to the Mongols, a student at an anti-capitalist school, and even a humble fisherman during the Opium Wars. All throughout, we learn of Wang’s previous iterations existing alongside this soulmate, in some shape or form. Filled with dark humor and a grand perspective that covers the historical gambit, THE INCARNATIONS is one of the most unique looks at human history and the relationships that have seemingly endured for centuries.

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The Incarnations
Susan Barker

Read a Book Wherein All Point-of-View Characters Are People of Color

Taxi driver Wang begins to receive unusual letters from a mysterious “soul mate” that are filled with the stories of his previous lives—from escaping a marriage to a spirit bride, to being a slave on the run from Genghis Khan, to living as a fisherman during the Opium Wars. With each letter, Wang becomes more convinced that someone is watching him—someone who claims to have known him for more than 1,000 years.

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Crazy Sorrow
by Vince Passaro

Perhaps the most romantic way to reflect upon previous eras and generations is, well, through romantic relationships. Vince Passaro, author of VIOLENCE, NUDITY, ADULT CONTENT, returns nearly twenty years later to deliver CRAZY SORROW, an equally propulsive book that is even more grand in scope. Spanning four decades in New York City, the story follows George and Anna from their first passionate meeting in 1976, during the nation’s Bicentennial celebration, up through the present after that short-lived romance. Going their separate ways following that brief but unforgettable encounter, George and Anna experience a number of different relationships—of varying degrees of success, over the next forty years. Despite the distance and time, each can’t help but wonder what might have happened had those two young lovers stayed together. In a series of dramatic events, at the turn of the century, fate intervenes and brings them back to each other. With readers experiencing the later part of the twentieth century from both vantage points, CRAZY SORROW is a loving portrait of romance and the loves that have shaped them over tumultuous times.

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Crazy Sorrow
Vince Passaro

A lyrical novel, spanning four decades in New York City, about a couple torn apart and the lengths to which they will go to be reunited.

Vince Passaro’s first novel, 2002’s Violence, Nudity, Adult Content, was a provocative book that explored the darkest human emotions and the traumas of mental illness, sexual assault, and murder. Now, nearly twenty years later, Passaro is back with his follow-up, Crazy Sorrow, a novel that is equally explosive and more grand in scope.

The story opens in the shadow of the new World Trade Center, on July 4, 1976, when students George and Anna meet on the weed- and wine-fueled night of the nation’s Bicentennial celebration. George, haunted by his upbringing, instantly falls for the sensual, magnetic Anna. Soon, they couple up, dropping acid, swapping music, exploring the city and each other. Yet their romance is short-lived, and they go their own ways.

Passaro chronicles the next four decades, following George and Anna through their various relationships, their sex lives both youthful and mature, their failed marriages, and the travails of parenthood and their careers. Yet as the years go by one thing remains constant: the former lovers wonder what happened to each other. Finally, miraculously, they reconnect as the new century is beginning, only to discover that history itself will have a say in whether they can stay together.

Crazy Sorrow is an ambitious examination of the forces that draw people together and drive them apart—yet it also expands beyond the points of view of its characters to capture the movement of time and to reveal a living, breathing New York that is both constantly changing and always familiar. Crazy Sorrow stands as Passaro’s powerful love letter to his characters and to the city that has shaped them.

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Photo credit: iStock / Anastasiia Yanishevska

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