7 Historical Fiction Reads and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them

August 10 2022
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We’re big historical fiction fans here at Off the Shelf and it’s no wonder. After all, the past is filled with stranger-than-fiction stories, ones that have inspired countless compelling and thrilling novels. Below are several such unputdownable works of historical fiction, along with equally fascinating nonfiction books that will bring the true sides of the story to vivid life. Taking us from the grandiose estates of the rich and famous to the European cities devastated by World War II, these unforgettable stories will bring the past to life.

Mrs. Houdini
by Victoria Kelly

A moving novel of true love and early celebrity, MRS. HOUDINI follows the great magician’s widow as she discovers mysterious clues seemingly left by her husband in the afterlife. Whisking us from Coney Island to Budapest and beyond, this is an intriguing look into the private life of an icon.

To better understand why Harry Houdini still draws legions of devoted fans nearly a century after his death, check out the biography/cultural-exploration of his legacy in THE LIFE AND AFTERLIFE OF HARRY HOUDINI by Joe Posnanski.

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Mrs. Houdini
Victoria Kelly

“Richly lyrical and thought-provoking” (Publishers Weekly, starred review), this “stellar debut from a novelist to watch” (Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize winning author) explores the passionate marriage of Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess—a love story that defied death itself.

Before escape artist Harry Houdini died, he vowed he would find a way to speak to his beloved wife, Bess, from beyond the grave using a coded message known only to the two of them. But when a widowed Bess begins seeing this code in seemingly impossible places, it becomes clear that Harry has an urgent message to convey. Unlocking the puzzle will set Bess on a course back through the pair’s extraordinary romance, which swept the illusionist and his bride from the beaches of Coney Island, to the palaces of Budapest, to the back lots of Hollywood. When the mystery finally leads Bess to the doorstep of a mysterious young photographer, she realizes that her husband’s magic may have been more than just illusion.

In surprising turns that weave through the uncertain days of the dawn of the twentieth century and continue into the dazzling 1920s, Mrs. Houdini is a “dazzling and enchanting” (Shelf Awareness, starred review) tale, “a marvel that gallops through time and space” (Associated Press), and a “mesmerizing reimagining” (People) of one of history’s greatest love stories.

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Fever
by Mary Beth Keane

Sympathetic, vivid, and unputdownable, FEVER follows an Irish immigrant as she struggles to survive in turn of the century New York City and discovers a talent for cooking. But her dreams of becoming a successful chef are dashed when medical officials declare her dangerous, and she becomes forever known as Typhoid Mary.

Expand your knowledge of Typhoid Mary even more by reading about the devastating true story of Mary Mallon, the people she infected, and tidbits of culinary history from the beloved chef Anthony Bourdain with his comprehensive nonfiction book TYPHOID MARY.

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Fever
Mary Beth Keane

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The Swans of Fifth Avenue
by Melanie Benjamin

Based on the true story of the intense and ultimately disastrous friendship between American socialite Babe Paley and author Truman Capote, THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE brings the scandals and intrigue of midcentury high society to vibrant life. This compulsively readable novel will whisk you to a sumptuous age you’ll want to visit again and again. 

Luckily, you CAN explore further with this nonfiction pairing. The full truth of Truman Capote’s downfall and the high society scandal that started it all is revealed in Roseanne Montillo’s DELIBERATE CRUELTY, publishing this November. 

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The Swans of Fifth Avenue
Melanie Benjamin

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This Tender Land
by William Kent Krueger

In this epic American saga, four orphans search for home and answers on the mighty Mississippi River during the Great Depression. Lyrical and majestic, THIS TENDER LAND is an unforgettable ode to “found family” and the dynamic people who populate this expansive country.

To get a better understanding of the size and power of the great Mississippi, travel in a flatboat with historian Rinker Buck in LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI. Buck’s curiosity about the flatboat era inspired him to construct his own and set out on a twenty-first century adventure down the channels of the great river—imbuing his experience with historical significance along the way.

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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 Wedding Veil
by Kristy Woodson Harvey

Also transporting us across the twentieth century, Kristy Woodson Harvey’s historical fiction THE WEDDING VEIL follows a group of women connected by a priceless heirloom. In present day, a young woman has second doubts about her upcoming wedding. Back in 1914, socialite Edith Vanderbilt faces an uncertain future as her family’s finances dwindle and her carefree daughter refuses to adhere to high society norms.

Discover even more about the history of the grand estate Biltmore, which generations of Vanderbilts called home, and where some of THE WEDDING VEIL is set, in Denise Kiernan’s THE LAST CASTLE.

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The Wedding Veil
Kristy Woodson Harvey

The New York Times bestselling author of Under the Southern Sky and the Peachtree Bluff series brings “her signature wit, charm, and heart” (Woman’s World) to this sweeping new novel following four women across generations, bound by a beautiful wedding veil and a connection to the famous Vanderbilt family.

Four women. One family heirloom. A secret connection that will change their lives—and history as they know it.

Present Day: Julia Baxter’s wedding veil, bequeathed to her great-grandmother by a mysterious woman on a train in the 1930s, has passed through generations of her family as a symbol of a happy marriage. But on the morning of her wedding day, something tells her that even the veil’s good luck isn’t enough to make her marriage last forever. Overwhelmed and panicked, she escapes to the Virgin Islands to clear her head. Meanwhile, her grandmother Babs is also feeling shaken. Still grieving the death of her beloved husband, she decides to move out of the house they once shared and into a retirement community. Though she hopes it’s a new beginning, she does not expect to run into an old flame, dredging up the same complicated emotions she felt a lifetime ago.

1914: Socialite Edith Vanderbilt is struggling to manage the luxurious Biltmore Estate after the untimely death of her cherished husband. With 250 rooms to oversee and an entire village dependent on her family to stay afloat, Edith is determined to uphold the Vanderbilt legacy—and prepare her free-spirited daughter Cornelia to inherit it—in spite of her family’s deteriorating financial situation. But Cornelia has dreams of her own. Asheville, North Carolina has always been her safe haven away from the prying eyes of the press, but as she explores more of the rapidly changing world around her, she’s torn between upholding tradition and pursuing the exciting future that lies beyond Biltmore’s gilded gates.

In the vein of Therese Anne Fowler’s A Well-Behaved Woman and Jennifer Robson’s The Gown, The Wedding Veil brings to vivid life a group of remarkable women forging their own paths—and explores the mystery of a national heirloom lost to time.

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Lana's War
by Anita Abriel

A thrilling and heartrending World War II novel: a European aristocrat is offered the chance to spy for the French Resistance after suffering a tragic loss at the hands of the Gestapo. But in the midst of adhering to a cover story that requires her to pretend to be in love with a stranger, her growing affection for a young Jewish child threatens to undo the lifesaving work of her and countless other resistance members.

And if this novel has you craving even more spy tales, discover the fascinating true story of a young woman who embarked on a life of espionage and glamour during World War II—THE PRINCESS SPY by Larry Loftis.

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Lana's War
Anita Abriel

From the author of the “fast-paced, heartbreaking, and hopeful” (Kristin Harmel, author of The Room on Rue Amélie) The Light After the War, a riveting and heartfelt story of a young woman recruited to be a spy for the resistance on the French Riviera during World War II.

Paris 1943: Lana Antanova is on her way to see her husband with the thrilling news that she is pregnant. But when she arrives at the convent where he teaches music, she’s horrified to see Gestapo officers execute him for hiding a Jewish girl in the piano.

A few months later, grieving both her husband and her lost pregnancy, Lana is shocked when she’s approached to join the resistance on the French Riviera. As the daughter of a Russian countess, Lana has the perfect background to infiltrate the émigré community of Russian aristocrats who socialize with German officers, including the man who killed her husband.

Lana’s cover story makes her the mistress of Guy Pascal, a wealthy Swiss industrialist and fellow resistance member, in whose villa in Cap Ferrat she lives. Together, they gather information on upcoming raids and help members of the Jewish community escape. Consumed by her work, she doesn’t expect to become attached to a young Jewish girl or wonder about the secrets held by the man whose house she shares. And as the Nazis’ deadly efforts intensify, her intention to protect those around her may put them all at risk instead.

With Anita Abriel’s “heartfelt and memorable” (Pam Jenoff, New York Times bestselling author) storytelling, Lana’s War is a sweeping and suspenseful tale of survival and second chances during some of the darkest days of history.

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Bronte's Mistress
by Finola Austin

Lydia Robinson is trapped in a loveless marriage when she meets her son’s tutor, Branwell Brontë, brother to authors Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. The two embark on a passionate love affair that has devastating consequences in this lyrical and heartbreaking novel.

In Juliet Barker’s THE BRONTËS, the ins and outs of this talented but tragic family is explored as never before.

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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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