Author Picks: 4 Historical Fiction Reads Based on True Events

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Jess Kidd is the award-winning author of The Night ShipHimself, Mr. Flood’s Last Resort, and Things in Jars. Learn more at JessKidd.com.

I adore historical novels, both reading and writing them. My latest, The Night Ship, is based on the real-life maritime horror story of the Dutch East India Company’s flagship, the Batavia, which wrecked off the coast of western Australia in 1629. I tell this story from the narrative viewpoint of children living on the bleak, windswept island where the ship foundered, both at the time and centuries later. I bring together fictional characters and characters based on the people who were really there to tell the human story behind the historical event. Here I chart some of my favorite novels offering unforgettable characters set against backdrops of true historical events.

Regeneration
by Pat Barker

REGENERATION is the first book in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and explores class, identity, trauma, and the fragility of memory through the relationships between key male characters who live through the horrors of World War I. Inspired by first-person narratives—including that of her own grandfather—Barker focuses on a group of British officers in treatment for shell shock at Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart War Hospital, basing her work on the interactions between war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and the psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers. The people that populate this book are a mix of fictional characters and characters drawn from history, and the blending of them is remarkable. Individually, the characters are compelling, but it’s their interactions with one another that drive home the shattering effects of war on the human psyche and the frailty of recovery.

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Regeneration
Pat Barker

The Booker Prize-winning first book in the brilliant trilogy that examines and skewers the madness of the war by telling as fiction the true story of poet and officer Siegfried Sassoon, who upon declaring he would not fight was sent to a mental hospital for "shell-shocked" soldiers where he was treated by noted psychiatrist Dr. William Rivers. Sassoon's complete sanity disturbs Dr. Rivers to such a point that he questions his own role in "curing" his patients only to send them back to the slaughter of the war. Read the first book and you will have to read the rest.

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Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders

I’m a big fan of George Saunders, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” being one of my favorite short stories, gorgeously set in a bizarre historical theme park. I approached LINCOLN IN THE BARDO with the requisite awe and was bowled over. Innovative and deeply touching, it explores a moment of history that’s both intimate and far-reaching. Inspired by accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s personal grief following the loss of his beloved son, this book is a marvel. Willie Lincoln, a child as lovable as he is serious, looms large, as do a chorus of well-meaning, bickering ghosts. Blurring the boundaries between the dead and the living with a genius that is Saunders’s own, this book had me crying and laughing.

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Lincoln in the Bardo
George Saunders

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Alias Grace
by Margaret Atwood

Based on the murder of a landowner and his housekeeper in 1840s Canada, this book is a perfect weaving of factual events and fiction. Incarcerated for life, housemaid Grace Marks, the convicted murderer, tells her life story to a doctor. The power shifts are subtle and explore social injustice, fractured identity, and the construction of memory. Grace herself is wonderfully elusive, and the tale she spins continues to resonate long after reading.

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Alias Grace
Margaret Atwood

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Blood Meridian
by Cormac McCarthy

Taking inspiration from the bloodshed that took place in the 1850s around the Texas-Mexico border, Cormac McCarthy paints a hellish world. Awe-inspiring landscapes and unspeakably cruel acts of violence make this a difficult novel to navigate. The human characters are universally inhumane, and there is no truly relatable anchor—not even Kid, a boy who accompanies a group of renegades led by the nihilistic Judge Holden on a scalp-hunting expedition. For all this, the imagery is vivid and stark and the writing compelling. Judge, for one, is a deeply disturbing character who will haunt your nightmares.

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Blood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy's masterwork, Blood Meridian, chronicles the brutal world of the Texas-Mexico borderlands in the mid-nineteenth century. Its wounded hero, the teenage Kid, must confront the extraordinary violence of the Glanton gang, a murderous cadre on an official mission to scalp Indians. Judge Holden, a supremely violent and perverted man who rides with the Glanton gang, is an avid naturalist and, of course, butterfly collector.

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The Night Ship
by Jess Kidd

THE NIGHT SHIP is available now!

1629: A newly orphaned young girl named Mayken is bound for the Dutch East Indies on the Batavia, one of the greatest ships of the Dutch Golden Age. Curious and mischievous, Mayken spends the long journey going on misadventures above and below the deck, searching for a mythical monster. But the true monsters might be closer than she thinks. 1989: A lonely boy named Gil is sent to live off the coast of Western Australia among the seasonal fishing community where his late mother once resided. There, on the tiny reef-shrouded island, he discovers the story of an infamous shipwreck…​

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The Night Ship
Jess Kidd

Based on a real-life event, an epic historical novel from the award-winning author of Things in Jars that illuminates the lives of two characters: a girl shipwrecked on an island off Western Australia and, three hundred years later, a boy finding a home with his grandfather on the very same island.

1629: A newly orphaned young girl named Mayken is bound for the Dutch East Indies on the Batavia, one of the greatest ships of the Dutch Golden Age. Curious and mischievous, Mayken spends the long journey going on misadventures above and below the deck, searching for a mythical monster. But the true monsters might be closer than she thinks.

1989: A lonely boy named Gil is sent to live off the coast of Western Australia among the seasonal fishing community where his late mother once resided. There, on the tiny reef-shrouded island, he discovers the story of an infamous shipwreck…​

With her trademark “thrilling, mysterious, twisted, but more than anything, beautifully written” (Graham Norton, New York Times bestselling author) storytelling, Jess Kidd weaves a unputdownable and charming tale of friendship and sacrifice, brutality and forgiveness.

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