7 Historical Novels Exploring the Complexities of Humanity

January 17 2023
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One of the things I love most about historical fiction is the feeling that I can time travel. There’s something wonderful about looking through a window and seeing the story of a nation on the cusp of war told through a single voice or being transported to a small village facing everyday hardships that many people in modern society don’t experience today. It allows the reader to learn and grow and change while diving into the deep waters of fiction. These seven books are sure to transport you and show you the complexity of human nature through history.

Seven Locks
by Christine Wade

Set in the 1700s just before the Revolutionary War in the area that would be known as the Hudson River Valley, SEVEN LOCKS is an intricate story drawn from hardship and American folklore. Facing one of the greatest shames of that time period, our unnamed narrator is a young wife whose husband walks off and never returns, leaving her to raise two small children and take care of their family farm. Most of the village thinks she’s cruel, and her children chafe under her strict rules and the hard work of farm life. Things take yet another turn for the worse when the war comes to the Hudson Valley and her farm is raided of everything she has left. Telling the story from the multifaceted points of view of the mother and her daughter, Judith, Wade takes the reader on an enchanting journey through heartbreak, hardship, and growth as the children find their places in the world. Wade’s characters are so complex that even when you don’t like them, you can still empathize with them, and her writing style is exquisitely lyrical, painting a portrait of the Hudson River Valley of the 1700s right before your eyes.

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Seven Locks
Christine Wade

Set in the Catskills on the eve of the Revolutionary War, Seven Locks is a spare, haunting, and beautifully written debut for readers who loved The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

The Hudson River Valley, 1769: A man mysteriously disappears without a trace, abandoning his wife and children on their farm at the foot of the Catskill Mountains. At first many believe that his wife, who has the reputation of being a scold, has driven her husband away, but as the strange circumstances of his disappearance circulate, a darker story unfolds. And as the lines between myth and reality fade in the wilderness, and an American nation struggles to emerge, the lost man’s wife embarks on a desperate journey to find the means to ensure her family’s survival . . .

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On Borrowed Wings
by Chandra Prasad

Adele doesn’t want the life that’s been laid before her. She doesn’t want to follow in her mother’s footsteps and marry a quarryman while her brother goes to university and rejoins the society that their mother left behind. So, when her brother dies in a mining accident, Adele sees a way out of her small-town life in Stony Creek. She chops off her hair, binds her chest, and takes her brother’s place as an incoming freshman at Yale. As Charlie, she meets and falls in with a charming group of men, but between her crush on one of the boys and her mother’s interventions, Adele’s secret might come crashing down around her. Set in the 1930s before Yale was a coed university, ON BORROWED WINGS is an engaging coming-of-age story that deals with the complexity of gender roles and class status.

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On Borrowed Wings
Chandra Prasad

Adele Pietra has heard her mother say that her destiny is carved in the same brilliantly hued granite her father and brother cleave from the Stony Creek mine: she is to marry a quarryman. But when Adele's brother, Charles, dies in a mining accident, Adele sees the chance to change her life. Enrolling at Yale as Charles, Adele assumes his identity -- and gender -- as a way to leave behind her mother's expectations and the limitations of her provincial Connecticut town.

To her own surprise, hair chopped and chest bound, Adele falls in naturally with a lively crew of undergraduates: the Jewish Harry Persky with his slick Manhattan know-how, the quiet and mysterious legacy student Phineas, and the lanky, charismatic Wick. And in many ways, Adele faces her freshman year at Yale as would any undergraduate boy: she dreads invasive PE examinations and looks forward to dances, experiments with cigarettes and reads the classics. Through her work with a questionable eugenics professor and her friendship with a local Italian family, Adele confronts her class and ethnicity as never before, all the while fearing that both her crush on Wick and her mother's well-meaning interventions will put an end to her delicate masquerade.

One part social history, one part comingof-age tale, On Borrowed Wings is an impeccably researched first novel that transports us to 1930s Yale, showing us around through the eyes of an unlikely, appealing female narrator.

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Gilded Mountain
by Kate Manning

A class affair set in the early 1900s, GILDED MOUNTAIN explores the life of Sylvie Pelletier, a young woman trying to navigate class transition as she struggles to do what’s right for her family while being exposed to the world of wealth and money. Sylvie and her family are new to Moonstone, where her father works in the harsh marble mines. One summer, Sylvie gets the opportunity to work for her father’s employer, the Padgett family, in their luxurious manor house. Meanwhile, the quarry workers are planning to unionize, and another labor leader attempts to turn people against the labor practices that filled the Padgett family pockets in hopes of creating a utopian society for everyone. But with winter comes tragedy, and Sylvie is forced to pick a side and decide whether she’s going to remain silent or seek revenge. Rooted in questions of equality and freedom, GILDED MOUNTAIN is a historical look at corporate greed and the complicated relationship between the wealthy and working classes at the turn of the century.

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Gilded Mountain
Kate Manning

Set in early 1900s Colorado, the unforgettable tale of a young woman who bravely faces the consequences of speaking out against injustice.

In a voice spiked with sly humor, Sylvie Pelletier recounts leaving her family’s snowbound mountain cabin to work in a manor house for the Padgetts, owners of the marble-mining company that employs her father and dominates the town. Sharp-eyed Sylvie is awed by the luxury around her; fascinated by her employer, the charming “Countess” Inge, and confused by the erratic affections of Jasper, the bookish heir to the family fortune. Her fairy-tale ideas of romance take a dark turn when she realizes the Padgetts’ lofty philosophical talk is at odds with the unfair labor practices that have enriched them. Their servants, the Gradys, formerly enslaved people, have long known this to be true and are making plans to form a utopian community on the Colorado prairie.

Outside the manor walls, the town of Moonstone is roiling with discontent. A handsome union organizer, along with labor leader Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, is stirring up the quarry workers. The editor of the local newspaper—a bold woman who takes Sylvie on as an apprentice—is publishing unflattering accounts of the Padgett Company. Sylvie navigates vastly different worlds and struggles to find her way amid conflicting loyalties. When the harsh winter brings tragedy, Sylvie must choose between silence and revenge.

Drawn from true stories of Colorado history, Gilded Mountain is a tale of a bygone American West seized by robber barons and settled by immigrants, and is a story infused with longing—for self-expression and equality, freedom and adventure.

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Work Like Any Other
by Virginia Reeves

WORK LIKE ANY OTHER isn’t a wide-reaching, war-torn historical fiction novel; instead, it’s a complex story about one man’s loss of identity and pride, and the power of forgiveness around the prison-reform movement in the 1920s. Reeves’s writing is beautiful and incredibly engaging as she explores Roscoe Martin’s journey through the prison system and the way people reinvent themselves when their former identities are stripped away. Roscoe knows that electricity is the next big thing and wants to help bring it to rural America, but family duty forces him to give up his dreams and his livelihood in order to save the failing farm that his wife inherits. With their marriage and their lives on the rocks, Roscoe comes up with a plan: he uses his knowledge as an electrician to put in his own power lines and steal energy from the state to help save the farm and his marriage—until a man from the power company finds the illegal lines and is electrocuted. Roscoe’s arrest is the final straw in his marriage; his wife abandons him, and the farm is once again in danger. Roscoe must face his twenty-year sentence in Kilby Prison alone, and eventually climbs the ranks as an inmate who helps guards track down escaped prisoners. Reeves asks whether we identify with the work we do, what power work has in determining our identity, and what happens when good intentions lead to horrible outcomes.

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Work Like Any Other
Virginia Reeves

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Corrag
by Susan Fletcher

Based on the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands, CORRAG is a haunting and beautifully written tale of courage and unlikely friendship. When we first meet Corrag, she’s chained in a cell, accused of witchcraft and involvement in the Glencoe Massacre, when she’s visited by Reverend Charles Leslie. Corrag tells her story, and Leslie shares his thoughts with his wife through a series of letters as he unravels the truth about Corrag’s history and the murdered MacDonald clan. Fletcher’s prose is poetic and infuses the setting and descriptions of nature with such magic that perhaps she’s the one putting a spell on the reader right alongside Corrag.

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Corrag
Susan Fletcher

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The Marriage Portrait
by Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell, the author of HAMNET, weaves another incredible narrative grounded in heartbreaking historical truth. Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici enjoys her life as the third daughter of a duke, free to wander the grounds of the family palazzo and marvel at the beauty around her. But then her sister dies on the eve of her wedding to the powerful ruler of the Ferranese dynasty, Alfonso, and Lucrezia’s father is all too quick to offer her hand in marriage to unite the two powerful families. Now Lucrezia must leave her life behind and travel to a strange court with complicated customs while still finding herself as a young woman. And who is Alfonso, really? Is he a passionate and educated man who appreciates art and beauty, or is he the cold and calculated ruler that made Lucrezia’s older sister tremble? Despite all her wealth and power, Lucrezia knows she is now disposable unless she produces strong heirs to carry on the Ferranese line.

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The Marriage Portrait
Maggie O'Farrell

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All the Blood We Share
by Camilla Bruce

Dark, vicious, twisted, and based on true events, ALL THE BLOOD WE SHARE is a terrifying portrait of humanity in a brutal period of history, perfect for true crime fans. The Bloody Benders are a horrific family of serial killers who flee to Kansas in 1871 and open an inn. But whispers of missing travelers and witchcraft follow them everywhere. Their daughter, Kate, lures the townspeople in with her beauty and healing talents, while her family, consumed by greed and murderous desires, marks those who won’t be missed as their next targets. The story is atmospheric and chilling, with unease and tension seeping into every word and providing this list with a different perspective on human nature and what people are truly capable of.

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All the Blood We Share
Camilla Bruce

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Photo credit: iStock / Anna Puzatykh

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