These days I tend to be reading more fantasy than historical fiction, but historical fiction has always been my favourite genre. Here’s some of my all time favourite historical novels:
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Germany)
I could never write a post about historical fiction that didn’t feature The Book Thief. It’s been a few years since I’ve re-read this one, but it always sticks out in my mind and is one of my all time favourite books, period. Markus Zusak has such a way with words and this book makes me bawl my eyes out every time. The story is told by a personified version of death and the observations they make about a young girl, Leisel, and her foster family living in a small German town in the 1940’s.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (New York)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is another book that I love to talk about. This is another historical read that is all about the writing. I love Betty Smith’s writing and this is just the most beautiful coming of age story set in Brooklyn at the turn of the century. It’s a family drama about 10 year old Francie Nolan and her family’s struggle to bring themselves out of poverty. It’s a slow burn novel, but the writing just speaks to me.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (Alaska)
The Great Alone is a new discovery for me in 2018, but it is haunting and 5 months later, I still can’t stop thinking about it. I’m like 80% sure this is going to be my favourite read of 2018, unless I stumble on something REALLY good in the next month. The Great Alone is set in Alaska in the 1970’s and is about teenager Leni Albright and her parents trying to make a subsistence living in this hospitable environment. Her father, Ernt, was a POW in Vietnam and suffers from PTSD and Seasonal Affective Disorder, struggling through the long, dark Alaskan winters. This book is all about the setting for me. Hannah creates the most wonderful sense of setting and atmosphere and the story will break your heart.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (France/Germany)
Like The Book Thief, this is an extremely popular novel, and with good reason. All the Light We Cannot See took Anthony Doerr 10 years to write and it absolutely shows in the writing. The story follows a blind French girl and a young German boy as one flees to escape the war and the other is forced into the war. They only meet briefly, but through time and circumstance, they leave a lasting impression on each other. The writing is gorgeous in this book and though I haven’t revisited the story in several years, it still sticks with me.
Girl at War by Sara Novic (Croatia)
When I visited Croatia in 2012, I searched far and wide for a good historical novel to read about the war, but I had to wait for this book to be published in 2015 to finally get it. Girl at War tells a truly haunting story of a young girl, Ana Juric, who is forced to flee to America after the traumatic death of her parents during the Bosnian War. Ana has tried to escape the nightmares of her past for many years, but eventually decides to return to Croatia to put the ghosts of her past to rest. It’s a short book, but it is an incredibly captivating story about a recent and devastating part of Croatia’s history.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Ghana/America)
I read Homegoing a few years ago for book club and in my opinion, it is a masterpiece of historical fiction. The story format is unlike anything I’ve read before and spans a jaw-dropping period of 300 years! Homegoing is about two sisters in 18th century Ghana. One sister is kidnapping and shipped off to America as part of the slave trade and the other sister marries and remains in Ghana. The book has only 14 chapters, but each chapter follows the next generation of each sister (7 generations in total). Homegoing is extremely well written and examines how each generation is shaped by the choices of their ancestors and the circumstances of their time. A fantastic look at the impact of the slave trade on many generations.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (China)
This is a book that I really did not expect to love, but ended up totally surprising me. It tells the story of Li-Yan, a young girl of the indigenous Akha people in rural China. Tea is important part of her village culture and she grows up farming tea. Li-Yan has a huge desire to learn, but though unfortunate circumstances, she becomes pregnant and is forced to leave her baby at an orphanage. Her daughter ends up being adopted and grows up in America and the story follows both mother and daughter. I learned more about tea in this book than I ever wanted to know, but it was fascinating and Lisa See does such a wonderful job sharing the Akha culture and creating complex and interesting characters.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Korea/Japan)
Pachinko is another book that is breaktaking in it’s scope. The story starts off in Korea and focuses on young Sunja’s family and her eventual immigration to Japan. Pachinko tells of Korea and Japan’s fraught history and the mass exodus of Korean’s to Japan and the challenges they faced there as immigrants. The book spans 80 years and 4 generations and explores women’s roles, the lasting impacts of our actions, and the relationships between different family members and generations. It’s a slow burn novel, but a wonderful look at the challenges of immigration in a non American context.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews (Bolivia)
I’m a little unsure what genre to categorize Women Talking under. It has an element of historical fiction to be sure, but it is heavily imagined. The book centres around the real life incident that took place in a mennonite community in Bolivia. For 4 years, the women of the community would wake up in the mornings having been violated and abused in their sleep. The women were told they were being punished by God for their sins, but it later came out that several men in the village were sneaking into their homes, knocking them out with animal anesthetic, and raping them in their sleep. This story sets the premise for the book, which is essentially an imagined conversation between the women of the village as they decide what to do in the aftermath; whether to forgive the men, stay and fight, or to leave. It’s a short book, but it packs a punch. It is a thoughtful discussion about the bounds of human forgiveness, the tenacity and hopefulness of the human spirit, and a call to action to do better. Please note that while the premise of the book is true, the rest of the book is fiction.
These is My Words by Nancy E Turner (America)
I was on the fence whether to include this book or not because it’s been many years since I read it and I’ve read a lot of books since, so I wonder how accurate my memory is. But I have such good memories of this book that I can’t help including it. These is my Words is essentially the diary of a young girl turned pioneer woman. It takes place in the late 1800’s as Sarah Prine travels around the southern states with her family trying to make a life for herself. She suffers many atrocities, but she is driven by her desire to learn and for personal betterment. It is ultimately a love story, but it covers a tumultuous part of American history and is a great look into the hardships of the pioneers.
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston (Newfoundland)
This one is a little self indulgent because it’s about my home. It’s one of those bucket list books I felt required to read at some point since it focuses on about 50 years of Newfoundland history. I was expecting it to be dry, but it was actually a fascinating character study and look at Newfoundland’s history and joining with Canada that I think anyone (and certainly any Canadian) can enjoy. Newfoundland has a very different history than most of Canada and joined Canada under less than ideal circumstances. This book is about Newfoundland’s first premier, Joey Smallwood, and his upbringing, the role he played in NL unions and works rights, his persuasive negotiating skills, and his campaign to join Canada.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (Scotland)
Last but not least, I decided to include Outlander on this list. I’ve read the first 3 books in the series and I was following along with the TV show, but I’ve fallen behind on the last season. These books are part trashy romance, part well-researched historical fiction. It’s the only book on the list with a fantastical element because it involves time travelling from the 1940’s to the 1740’s, but the majority of the series takes places in the 1700’s. Gabaldon covers a huge amount of Scottish, English, French, and American history in this series and I think she deserves the kudos. I learned so much about Scotland from this series and let’s face it, they are just a lot of fun.