How strangely unnerving and comforting that, despite the chasm – in time, culture, context, and geography – that separates us from the past, the stories of people who have walked the earth before us are familiar to our own. What do we have in common with a young girl stealing books in Nazi Germany or a young woman married off to an Italian Grand Duke? Novels set in the past often feel like fantasy; a character’s circumstances are so wildly different than our own, yet their reality – even if fictionalized – recounts hard truths about our history and lays bare our humanity.
Historical fiction is a window into the past and a mirror of our lives and reality. Here’s where you can start if you want to dip your hands into some historical fiction.
One of Atwood’s lesser-known novels, Alias Grace, novelizes the true story of Grace Marks, a young woman accused and convicted for the gruesome murders of her employer, his mistress, and their housekeeper. Is Grace innocent, guilty, psychopathic, or clinically insane? A young psychiatrist is tasked with hearing and analyzing Grace’s versions of events on that faithful day to uncover the truth.
When Marie-Laure goes blind, her father builds her a miniature replica of their Parisian neighborhood, including their museum of natural history where he works, so that she can memorize it. But both flee a Nazi-occupied Paris with one of the museum’s valuable treasures. In Germany, a young Werner is recruited into a Hitler youth academy for his expertise in radio repair. Werner’s talent sees him traveling into the heart of the war and leads him to Saint-Malo, where he and Marie-Laure’s lives intertwine. Doerr weaves a compelling and harrowing story of young lives as they navigate the challenges of the Second World War.
Rae Lynn and Warren Cobb run a small turpentine farm together. It is honest but dangerous work. When Warren’s carelessness makes a victim of him, Rae Lynn commits a terrible but merciful act that forces her into hiding. She disguises herself as a man and heads to the Turpentine camp of Swallow Hill. Work is not easy, but Rae Lynn soon forms strong friendships that help her to see a path and a life outside of the camp, but not before she comes to terms with her past.
In 1938, the Consul general of China, Dr. Ho Fengshan, and his American wife were posted in Vienna. Shy and isolated, Grace forms a friendship with Lola Schnitzler, her Jewish tutor, but Fengshan disapproves. He wants to be in favor of the Third Reich, but soon, violence against Jews escalates, and Dr. Ho finds himself issuing thousands of Chinese visas to help Jewish families escape Vienne before World War II explodes. Night Angels are based on an incredible true story of compassion and heroism.
In The Stranger in the Lifeboat, ten people are left stranded at sea following a ship explosion. Days later, they rescue a strange man from the waves. Who is this mysterious castaway? ‘I am the Lord’ he says. And that’s where the story begins. Albom calls on us to ask the question if we called on God for help and he actually appeared before us, what would happen?
The book thief, by Australian author Markus Zusak, tells the story of Liesel. Liesel is a young girl coming of age in Nazi Germany. Liesel watches as violence and war explode onto the German landscape. Soon, she is a bystander no more. After learning to read and discovering the value of written works, Liesel begins to steal books that German politicians want to destroy. Narrated by Death, The Book Thief details the story of one young woman’s survival and the long-lasting impact of war.
In the classic novel, The Name of the Rose, Eco sets his story in a wealthy medieval Italian abbey whose Benedictine monks are accused of heresy. Franciscan Friar, William of Baskerville and his apprentice, arrive to inspect the monastery, but their investigation is quickly derailed by a series of disturbing murders in the Abbey. Friar William must collect evidence and decipher ancient codes to discover the mystery and meaning behind these deaths. Eco’s work is often described as postmodern and is inspired by Aristotle’s lost Book on Comedy.
This is another novel set in Italy, this time in 1550s Florence. As the third daughter to the Grand Duke, Lucrezia is perfectly happy to live out of the limelight and devote herself to her art. Her life changes in an instant when her elder sister dies the night before her wedding and Lucrezia is set to take her place as a bride to the ruler of Ferrara. Suddenly in an unfamiliar court, Lucrezia must find her place in a marriage to a mysterious man as well as perform her most important duty, providing an heir to the Ferranese dynasty.
From the luxury rooms of the Waldorf Astoria in New York, Sakamoto Chiyo recounts her life story. After being sold by her father at the age of 9, Chiyo leaves her small fishing village for Kyoto to work in a renowned Geisha house. There she is, thrust into a world at once ugly and mesmerizing. A world where young girls are raised in the way of the geisha, where they learn the precise ways to dance, walk, serve, and seduce powerful men.
Belle is passing. She is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black Harvard graduate and a well-known advocate for equality. But in the light of Day, Belle is known as Belle Da Costa, a young woman with Portuguese heritage whose exceptional taste has landed her job as curator for the newly built Piermont Morgan Library. Belle’s meticulously constructed identity serves as a vehicle for her intellect and wit to thrive in a racist world.