By: Emily Dilworth
Historical Fiction is by far one of my favorite genres to read, especially during the summer. At a young age, I found comfort in the escape the reading provided – its ability to take you to places with characters that don’t actually exist anywhere other than your mind. Reading historical fiction gives me the same feeling of adventure, but there’s something about reading about a place or event that actually took place in the world that adds an extra level of excitement for me. Reading is the easiest way for me to immerse myself in another world, and by reading historical fiction, I’m able to immerse myself into a world that actually existed in history, which I think is pretty awesome. This summer, I’m looking forward to discovering new historical fiction novels to devour, but now I’d like to share a list of my all-time favorite historical fiction novels.
The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Setting: Germany 1939
It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will be busier still. By her brother’s graveside, Liesel’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, left behind there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordian-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found. But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up, and closed down. – Goodreads
The Book Thief is my absolute favorite book – across all genres. Markus Zusak’s writing is incredible, and his attention to detail pulls you into Liesel’s world immediately and doesn’t let you go. I’ve read this book 3 times since I first discovered it in 2015, and each time I learn and appreciate new things. I’ve laughed, cried, and loved by Liesel’s side from the first page to the last. If you’re looking for a book that will take you on a roller coaster of emotions, The Book Thief is a great choice.
The Painted Girls
Author: Cathy Marie Buchanan
Setting: Paris 1878
Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir. Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde. – Goodreads
I’m a huge fan of both art and ballet, and The Painted Girls is a wonderful mix of both. The characterization in this book is incredible. Normally, I have a hard time reading books with young protagonists because they can often seem juvenile, but Marie’s voice is conveyed with great maturity, making this book a great read for YA and adult readers alike.
Author: Suzanne Weyn
Setting: New York/London 1911
Science, spiritualism, history, and romance intertwine in Suzanne Weyn’s newest novel. Four sisters and their mother make their way from a spiritualist town in New York to London, becoming acquainted with journalist W. T. Stead, scientist Nikola Tesla, and industrialist John Jacob Astor. When they all find themselves on the Titanic, one of Tesla’s inventions dooms them…and one could save them. – Goodreads
Distant Waves has received mixed reviews. Many people were bothered by the fact that the book is slightly misleading, because it does not take place entirely onboard the Titanic, which is why many people were initially drawn to it. I, however, was not particularly bothered by this, because the novel in its entirety is still historical fiction. If you’re able to put the Titanic issue aside, the story is wonderful. I really enjoyed the mix of science and spiritualism in the book, which adds a unique element to the traditional historical fiction genre.
The Kite Runner
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Setting: Afghanistan 1963-1981
Amir is the son of a wealthy Kabul merchant, a member of the ruling caste of Pashtuns. Hassan, his servant and constant companion, is a Hazara, a despised and impoverished caste. Their uncommon bond is torn by Amir’s choice to abandon his friend amidst the increasing ethnic, religious, and political tensions of the dying years of the Afghan monarchy, wrenching them far apart. But so strong is the bond between the two boys that Amir journeys back to a distant world, to try to right past wrongs against the only true friend he ever had. The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, The Kite Runner is a beautifully crafted novel set in a country that is in the process of being destroyed. It is about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies. – Goodreads
Much like The Book Thief, The Kite Runner took me on a whirlwind of emotions. If you have a fascination with how war affects the human psyche, this book is a perfect pick. Its commentary on war, class, relationships, and family create a perfect mix of drama and realism. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about a new culture in this book through Amir’s commentary. Khaled Hosseini is a wonderful writer. He perfectly captures the spirit of a boy who is broken by the hardships of war.
Author: Tatiana de Rosnay
Setting: Paris 1942, 2002
Paris, July 1942: Ten-year-old Sarah is brutally arrested with her family in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, the most notorious act of French collaboration with the Nazis. But before the police come to take them, Sarah locks her younger brother, Michel, in their favorite hiding place, a cupboard in the family’s apartment. She keeps the key, thinking that she will be back within a few hours. Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s sixtieth anniversary, Julia Jarmond, an American journalist, is asked by her Paris-based American magazine to write an article about this black day in France’s past. Julia has lived in Paris for nearly twenty-five years, married a Frenchman, and she is shocked both by her ignorance about the event and the silence that still surrounds it. In the course of her investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connects her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl’s ordeal, from the terrible days spent shut in at the Vel’ d’Hiv’ to the camps and beyond. As she probes into Sarah’s past, she begins to question her own place in France and to reevaluate her marriage and her life. – Goodreads
Sarah’s Key is another one of my all-time favorite books. I really enjoyed this historical fiction novel because it bounces back and forth between the past and the present, connecting a woman and a girl who have a lot more in common with each other than one might suspect at first. I also really loved the commentary about ignorance in this book. Julia, the protagonist, is discovering something about France’s history that she never knew, and she becomes determined to bring it into the public eye.
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Setting: Mississippi 1962
Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone. Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken. Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own. Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.
The Help became very popular with the release of the movie based on the book back in 2011, but the novel, as with most books with movie adaptations, goes so much further into the history of the south than the movie does. The book includes much commentary from all three main characters that the movie simply cannot achieve. The story is heartfelt, honest, and light hearted – three ingredients that make the perfect novel to read while sitting by the pool and soaking up the summer sun!
I could go on and on about my love for historical fiction novels, but let’s be honest: we’d all rather be reading them than talking about them! Until next time!