I discovered historical fiction in the first grade. I picked out The Witch of Blackbird Pond from my school library because it sounded spooky—I’ve always been a little Wednesday Addams at heart—but I came to find out it wasn’t the pointy hats and broomsticks kind of witch, but rather the Puritans and witch trials kind. I was fascinated. And appalled. And I instantly had to tell everyone I knew about this horrifying time in our nation’s past.
Historical fiction gives us a glimpse into the daily life of those who came before us. It’s an incredibly versatile genre, and it can be found as a subset of practically every other genre: mystery, romance, children’s and YA, and even science fiction (alternate histories are totally a thing). There are so many time periods to explore, so many types of lives to experience.
If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from my reading in this genre, it’s how glad I am to be alive today and not in the past. March is Women’s History Month, and women’s history can be brutal (ditto black history, LGBTQ history, and pretty much any other group that isn’t rich white males--they’ve had it pretty good). In this day and age of the Women’s March, #metoo, and Time’s Up, it can seem like our present is pretty brutal, too. Looking back at our history can help us understand how far we’ve come and give us the strength and inspiration to keep going.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
A young woman brought up in Barbados comes to live with her uncle in Connecticut, and finds their Puritan way of life difficult after her unconventional upbringing. This book was my first introduction to the concept of witch trials, and I was absolutely infuriated.
The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen
Hannah resents the traditions of her Jewish heritage until time travel places her in the middle of a small Jewish village in Nazi-occupied Poland. I loved this book, one of the first Holocaust books I remember reading. The device of the modern girl being dropped into the past really helped me understand what was happening.
The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
Adopted as a child by the Clan of the Cave Bear after her people perish in an earthquake, Ayla looks different and is different. This series is basically cave people romance. A friend’s mom gave me this book in middle school, and I can only assume she forgot about some of the more adult content. But I was not scarred for life, and this became a favorite series. Auel did exhaustive research for these books, although she kind of picks and chooses between anthropological theories to suit her stories.
In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters
In San Diego in 1918, as deadly influenza and World War I take their toll, sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches desperate mourners flock to seances and spirit photographers for comfort and, despite her scientific leanings, must consider if ghosts are real. I feel like World War I gets overlooked in American history in favor of the flashier World War II a lot of the time, so I enjoyed this look at life on the home front in 1918.
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King
What if an aging Sherlock Holmes took on a young, American, female apprentice? This is the concept behind the Mary Russell series, and I am here for it. This mystery series is written for adults, but it would be great for teens as well, especially the first book, in which Mary is herself still a teen.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Sethe, an escaped slave living in post-Civil War Ohio with her daughter and mother-in-law, is persistently haunted by the ghost of her dead baby girl. Like much of Toni Morrison’s fiction, this story is devastating and breathtaking. This novel, more than any other, really illustrated for me the horror of slavery.
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
Marked for greatness after being struck by lightning in infancy, Mary Anning discovers a fossilized skeleton near her 19th century home that triggers attacks on her character and upheavals throughout the religious, scientific, and academic communities. I love Tracy Chevalier’s books, and this is probably one of my favorites because it tells the story of a real woman and her contributions to science.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Meeting through mutual friends in Chicago, Hadley is intrigued by brash "beautiful boy" Ernest Hemingway, and after a brief courtship and small wedding, they take off for Paris, where Hadley makes a convincing transformation from an overprotected child to a game and brave young woman who puts up with impoverished living conditions and shattering loneliness to prop up her husband's career. Hadley is mostly remembered as the wife who lost a bunch of Hemingway’s stories, so it’s good to see a little bit more of her story.
Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall
Arrested and declared insane for seeking justice for her plantation owner husband's slaves at the height of the Civil War, Iris Dunleavy endures a lengthy institutional "rehabilitation" under the eye of a pompous superintendent. The history of how we treat the mentally ill is particularly horrifying, especially when a woman could be committed simply for disagreeing with her husband in the not so distant past.
The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
This novel is about the friendship between an adolescent, pre-movie-star Louise Brooks, and the 36-year-old woman who chaperones her to New York City for a summer, in 1922, and how it changes both their lives. Another fictional account of a real person, this book introduced me to the famous flapper and silent film star, a woman ahead of her time.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born and immediately dies. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. The unconventional structure of this book jumps around in time a lot, but the majority of it takes place during the London Blitz.
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
Paris Opera star soprano, Lilliet Berne, is presented with a libretto that alludes to the secrets of her past. Only four other people know the details of her early life, but which one of them betrayed her? This is the only entry on this list written by a man, and I really debated whether to include it, but the story and time period were just so interesting, I had to. Don’t let the genteel cover image fool you; this book was far raunchier than I was expecting.