Spotlight on: Historical Fiction

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I will be focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred. I’ll share here what Historical Fiction means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

 

What is Historical Fiction?

I would consider any book that uses artistic license to explore real past setting(s) or event(s) as historical fiction. The clincher is whether the setting/event was in the past at the time the book was published, not at the time it is being read. These are books that are already looking back from the time they’re written, generally with the intent of remembrance or raising awareness.

Mythology is a bit nebulous and I tend to consider original myth stories simply as classics, but I’ll mention a couple of them below in the interest of rounding out my list. I do consider mythological retellings as a firm subgenre of historical fiction.

A note on categorization: I tend to label books with every genre that applies, rather than limiting each title to one genre. Because the point here is to share a wide variety within each genre and maybe convince readers to check out bookish elements they otherwise wouldn’t, my goal in this Spotlight series is to offer an expansive view.

 

My History with Historical Fiction

Little House in the Big Woods (Little House, #1)My interest in historical fiction is surprisingly recent. Most of my earliest brushes with the genre were assigned or recommended to me rather than sought on my own, with the exception of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, which is, admittedly, semi-autobiographical rather than pure fiction. Possibly the fact that I grew up on a Midwestern farm not so far from where Laura had her early adventures made this feel pleasantly resonant, although almost everything else I read around this time appealed to me for its variance from my own life. Other titles I read for school or friends included: My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier, Both Sides of Time by Caroline B. Cooney, Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt, and Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell.

By high school and college I still hadn’t found my stride with this genre and was more interested in time travel than actual history, though I had begun branching out a bit more. I enjoyed Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Khaled Houseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, and Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key. Church of Marvels

It actually wasn’t until right after college that I had better luck and started pinpointing my tastes within the genre. Some of my favorites from the tail end of college years and soon after included: Church of Marvels by Leslie Perry, The Girls by Emma Cline, 11/22/63 by Stephen King, and The Revenant by Michael Punke.

 

Historical Fiction Classics

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell was the first proper classic that I ever read and it opened a lot of reading doors for me. It’s a Civil War story about a plantation owner’s daughter trying to survive the war and its aftermath of upheaval in the southern US. Gone with the Wind

The Color Purple by Alice Walker is more recent, but certainly worth note. It follows the difficult lives of two African American sisters in early 1900s southern US as they find their own ways to overcome abuse and injustice.

To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee are also set in the southern US, beginning in the Great Depression era. The first book is a child’s account of local racism and a controversial trial; the sequel, though considerably less popular, turns assumptions from the first book upside down in a fascinating demonstration of the difference age and perspective can make.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts religious drama in the mid 1600s in a northeastern colony of early US settlers. A woman is condemned for bearing a child out of wedlock, though a key detail is missing amid in the accusations- the identity of the child’s father.

Atonement by Ian McEwan is technically a modern classic but should not be overlooked! A young storyteller makes an accusation that she doesn’t entirely understand, which will have severe consequences a few years later when WWII sweeps through Europe.

The Aeneid of VirgilThe Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer are Greek mythology stories, the first depicting the Trojan War, and the second its aftermath as one of the Greeks experiences ten years of mishaps on his way home.

The Aeneid by Virgil is Roman mythology, following one man’s escape from the fall of Troy as he goes on to found Rome.

(It’s difficult not to include books set in their own publication era that have now become old enough to feel historical; there are certainly a fair few classics that are very evocative of bygone times [Austen! Dickens!], but I’ll save more thoughts on those for Spotlight on Classics.)

 

Modern Historical Fiction Staples and Recommendations

In recent years I’ve been more interested in reading from different time periods and places around the world as a way of supplementing my education. To this end, I’ve been reading popular historical fiction books like: Han Kang’s Human Acts, featuring an uprising in 1980 South Korea; Women Talking by Miriam Toews, which re-imagines a string of rapes in Mennonite colonies as recently as 2009; Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Homegoinghighlighting particular struggles faced by Africans and African Americans over the course of 300 years in Ghana and the US; The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, a Balkan account of the second world war and the political and social unrest that followed; The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, which fictionalizes a terrible Norwegian storm and the appalling set of witch trials that followed.

Historical fiction is also recognized among literary prizes fairly often; while following various prizes in the last few years I’ve picked up such acclaimed choices as: Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black (a young Barbados field slave befriends an idealistic inventor), Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (a US field slave escapes to the north via an underground train), Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song (his female friends speak about their experiences with Truman Capote), and Suzanne Berne’s A Crime in the Neighborhood (a woman recalls a murder that happened in her suburban neighborhood in the 1970’s).

I haven’t loved all of these, but they’ve helped me hone my preferences- I have learned that I don’t appreciate sensationalized or sentimentalized styles, nor heavy foreshadowing, nor a film of modern values that obscures hard truths about past realities. I do like unsung heroes, unflinching tragedies, and the highlighting of moments history lessons tend to miss.

 

Between Shades of GrayIf you’re new to the genre and, like I was, not sure where to start, I have some recommendations for entrance points to historical fiction based on other categories you might already enjoy (these are based on my own reading, so it’s not an exhaustive list! If anyone has more ideas, please share them below):

If you like YA: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

If you like sci-fi/fantasy: The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson

If you like mythology: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline MillerThe Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

If you like contemporary: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meisner, Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown, The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

If you like literary: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

If you like gothic: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore, The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall

If you like family/generational sagas: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Red at the Bone by Jacqueline WoodsonPachinko

You may disagree with my placement of some of the books I’ve mentioned above, and you may call something historical fiction that I wouldn’t. All’s fair! Genres are slippery, and their main purpose (other than helping publishers market books) is simply to guide readers toward similar books they might also enjoy. Hopefully showcasing some of the many facets of the genre will help anyone who’s not sure where to go next find something that appeals!

 

Historical Fiction on my TBR:

The Mirror & The Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3)Within the year I expect to read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (and the rest of this trilogy), John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, Alma Katsu’s The Deep, and more. I also have books like Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, and Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth more generally on my TBR.

Other popular choices you may have heard of or might be interested in that are not currently on my TBR (feel free to convince me!) are: Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls, Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl.

 

Why Read Historical Fiction?

This is a genre that entertains and teaches. Historical fiction is full of high emotions and drama, and yet it also lets readers explore actual moments in time and happenings that we have never experienced firsthand- and most likely won’t. It’s a great way to learn about real experiences beyond our own, and to get a better understanding of why the world today is the way that it is. It can also encourage us to use our imaginations to fill in the blanks that the history books have left open.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for historical fiction, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

27 thoughts on “Spotlight on: Historical Fiction”

  1. Great post, Emily! I love historical fiction but I haven’t really read a lot in the genre—I’m basing it on the few books I’ve read so far. Now TBR has just exploded with your recommendations! 😆

    The books on your TBR are on mine too, and I hope to get to them after the Women’s Prize. I’ve been especially keen to read Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies and Towles’s other work, Rules of Civility, which I have copies of. (On a side note, after going through the longlist, would you like to do a buddy read of THIF? I’ve been meaning to get to it for ages but would appreciate the extra motivation :))

    I enjoyed Gilbert’s City of Girls, but in my opinion, her previous work of historical fiction, The Signature of All Things, was far superior. I felt like CoG was a fun romp, but its themes were explored in a way that was already familiar to me. On the other hand, TSoAT was truly mind-expanding – it tackled women in science, world history, colonialism, and industrialization at the turn of history. It had some problems with characterization but overall it was a novel with such a broad scope that I really enjoyed it anyway.

    Anyway, I’m just echoing my love for this genre and am delighted by your post. Hope you get to find more historical fiction to your tastes. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! I hope you enjoy any recommendations you found through my post! 🙂

      I’d love to do a buddy read for THIF. I’ve also been meaning to read it for ages and even had it on my March TBR as added encouragement, but it still didn’t happen… a buddy read would be just the thing to help me finally pick it up! I’m thinking I might not finish The Mirror and the Light from the longlist until late April or early May, but anytime after that I should be able to work a buddy read into my schedule. (No hurry if you want more time!) You can let me know what works for you or we can wait to line it up until we’re finished with the longlist, whatever works. I’ll look forward to it!

      Thanks for the info about The Signature of All Things- I knew City of Girls wasn’t Gilbert’s debut but I hadn’t really heard anything about her previous work. It does sound like TSoAT would be much more my style; “fun romp” is generally just not what I’m looking for with historical fiction. I will add TSoAT to my TBR instead!

      I hope you’ll also have good luck going forward with historical fiction! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yay! And sure, no problem, we can wait until we finish the longlisted titles. Wouldn’t want to put too much pressure on my TBR either. We can talk about it again early or mid-May, depending on our progress and schedules. 😄

        I’m glad TSoAT appeals to you. CoG was competent but it was set in the 1940s New York theatre scene, when the protagonist was all wide-eyed and naive, so you can imagine how the intention of the narrative is to leave us in breathless wonder (especially the first half). It really was fascinating, but it also wasn’t what I expected after TSoAT. (Maybe Gilbert also wanted to vary her writing?) I can definitely see it as a movie, though.

        You too, hope you’ll have luck with historical fiction!

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      2. That sounds good!

        The more I hear about CoG the less it sounds like my cup of tea- naive narrators and breathless wonder just do not draw me in at this point in my reading life, though I’ve seen so many positive reviews that I’m sure it’s a well-written book. I definitely prefer something surprising that makes me think, which it sounds like TSoAT would do! Maybe if that one goes well for me I’d be more open to trying more of Gilbert’s work, but it does sound like TSoAT is the better starting place for me right now. Thanks for bringing it to my attention! 🙂

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      3. Ah, I feel a little bad for ruining CoG for you. The narrator is actually in her nineties narrating her youth, but the framing didn’t quite work for me, and the effect was still breathless wonder. I’d say it’s the sort of thing you read in between more serious reads, and it’s well-written for a ‘light’ read. 🙂 Hope you enjoy TSoAT!

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      4. Oh no, you definitely didn’t ruin it, I had already seen plenty of reviews that gave me the impression I wouldn’t like CoG! And even so, it’s not that I’m assuming it’s a bad book, just not the right fit with my current reading taste. Maybe someday I’ll change my mind! 🙂

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  2. Thank you for including books set in the very recent past in the category of historical fiction! Sorry, quite a random comment, but I get highly irritated when people don’t treat these novels as ‘historical’ (though I guess there is some debate to be had when they’re only set a couple of years back and are obviously not concerned with writing about a world that is in any way different from our own). On that note, I’m currently loving Ruth Gilligan’s The Butchers, which is set in 1996 during the BSE crisis in Ireland.

    I adored Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and ranked it as one of my top ten books of the decade, though I wouldn’t have thought of it primarily as ‘historical fiction’ (but I desperately need to re-read it).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, it bothers me as well when recent past books aren’t included in historical fiction! It is definitely a little different than having to put in the research to write about something that happened centuries ago, but I think the intent is generally still the same. I’m glad you’re enjoying The Butchers, I’d love to read more about Ireland and historical fiction would be a good, educational place for me to start.

      I’m so glad you loved A Tale for the Time Being, I really need to read that one! Top Ten of the Decade is high praise indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think people can trip up quite easily when writing about the recent past, though, because they assume they know it because they lived through it (though it’s definitely a different kind of headache from writing about e.g. the sixteenth century!) The Butchers gives a really clever snapshot of this particular point in Irish history.

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      2. That is true! Even with recent past events I suppose I have the expectation that the author will have put in some research in order to turn out quality historical fiction.

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    1. Thank you! 🙂 I’m so glad to find someone else who’s enjoyed Church of Marvels, it is an excellent book, and one I rarely hear mentioned as well.

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  3. Can you clarify one of your points? For a book to be historical fiction, do you feel that it needs to be written after the time period and not during? If so, I agree. Otherwise, I feel like a book written about a time period during that time period is simply “contemporary” fiction (well, contemporaries of a time period, if that makes sense). A book like Luminarium by Alex Shakar, which is set during 9/11, came ten years after 9/11, so I would consider it historical fiction. I enjoyed Roots by Alex Haley. True Grit by Charles Portis is filed under Western, typically, but it was written in the 1960s and utilizes characters that were engaged in true events during the Civil War. My Cousin Rachel might be historical fiction. It was published in 1951 and set in the mid-1800s. I think you’re right about one point: a number of books I’m reading that I dub classics could logically also be historical fiction. It’s something to think about!

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    1. Yes, that is what I meant! I had a surprisingly hard time articulating that for some reason, but I definitely consider recent past as historical fiction, as long as it was written after the time or event in question.
      I would also agree that a book categorized as Western (or any other genre) can also be historical fiction if the setting is earlier than the year of publication, even if the setting isn’t exactly the main focus. Wars are definitely a major feature in historical fiction.
      And yes, I forgot about My Cousin Rachel but that certainly counts! I was actually thinking about Rebecca, but it seems that one takes place around the time of its publication and I forgot that I had read another du Maurier, oops! I had to look up quite a few classics that stand out to me at least partially for their time period because I tend to think of most of them as historical even though they don’t all fit the historical fiction bill. There are actually quite a few that do though, it seems it’s been a popular genre for a long time!

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      1. Typically, when someone says they want to recommend a historical fiction book to me, I’m straight to “hard pass.” However, I think it’s because there was this strange increase in WWII fiction and Henry the VIII type stuff for a while, and those are two time periods I’m just not interested in. Weirdly, when I read Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in the Anne of Green Gables series, I found I was quite interested in reading about how the family support the troops in WWI and how it affected their town.

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      2. I feel similarly! I’ve fielded a lot of WWII and Henry VIII books from readers whose tastes just don’t quite match mine as well. But there are definitely more historical fiction books out there, and sometimes even the subjects I don’t think I’m interested in can draw me in if I stumble across them in some other context. I have never read Anne of Green Gables (I’m not sure whether I should still attempt it or if missing it in my childhood was an opportunity lost) but I am definitely more interested in WWI and how communities are effected by wars and traumatic events in general, than in rehashing the holocaust yet again. Last year I enjoyed A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore, a gothic tale about a girl left behind in England as her family goes to fight in the war (WWI) and she is left to keep up the family house on her own, which feels like more of a curse than a blessing. It’s really dark (definitely no Anne of Green Gables!) but it’s a time period I like reading about and gave a perspective I hadn’t seen before, which I always appreciate. I’m glad you found some historical fiction to enjoy as well, and I hope you’ll have other pleasant experiences with it in the future! 🙂

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      3. I actually struggled to read Anne of Green Gables when I was young, but my great-grandma had gifted me a box set of the whole series. I read all eight novels a few summers ago and had a blast. Though the writing can be more positive than is realistic at times, I don’t think the novels feel particularly childish. However, I did find all the even-numbered books to be less inspired. Later, I read that those books tended to be the ones L.M. Montgomery went back and wrote later to make more money, as her husband wasn’t earning anything and readers demanded more Anne.

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      4. Ooh, that’s interesting! Perhaps I will still give the books a try in that case. And I’ll keep that in mind in case I’m getting stuck on the even-numbered books; it is too bad that expanding the series later might have affected it negatively, but good for Montgomery for supporting her family with her art!

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  4. Fantastic post, Emily! It is a very interesting discussion – I am relatively new to historical fiction, but after reading The Miniaturist in October 2018 it has become one of my favourite genres and I feel very grateful for that. 🙂

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    1. Thanks so much! I have yet to read The Miniaturist but it is on my list- I’m glad that you enjoyed it! I hope you’ll find plenty more titles to love as well in historical fiction. 🙂

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  5. Great post! People often ask me what kind of books I like to read and I always struggle with the answer. Literary fiction sounds kind of snobby and I don’t read much from genres like mysteries or fantasy. But when I started to think about my favourite books I realized a lot of them could be classified as historical fiction. And the books I loved as a kid were almost all historical fiction too. My husband and I just finished reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books at bedtime with our girls and it was really fun to revisit them as an adult. I’m actually working on a post about it.

    As for some of my historical fiction favourites: In the Skin of a Lion, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Half Blood Blues, Life After Life, and The Things They Carried are a few.

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    1. Historical fiction really has so much to offer! I’m glad to hear it’s one of your favorite genres. 🙂 Reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books to your children sounds absolutely lovely, they were a happy and memorable piece of my young reading life and I hope will continue to reach young readers for many years to come. I’ve been thinking about revisiting the series as well, to see if it holds up for me. I have seen other recent readers say that the language could stand some edits, especially as Native Americans are addressed, but I think I would still enjoy the characters and setting, and have a nice nostalgic time of it. I’ll look forward to your post, the Little House series definitely holds a special place in my heart.

      Thanks for sharing some favorites! Most of those titles are currently waiting on my TBR- One Hundred Years of Solitude and Life After Life are actually sitting on my shelf. (Perhaps while the library is closed I’ll finally pick them up!) And I loved The Things They Carried when I had to read it for school! It’s been probably ten years now, but I was so impressed at the time and definitely want to reread it at some point.

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      1. I have great memories too of my dad reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books aloud to me so it was really special to share it with my kids. There’s definitely some problematic parts and we sort of edited around that as we read. If they read the books on their own one day then it will require a more detailed conversation.

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  6. I love historical fiction! The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Wolf Hall, and A Tale for the Time Being are fabulous reads. I think you’ll enjoy them a lot. I’ve read Life After Life but I can’t remember the story at all. I have A Gentleman in Moscow sitting on my TBR – I will wait to read your review. I’ve also read The Other Boleyn Girl. It’s a tad melodramatic for my taste, however, it’s a quick, light read. I’d recommend you to take a look at NYRB Classics and Persephone catalogs. Two of my favorites from the two publishers: The Judges of the Secret Court by David Stacton, and Operation Heartbreak by Duff Cooper.

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    1. I’m glad to find another historical fiction fan! 🙂 I’ll be reading Wolf Hall and The Heart’s Invisible Furies within the next month or two so am thrilled to hear more support for them. Curious that you don’t recall Life After Life, it seems to be a book that many readers have strong opinions about! And melodramatic is not to my taste either, so I will take your word for it and continue to avoid The Other Boleyn Girl.

      Thank you also for the recommendations! I have been meaning to take a good look through the NYRB lists for a while so I appreciate the nudge. 🙂 But I haven’t given much thought to the Persephone books, so I’ll have to check those out as well! Neither of the titles you’ve mentioned were on my radar, but I’ve just looked them up and they both appeal. I’ll see if I can get my hands on them!

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