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
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.
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.
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 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, highlighting 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.
If 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
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:
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.
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