ATTN: History Buffs!
by Chelsea Bennett, Reference Department
You probably already know about the huge quantity of great, nonfiction history books at the library. But when you get to wanting something a little different that still scratches that historical itch, where do you turn? I’d like to suggest that Historical Fiction is the genre for you. Whether you’re a voracious reader of historical accounts, or a fiction lover who prefers facts taken with artistic license, this long-established genre is broad enough to hold something for everyone.
Historical Fiction has a few debated definitions, but it is not a work written around the time of the book’s events. For example, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, though now over 200 years old, is not “Historical Fiction,” as it takes place around the time Austen wrote it. (Some critics disagree on that anti-definition.) Wikipedia does a great job of defining the genre in this article, and from it I’ve compiled a working definition for us:
“An essential element of historical fiction is that it is set in the past and pays attention to the manners, social conditions[,] and other details of the period depicted,” and is “written at least fifty years after the events described,” with “the author … writing from research rather than personal experience.”
Why read Historical Fiction? Why mess with facts? (Assuming the facts as we know them were recorded accurately and without bias in the first place.) Simply put, a good work of fiction can illuminate real-life truths. Fiction allows the freedom to process real issues in an abstract way, while maintaining distance from real, multi-faceted, potentially overwhelming events. A work of Historical Fiction can explore the thoughts and emotions of larger-than-life heroes and villains – those who have become so lauded or reviled, they no longer seem human – , and obscure commoners – forgotten by history, but transformed into composite characters who demonstrate the state of the world in the time they lived. For some readers, this is the best way to make an emotional connection to the past and gain fresh insight.
Let’s look at some great examples of historical novels you can find at the Williamson County Public Library. Because I love classics, I’ll list some classic examples first; then we’ll move on to more modern selections.
Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859) deals with characters and events in England and France around the time of the French Revolution of 1775. Dickens often included members from all strata of society, but he did not necessarily sketch them in black and white. Wealth did not always equal virtue; poverty did not always equal ignorance; and the powerless did not always stay that way. A Tale of Two Cities features sympathetic characters, diabolical villains, and some of English literature’s most well-known passages. The description of the storming of the Bastille left me breathless with its intensity. In addition to the book, you can find READS eBooks and audiobooks, children’s adaptations, and DVD versions.
Other classic, historical works available in a wide variety of adaptations and formats are Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (set around Scotland’s 1715 Jacobite uprising), James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (taking place during the 1757 French and Indian War), and Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers (though we don’t carry the chocolate adaptation of that one at our library – sorry!).
The Middle Ages
A popular setting for Historical Fiction is medieval Europe, which covers the 5th to 15th centuries AD. Series abound, which means plenty of reading material in your new favorite genre! Here are some popular medieval historical series to check out. Series titles are in bold. The first novel in the series follows in italics. While not every book in a series may be available at this library, you can always request books through the Inter-Library Loan program!
- Paul C. Doherty, Hugh Corbett, Satan in St Mary’s. Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan, The Nightingale Gallery (under pen name Paul Harding). Doherty is a highly regarded historian, educator, and writer. He uses various pen names. He has also written about ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, first century Rome, and more.
- Ken Follett, Kingsbridge, The Pillars of the Earth.
- Margaret Frazer, Dame Frevisse series, The Novice’s Tale.
- Philippa Gregory, The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels, The Other Boleyn Girl (first published) or The Lady of the Rivers (first chronologically). Gregory’s popular novels have inspired controversy in historical circles.
- Michael Jecks, Knights Templar Mysteries, The Last Templar. The Medieval Murders series, The Tainted Relic.
- Sharon Kay Penman, Welsh Princes, Here Be Dragons. Plantagenet, When Christ and His Saints Slept. When researching for a book, Penman keeps in mind the saying, “History is written by the victors.” She scours new and alternate sources and uses deductive reasoning to come up with versions of events you may not have heard before, but may yet approach the truth.
Selections from Other Periods
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun — Nigeria’s struggle for independence in the late 1960s.
- Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord — The life of King David from the prophet Nathan’s point of view.
- Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See — Occupied France during WWII.
- Emma Donoghue, The Wonder — Mid-1800s Ireland, shortly after the official “end” of the famine.
- Robert Graves, I, Claudius — A pseudo-autobiography of misunderstood Roman emperor Claudius.
- David Liss, The Whiskey Rebels — Post-revolution America.
- Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove — 1870s Texas: the Wild West.
- Toni Morrison, Beloved — An escaped slave’s memories and experiences after the Civil War.
- Julie Otsuka, When the Emperor Was Divine — A Japanese-American family is held in an internment camp during WWII.
- Shyam Selvadurai, Cinnamon Gardens — 1920s Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
- Sherri L. Smith, Flygirl — A light-skinned African-American woman has to make choices about her identity as she tries to become a pilot in WWII-era America.
- Markus Zusak, The Book Thief — Germany during WWII.
I hope I’ve piqued your interest, or given you some new authors to check out. Is your favorite book missing from this list? Leave a comment below!