Historical fiction is my all time favorite genre, from the meticulous research, precision like detail, and beautiful imagery…what’s not to love? In my years of reading though I’ve encountered a few works that stand head and shoulders above the rest as being exceptionally examples of all the merits I mentioned above. In this post I’ll count down the top ten books that exemplify the period piece I would like to someday write.
1.Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell- 1980’s Omaha, Nebraska
The thing about Eleanor & Park that makes it so unique in contrast to the rest of the books on my list is that the story does not revolve around a pivotal historical moment. Though it has a very distinct era to it that would never be mistaken, the plot does not revolve around the major issues of the 1980’s such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, America’s surging poverty, or any other topic that graced the news throughout the decade. Instead, it’s about the pop culture that made America a movie, music, and television hub. That might not seem like a legitimate enough reason to put it on a top historical settings list, but hear me out. Rainbow Rowell, in a way only a person who lived through a time can do, deftly incorporates the most influential media of the time into her story by use of narrative and dialogue. This in turn creates a palpable atmosphere of the generation that sets it apart from a contemporary set in 2016. For sure a book for any reader who spent their adolescence buying the latest edition of X-Men.
2.Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys- 1920’s New Orleans, Louisiana
Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys takes on a much different tone than the author’s award winning debut Between Shades of Gray, but I actually ended up loving it even more as a story and historical piece. The main reason for this (besides my great admiration for protagonist Josie) was the distinct imagery Sepetys uses to paint a vivid picture of New Orleans Roaring 20’s underworld. I already had a Gatsby-esque image in my head of raucous parties, gorgeous flappers, and a devil-may-care tone- not only did the author build on this but she also told a much less glamorized tale of the rampant drug trade and high murder rates of the time. It was an insight I appreciated having and enjoyed learning about, considering Sepetys herself was clearly devoted to knowing the era like the back of her hand. Though their are many readers who could appreciate Josie’s saga (as it is on the higher level of the young adult spectrum), it would be most appreciated by historical fiction buffs looking to broaden their horizons outside of war stories.
3.The Luxe by Anna Godbersen and These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly- 1890’s New York City
Not going to lie, I don’t actually like the stories contained in the pages of The Luxe by Anna Godbersen or These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly (if you’ve ever wondered though what The Hills would be like set two centuries earlier, it might be worth checking out). However, both got me incredibly fascinated with the aristocratic life of a high century woman at the turn of the century and created numerous ideas for stories I’d like to write someday- so hats off I guess. The former is all about the scheming and gossip that went on behind the scenes whilst arranging betrothals and plotting bloodline lineages as main character Elizabeth schemes her own death so she move out west and marry a stable boy. So basically Downton Abbey, without the intelligence. the latter focuses on a lot of the same aspects as the former, but with much more of an interest on women’s rights as main character Josie attempts to break into journalism. Though I personally didn’t enjoy either, they’re still entertaining and a good place for someone intimidated by hardcore historical fiction.
.Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys- 1940’s Baltic Region
The award winning debut by Ruta Sepetys I elluded to earlier, Out of the Easy is one of the finest pieces of fiction on this list. Not only is the language stellar, the characters heartbreakingly real, and the romance finely integrated, but it’s actual merits as a historical period piece are off the charts. I often pride myself on having a fairly vast knowledge of world history that I’ve accumulated over years of reading, but I’d be lying if I said I was aware of the vast extent of suffering Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Finns endured alongside the Holocaust at the hands of Josef Stalin. These people, guilt only of their nationality, were sent to labor camps in Siberia intended to milk every ounce of hard labor out of them before they died of a gamut of ailments related to malnutrition, disease, and impossible working conditions. Main character Lina though has opened my eyes to this tragedy, and I will continue to look for more books dedicated to educating on this horrendous moment in history.
5.Going Over by Beth Kephart- 1980’s East/West Berlin
Though I know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’re familiar with the storyline of Going Over by Beth Kephart (only because I’ve mentioned it in just about every top ten post ever), but let me reiterate one more time how deserving of your attention it is. In stark contrast to Eleanor & Park, this story is a much more harrowing tale of survival in the years leading up to the collapse of communism as two young lovers struggle to reunite in West Berlin. While that is the main conflict that Kephart paints in precision like detail, the premise also serves as a jumping off point to tell the story of several minority groups oppressed by the regime such as Turkish refugees and the Baltic people. This may seem like a mini history lesson crammed into 250 short pages, however know that it’s not only deeply fascinating to read about but also masterfully woven into the fabric of the dynamic setting and complex characters. This book is definitely a hidden gem for any reader looking to learn about an underwritten moment in history.
6.Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein- 1940’s Ravensbruck Women’s Concentration Camp
Rose Under Fire follows in the same vein as Code Name Verity, but tells a much softer story of the human spirit. Elizabeth Wein shows life in a women’s concentration camp with the needed brutality and hope, truly taking the story to a whole new level. Little details are researched and woven into the story to make a rich and developed world that gripped me from page one. The characters are one example of this. Each woman has arrived at Ravensbruck under tragic circumstances but they never felt contrived or soap opera-y to me. They felt like real people I could be friends with and as I found out their personalities, their backstories, their hopes, and their greater role in the story it definitely tugged at my heartstrings. I sympathized with them so greatly and was so amazed by their courage and fight in a horrifying world, a classic for a new generation even in my opinion. Definitely a must read and a great continuation of Wein’s previous World War II work.
7.When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park- 1940’s Korea
The only piece of middle grade fiction to appear on this list, When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park (one of the award winning authors earliest works) is a story worthy of being read by adults and children alike. For those of you unfamiliar it follows the story of Sun-hee and Tae-yul, a young sister and brother living in Korea at a time of major political uprising. The two mourn their lost heritage as the Japanese invasion forces them to speak, learn, and practice the culture of a country they despise. When World War II breaks out their narrative splits, following the newly named Nobuo as he embarks on a Kamikaze suicide mission and “Keoko” as she guards a secret that could kill their family. Though the writing and storyline can sometimes be a bit dull, especially to young readers, it has such important information on a subject often glossed over by American classroom social studies book I think it’s a must for junior high students to read.
8.The Chosen by Chaim Potok- 1940’s/1950’s New York City
The Chosen is one of my favorite “classic” reads, a story whose message remains timeless even seventy odd years later. Set right after the armistice of World War II the book takes place in Williamsburg Brooklyn, a hub for both the Hasidic and Secular Jewish communities. While The Chosen has many fascinating themes and hidden subtexts, I devoted many an hour on Sparknotes trying to analyze them all, the reason why I feel it really fits into the category of diverse characters is the perspective it offers on religion and Jewish society at the time. While I knew there are two different branches of Judaism I never understood how they differed in their stances, as well as the history behind the controversy happening in Israel at the time. With Potok himself being a Jewish scholar both are tackled in great detail in a very interesting way for a history buff. Spanning over nearly a decade of unrest I came out of this book much more informed and thoroughly intrigued by both Reuben and Danny’s perspective.
9.The Help by Kathryn Stockett- 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi
If you look up book pusher in the urban dictionary (that’s right, readers have street cred) you’d see a picture of me and all the people I’ve convinced, or peer pressured, into reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Not only is it my all time favorite book AND movie, but it fits the question of my favorite historical fictions books so perfectly that I had to include it yet again. Though I’m sure you are all very familiar with the storyline, let me just say that its greatest strength lies in its deft representation of the time period. We not only get the perspective of two black women born into poverty, but that of a well-educated white woman as well. This creates an even greater representation of the human experience, as readers not only experience the injustices faced by Minny and Aibileen, but Skeeter as well being a woman with unconventional aspirations. For people intimidated by the size of the book, though they should know it reads very quickly, I give the movie two thumbs up as anything with Viola Davis and Emma Stone can hardly be anything less than stellar.
10.Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See- 1820’s China
Outside of The Help and The Chosen, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is likely the only book on here known by readers outside of the young adult hub. For good reason too, as this story is positively mesmerizing! It tells the story of a friendship between two young girls in rural China-a time when women were given few rights- as they become a laotong pair (like lifelong friends) and endure the painful practice of foot binding together. From there it ventures to tell of their companionship lasting forty years, tested by the Taiping Rebellion and the social castes of the era, as the two struggle to stay connected in a tradition ingrained society. I was skeptical to read this is as the movie is horrendous, but know that not only is it terribly produced but the actual storyline bears little resemblance. An excellent portrait of life in poverty ridden China during a time of political and cultural upheaval, and one I think people dissatisfied by the inaccuracies of the Japanese inspired Memoirs of a Geisha should read.
Have you read any of these stellar works of historical fiction? Or is there another book you’d recommend I check out? Let me know in the comments!
-Keep Calm and Read On