I’ve decided to try my hand at short book reviews today. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately and I’ve decided to share with you some of my favourite historical fiction. History doesn’t have to be boring and if you loved reading To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace in high school, then this post is for you! Historical fiction has been my favourite genre since I read my first book about the holocaust (Number the Stars) and realized that the unbelievable events I was reading about could have actually happened. I love having the emotion, suspense, and character development that makes up a good novel, along with a setting that is based on actual events.
I’ve learned a lot of history through my travels and I’ve come to appreciate the importance of actually understanding history. After I traveled to Croatia, I realized I understood very little about the country and the impact that the not too distant past had had on its people. I discovered it’s important to do research before my travels so that I can better understand the significance of the places I’m visiting and ensure that I’m respectful of the people I meet. While I do some research through the internet, most of my historical knowledge does come from fiction. Without further ado, here are my top 10 favourite novels in the historical fiction genre:
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
The Book Thief has become an increasingly popular novel and was recently made into a movie, so chances are you’ve already heard of it. It’s one of my all time favourite books and easily tops my list of historical fiction (though this list is in no particular order). The Book Thief takes place in the early years of World War II; it is the story of a young German girl named Liesel Meminger who is sent to the sleepy town of Molching to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa Huberman. It’s a simple story about Liesel’s desire to learn to read and her attempt to understand the many changes happening around her as Germany enters into war. The story is actually told from the personified voice of ‘death’ and is written in some of the most haunting prose. It’s about the power of words to move and inspire and Zusak really captures the beauty of the human spirit.
Goodbye Sarajevo – Atka Reid and Hana Schofield
I discovered this book after my trip to Croatia when I was looking to learn more about Croatian history and the conflict that resulted with the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Goodbye Sarajavo is based on a true story and the narrative switches back and forth between two sisters, Atka and Hana. The story starts in Sarajevo at the beginning of the Bosnian War. Hana is sent off on a bus to Croatia to live as a refugee and Atka remains in Sarajevo to take care of the rest of her siblings and family. Like any other book about war, it is a story of hardships and the struggles of being separated from your family. However, what struck me most about this book is that it’s a story that has taken place within my lifetime. It’s easier to separate yourself from events that happened more than 60 years ago – it’s much harder to read about such a recent conflict, especially one that I knew embarrassingly little about.
The Help – Kathryn Stockwell
I’m sure you’ve heard of The Help or have seen the movie, which was actually a pretty good adaptation of the book; it’s the story of several young socialites and their relationships with their Negro maids. The story takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 at the height of the civil rights movement in America. The novel is split between three narrators – Abileen and Minny, black maids working for young white families in Jackson, and Skeeter Phalen, an aspiring writer focused more on her career then settling down and finding a husband. The three woman set out together to write a book exposing the relationships between white women and their Negro maids and end up challenging the dated ideas of race and class that exist in Jackson. There’s some speculation that Stockwell may not have been the best person to write this story (seeing as she’s white and two thirds of the book are written from the perspective of black maids), but I believe much of her story is based on her own relationship with her maid growing up and I don’t think anyone should ever be discouraged from telling their story. The Help is a good read and a good film.
Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Septys
Between Shades of Gray takes place during World War II, as do several of the books on my list, but it introduced me to a side of the war I knew little to nothing about. It’s the story of two young children and their mother who are forced out of their home in Lithuania by Soviet officers and made to work in labour camps in Russia. They travel from camp to camp, eventually ending up at the cold Arctic Circle in Siberia. It’s the story of the struggles of the Baltics (Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania) that were annexed by the Soviet Union. Many families were displaced from their homes, sent to work camps, and forced to adapt to a new language, culture, and life. As its name suggests, this book examines the idea of good vs. evil and the reality that there is no black and white, just varying shades of gray.
The Queen of Water – Laura Resau
I read this book just a few weeks ago and it was the first book I’d read about South America. Like ‘Goodbye Sarajevo’, The Queen of Water is based on a true story, the life of Maria Virgina Farinango. Much of Ecuador is broken into two groups, the Mestizos and the Indigenas. The Indigenas are the native people of Ecuador, sometimes referred to as Indians and the Mestizos are of Spanish heritage and traditionally occupy higher positions in society. Virgina is born into as Indigena family in rural Ecuador and as a young girl she is given to a Mestizo family to help around the house. Virgina is mistreated and abused by the family and struggles to discover who she really is and where her identity comes from. The Queen of Water is the story of how Virgina escapes a life of slavery, educates herself, and finally becomes proud of her Indigena roots.
These is my Words – Nancy Turner
I stumbled upon this book on Goodreads a few years ago and absolutely loved it! The story takes place in the south-western American territories during the late 1800’s and is told from the point of view of young Sarah Agnes Prine. As Sarah travels around the southwest with her poor family, she dreams only of improving her future through educating herself. She faces all kinds of hardships – from robbers and Indians, to the struggles of marriage and motherhood. The book spans a good portion of Sarah’s life and you can’t help but love her character. She can be very stubborn and headstrong, but she’s also intelligent, loving, and tough. Sarah has incredible strength of character and even though her story takes place in a completely different era, she’s someone most girls can relate to. It’s also quite a good love story 😉
Fall of Giants – Ken Follett
I just finished reading Fall of Giants, which is about the events surrounding the First World War. The novel spans from 1911 to the early 1920’s and highlights the lives of 5 different families from England, Wales, Germany, Russia, and America. In my opinion, this book covers more history than any other book on my list and it interestingly merges both real and fictional characters within the narrative. Fall of Giants covers the political events leading up to the war and the battles that ensued both on the battlefield and in the fight for woman’s rights and the uprising that lead to the Russian Revolution. This book is hugely political and covers a good deal of history. I could see it being a bit of an overwhelming and heavy read because it goes so in depth about war politics, but I enjoyed being able to look at history through the lens of each character and from the perspective of each nationality. It is a big novel, but it greatly improved my understanding of the events surrounding World War I and the Russian Revolution – I would greatly recommend it to European history buffs.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith
This is the oldest book on my list and was first published in 1943. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of young Francie Nolan and her family living in the slums of Williamsburg during the early 1900’s. Like Liesel, Sarah, and a lot of the other heroines of my list, Francie loves to read. Growing up in poverty, she dives into her books and her writing in order to distract herself from the financial and emotional suffering of her family. As they struggle to make ends meet, Francie focuses all of her energy into her education, dreaming of making a better life for herself. This is a pretty simple book about growing up and the hardships of life, but it is written so eloquently that Betty Smith somehow manages to take the ugliness of Francie’s life and turn it into something beautiful.
The Book of Negroes – Lawrence Hill
I read Book of Negroes earlier this year and it completely surprised me. It was very quick paced and had a great female protagonist. Aminata Diallo was abducted from her village in West Africa when she was just 11 years old and forced into a life of slavery. She’s forced to sail across the Atlantic to America and is sold to work on a plantation in South Carolina. Her journey is filled with hardship and she has no freedom or ownership over any part of her life. Over time, Aminata teaches herself to read and is slowly able to elevate her circumstances. She eventually finds some semblance of freedom in New York and later in Nova Scotia, but her life is still full of sorrow and loss. Book of Negroes is an eye-opening and emotionally challenging book to read, but I was inspired by the strength and perseverance of Aminata’s character.
The Guests of War Trilogy – Kit Pearson
I first read this series when I was 12 and I haven’t read it in a long time, but it’s still among some of my favourite historical fiction. It’s a series of three short books written for children, but like many children’s books, accessible to people of all ages. The Guests of War Trilogy is about a young girl, Norah, and her brother Gavin who leave behind their family in England during the Second World War and travel to Canada to live with a host family. England was heavily bombed during the war and many English children were actually sent to live with Canadians for the duration of the war. The first two books are written from Norah’s point of view as she struggles to adapt to a new life while always being overwhelmed with fear for the safety of her family in England. The final book is written from her younger brother Gavin’s perspective. Gavin has grown up in Canada and when the war finally ends, it becomes a difficult for him to return to a life and a family that he no longer remembers.
Upon reflecting on this list, I’ve realized that all of these books feature female protagonists, most of whom strive for knowledge and education above all else. It’s interesting for me to see this theme in my favourite novels, but it doesn’t really surprise me as it reflects many of my own ideals. Either way, I’m glad to see such strong female characters in literature. They have likely contributed to my own development as a woman, activist, and feminist. Happy reading everyone!