Into the Past

Cover to The Madman of Piney Woods

I sound like a broken record sometimes about the power of books, but I think one of the most magical things about reading is how it can sweep us up and transport us to other worlds and times and help us experience something without actually being there. Reading stories set in the past can help us understand that time, bringing the past alive to show us what it was like to live in a different time by putting us right in the middle of a story. As a reader, I like having some excitement in the stories to make them even more enjoyable. Here is a selection of books set in the past with page-turning drama, including mystery, murder, and adventure.

The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis

In early 1900s Canada, the neighboring communities of Buxton and Chatham share the legend of the “Madman of Piney Woods.” When Benji of Buxton, a descendant of American slaves, and Red of Chatham, a descendant of Irish immigrants, meet at a school event and strike up a friendship, they find they have much in common, including feeling the strange presence of the Madman of Piney Woods.

Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz

World War II is raging, and most of Europe has either been taken over by the Nazis or is fighting against them. That puts Michael O'Shaunessey, son of the Irish ambassador to Germany, in an uncomfortable position. Ireland is officially neutral, which is why Michael and his family are still in Germany, but secretly Michael and his family are spies, sending critical information to England via Ireland. Michael’s daily life undercover and pretending to be someone he is not is dangerous enough, but, when more details are needed about a special Nazi project, Michael has to decide how much he is willing to risk to defeat the Nazis.

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

In the interwar period of the 1930s, Black Dove and White Raven, two talented American pilots, team up to perform airshows across the country and break all kinds of rules along the way. The pilots are women in a male-dominated field; White Raven, Rhoda, is white, and Black Dove, Delia, is black. They are raising their children, Emilia and Teo, as best friends. When Delia is killed in a plane crash and Rhoda becomes responsible for raising both children on her own, she moves the family to Ethiopia, the home of Teo’s father, so Teo won’t suffer the prejudices of segregated America. As political tensions around the world increase, the family finds themselves trapped in Ethiopia when Italy invades, and they are drawn into the war.

The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters

At the turn of the 20th century, some women were challenging traditional roles by pushing for the vote, riding bicycles, wearing bloomers, and pursuing an education. These are all things Olivia Mead dreams about doing. Her father, however, is horrified to find his daughter becoming more and more "wild" and hires a hypnotist to influence his daughter's subconscious so she will follow convention and be an obedient woman. Instead, the hypnotist gives Olivia the ability to view people’s true natures reflected in ways only she can see.

One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

When thirteen-year-old sharpshooter Georgie Burkhardt is told her sister is dead, she refuses to accept it and sets out to find the truth about her sister’s disappearance. It’s the 1870s, and the dangers Georgie encounters, both natural and human-made, are real, as are the effects of her adventure on both herself and her family. Fortunately, Georgie is brave, spunky, and determined.

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

In 1890s New York, well-to-do young ladies are expected to behave in a way that reflects well on their families. Jo Montfort bristles against this pressure to conform and harbors a dream to become an investigative journalist like Nellie Bly. When Jo's beloved father dies in a tragic accident, she simply cannot believe it and is determined to find out what really happened. Jo uncovers suspicious clues and plots and gets herself into more and more danger. What she ultimately discovers about her family and herself will change her forever.

This column originally appeared in The Free Lance-Star newspaper.