Book Corner: Historical Fiction About Strong Women

Women make up approximately half of the world's population. Yet, if you attended grades K-12 in the United States prior to the 1970s, you wouldn’t have learned much about the contributions of women to history, science, and culture because they weren’t often included in textbooks. Women such as Hatshepsut, a powerful ancient Egyptian pharaoh who expanded Egyptian influence through widespread trading and major building projects. Or Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were harvested against her will, but which have been reproduced and used for over 70 years in research for cancer, immunology, and even COVID-19 vaccines. 

In the late 1970s, Women’s History Week was created, later expanding into Women’s History Month throughout March, as a way to highlight the many accomplishments of modern women and those who came before us. These historical fiction picks shine a spotlight on stories of real women from around the world and from different time periods.

Sisters in Arms, opens a new window by Kaia Alderson
Based on the true story of the 6888th Postal Battalion (aka the Six Triple Eight), Alderson’s novel depicts the experiences of the only all-Black female U.S. battalion to be deployed overseas during World War II. Officers Grace Steele and Eliza Jones of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) are faced with segregation and bureaucracy as they strive to form their battalion and do their parts for their country. With everyone around them hoping for their failure, the women defy the odds and finally lead their troops to England and then to France to join the fight.

Enchantress of Numbers, opens a new window by Jennifer Chiaverini
Often considered the first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace was raised by a mother who cultivated an education in mathematics and science, eschewing anything involving imagination or poetry. Ada’s father was the talented but scandal-ridden Romantic poet Lord Byron, from whom Ada’s mother was estranged. When Ada comes out in London society, she is swept up into the intellectual and social circles she has dreamed of, leading to a friendship with the brilliant Charles Babbage. In learning of Babbage’s invented “calculating machines,” Ada immediately sees how his creations could shape the world and vows to help Babbage bring them to life. In the meantime, Ada defies societal expectations by avidly continuing her mathematics studies, falling in love, and discovering the truth behind her parents’ estranged relationship.

Independence, opens a new window by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
In a rural village in Bengal, during the 1947 partition of British India, three sisters are caught up in the country’s drastic changes. Deepa, Jamini, and Priya have different hopes and dreams, but are all secure in their loving home, seemingly isolated from their nation’s turbulence. Then their father, a renowned doctor, is killed during a riot, and even their neighbors turn against them. Once the partition of India is official, the danger is even more real, as India is now for Hindus and Pakistan for Muslims. The three sisters find themselves separated from one another, and each must find their own way in this tumultuous new world.

The Exiles, opens a new window by Christina Baker Kline
In 1840s London, Evangeline and Hazel meet on the Medea, a repurposed slave ship headed toward Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony in what today is Tasmania. Though Australia has been home to Aboriginal people for over 50,000 years, the British colonists see it as uninhabited and consider the natives a nuisance. By the time the Medea arrives, many of the Aborigines have been forcibly relocated, their land stolen by white colonists. Mathinna, the orphaned daughter of the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe, has been adopted by the new governor of Van Diemen’s Land. The story of Australia is told through the experiences of these three young women, highlighting both brutality and opportunity. 

Sister Mother Warrior, opens a new window by Vanessa Riley
Riley’s richly detailed historical novel, based on the true stories of two phenomenal women during the Haitian Revolution, is a must-read. Gran Toya is a West African warrior and one of the Mino, called “Dahomeyan Amazons” by the Europeans. Betrayed and sold into slavery in the French colony of Saint Domingue, now known as Haiti, Toya became a mother figure to the enslaved, including the young revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Marie-Claire Bonheur, the granddaughter of a wealthy white man and the woman he enslaved, benefits from the protection of her grandfather’s position, while secretly falling in love with Jean-Jacques and having several children with him. When war erupts in Saint Domingue, Toya and Marie-Claire finally meet, and the three play an instrumental role in the battle to win independence for Haiti and its people. 

From March 1-31, visit Central Rappahannock Regional Library to view “Picturing Women Inventors,”, opens a new window a Smithsonian poster exhibition exploring the inventions of 19 highly accomplished American women. Visit and search the keywords “women inventors” for details.

Tracy McPeck is the adult services coordinator at Central Rappahannock Regional Library. This column first appeared in the Free Lance-Star newspaper.