The benefits of reading historical fiction are plentiful. Stories from history are infinite and can be drawn from any number of time periods, locations around the world, and points of view. Immersing yourself in a richly detailed historical novel can introduce you to lesser-known, but still important, tales from the past that broaden your perspective beyond what you learned in school. Reading historical fiction builds empathy for individuals whose experiences are vastly different from your own. A good historical novel not only entertains; it enriches you as a person and as a reader.
Here are some engaging historical novels to try:
Dead Dead Girls, opens a new window by Nekesa Afia
Afia debuts a fast-paced historical mystery series set during the Harlem Renaissance. Following a terrifying kidnapping when she was in her teens, Louise Lloyd is doing what she can to maintain a normal life, filling her days working at Maggie’s Cafe and nights at the Zodiac, a popular Harlem speakeasy. Then a girl turns up dead in front of the cafe, and Louise has to confront the fact that two other local Black girls have been murdered in the past few weeks. When Louise is arrested after an encounter with the police, she’s given a choice: help solve the case or go to jail. Louise soon finds herself contending with a murderer and possibly facing a similar fate.
The Bohemians, opens a new window by Jasmin Darznik
Another 1920s-era novel, this time based in San Francisco, is a glittering portrayal of the wild years of famed photographer Dorothea Lange. Dorothea arrives in San Francisco and befriends Caroline Lee, who introduces her to Monkey Block, an artists’ colony and the bohemian heart of the city. Captivated by Lee and her friends, Dorothea becomes immersed in an exhilarating world of freedom, art, politics...and love with Maynard Dixon, a brilliant but tormented painter. Eventually, Caroline and Dorothea create a portrait studio that thrives until a betrayal breaks their friendship and irrevocably alters their lives.
The Sweetness of Water, opens a new window by Nathan Harris
Brothers Prentiss and Landry, freed by the Emancipation Proclamation during the last days of the Civil War, seek refuge on the homestead of George Walker and his wife, Isabelle. The couple, looking to assuage the grief of losing their only son to the war, hires the brothers to work on the farm and hopefully form a friendship. Landry and Prentiss intend to save money for the journey north and the chance to reunite with their mother, who was sold away when they were young. A forbidden romance between two Confederate soldiers runs parallel to the brothers’ story. The two soldiers, recently returned from the war, meet privately in the woods. When their secret is uncovered, unleashing drastic repercussions on the entire community, Isabelle emerges as an unlikely leader to help heal the land.
Yellow Wife, opens a new window by Sadeqa Johnson
This well-researched, intense antebellum novel by Johnson centers on Pheby Delores Brown, the biracial (then known as “high yellow”) child of a proud African mother and fathered by their white owner. Pheby’s mother dreams her daughter will become free and educated, a promise made by Pheby’s slave-owning father. But instead, 16-year-old Pheby becomes the target of the plantation owner’s jealous wife and is sent to an infamous jail where the enslaved are tortured. The ignominious jail owner makes Pheby his “yellow wife,” and Pheby lives in fear of his sadism, her dreams of freedom slipping away with the birth of each of her children.
The Stationery Shop, opens a new window by Marjan Kamali
A love story starting in Tehran, 1953, as the city’s citizens, new prime minister, and the Shah of Iran clash. In a small stationery store, 17-year-olds Roya and Bahman meet, and an intense love develops. Bahman, like Roya’s father, is a supporter of the new Prime Minister Mossadegh, but also participates in dangerous activism. His mother is determined to direct her son’s attentions away from Roya. Only with the help of Mr. Fakhri, who lets the young couple meet in privacy in his shop, is the romance able to continue. Then the couple is separated by the expectation they enter arranged marriages, as well as violence that erupts when the Prime Minister is overthrown. Sixty years later, in 2013, Roya is nearing the end of her life with her American husband, when she discovers her first love Bahman is in a nearby retirement home.
The Arctic Fury, opens a new window by Greer Macallister
A wild spin on the true story of Lady Jane Franklin’s unwavering attempts to find her husband’s lost expedition in the Arctic. In 1855, after four failed search attempts, Lady Franklin was desperate. She decided to hire an all-woman search expedition, led by Virginia Reeve; if the expedition fails, Lady Franklin will deny all knowledge. If it succeeds, great rewards are in store for the woman-led crew. One year later, Virginia stands trial for murder, and survivors of her expedition sit in the front row, willing to publicly support her--but there are only six survivors left.
If you’re interested in your own family’s history, you can now access Ancestry for Libraries, opens a new window with your Central Rappahannock Regional Library card.
Tracy McPeck is the adult services coordinator at Central Rappahannock Regional Library. This column first appeared in the Free Lance-Star newspaper.