Have you found your reading habits changed during the pandemic? Early on, I just couldn’t read much at all. Lately I’ve found myself enjoying historical fiction--even though it’s not usually my first pick from the bookshelf. Visits to other times and places have offered me respite from our challenging here and now. Here are a few that I’ve especially enjoyed:
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
In the Gold Rush era American West, newly orphaned sisters Lucy age 12, and Sam age 11 set out on a quest to pursue safety, freedom and a proper burial for their father according to Chinese tradition. Sam reimagines life as a boy and an outlaw, while Lucy longs for school, comfort and security. All the while they are haunted by the ghosts of family, buffalo and tigers while fortunes and misfortunes are built on gold, thievery and whiteness. A modern western, family epic and immigrant story rolled into one, with an immersive and engrossing story, vivid language and unforgettable characters.
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
In a remote arctic Norwegian village in the 17th century, a freak storm drowns all of the men while they’re out fishing. The women survivors demonstrate their strength, ingenuity and resilience in the ways they carry on and fend for themselves. News of their independent feminine existence draws sadistic Scottish witch hunter Absalom Cornet to their village to root out heretics. Meanwhile village native Maren and Ursa, the witch hunter’s wife, form a bond and start falling for each other. I loved this book for the detailed setting, powerful narrative and deep sense of longing. Quite bleak though—so if you’re avoiding dark stories right now this would be one to skip.
The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
In 1930s colonial Malaysia, 11-year-old Ren has been tasked with a mission to find his late employer’s dismembered finger, so that he may reunite it with the corpse and allow the dead’s soul to rest. Meanwhile, Ji Lin finds a mysterious digit while she works a second job at a dance hall, prompting her to pursue several mysteries with the help of her handsome stepbrother Shin. A compelling mix of magical realism with a vivid setting that doesn’t overlook issues of colonialism, gender, class and race.
More recent historical fiction to try:
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge
In 1860s Brooklyn, Libertie is the freeborn daughter of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first Black female doctor in New York State. Although her mother pressures her to follow in her footsteps, Libertie must forge her own path in life, leading her far from home. “Greenidge succeeds beautifully at presenting the complexities of an intense mother-daughter bond, with its blend of unrealistic expectations, disappointments, and betrayals... Greenidge creates a richly layered tapestry of Black communal life, notably Black female life, and the inevitable contradictions and compromises of ‘freedom.’” (Booklist)
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The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.
On an antebellum plantation in Mississippi, Isaiah and Samuel are enslaved men who find sustenance in their love for one another. The peace they share is threatened by the ambitions of an enslaved preacher who turns their world against them. “An often lyrical and rebellious love story embedded within a tender call-out to Black readers, reaching across time and form to shake something old, mighty in the blood… Jones proves himself an amazing lyricist, pulling poetry out of every image and shift of light.” (Danez Smith, The New York Times)
The Mermaid from Jeju by Sumi Hahn
Goh Junja is becoming a successful haenyeo, or deep freediver, on Korea's Jeju Island when the sudden death of her mother upends her family’s life, just on the eve of the departure of Japanese colonizing forces and the encroachment of the U.S. military. “Commingling multigenerational family saga, legends, wrenching love story, ghostly hauntings, and tumultuous history, Hahn creates a transporting masterpiece.” (Booklist)
Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
England, 1580: The Black Death creeps across the land, an ever-present threat, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old and the young, alike. The end of days is near, but life always goes on. A young Latin tutor—penniless and bullied by a violent father—falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever. (Publisher description)
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
In September 1969, a fumbling, cranky old church deacon known as Sportcoat shuffles into the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn, pulls a .45 from his pocket, and in front of everybody shoots the project's drug dealer at point-blank range. The reasons for this desperate burst of violence and the consequences that spring from it lie at the heart of Deacon King Kong, James McBride's funny, moving novel and his first since his National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird. In Deacon King Kong, McBride brings to vivid life the people affected by the shooting: the victim, the African-American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the white neighbors, the local cops assigned to investigate, the members of the Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportcoat was deacon, the neighborhood's Italian mobsters, and Sportcoat himself. As the story deepens, it becomes clear that the lives of the characters--caught in the tumultuous swirl of 1960s New York--overlap in unexpected ways. When the truth does emerge, McBride shows us that not all secrets are meant to be hidden, that the best way to grow is to face change without fear, and that the seeds of love lie in hope and compassion. (Publisher description)
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
Texas, 1934. Millions are out of work and a drought has broken the Great Plains. Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as the crops are failing, the water is drying up, and dust threatens to bury them all. One of the darkest periods of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl era, has arrived with a vengeance. In this uncertain and dangerous time, Elsa Martinelli--like so many of her neighbors--must make an agonizing choice: fight for the land she loves or go west, to California, in search of a better life. (Publisher description)
Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
In the late 1930s, civil war gripped Spain. When General Franco and his Fascists succeed in overthrowing the government, hundreds of thousands are forced to flee in a treacherous journey over the mountains to the French border. Among them is Roser, a pregnant young widow, who finds her life irreversibly intertwined with that of Victor Dalmau, an army doctor and the brother of her deceased love. In order to survive, the two must unite in a marriage neither of them wants, and together are sponsored by poet Pablo Neruda to embark on the SS Winnipeg along with 2,200 other refugees in search of a new life. As unlikely partners, they embrace exile and emigrate to Chile as the rest of Europe erupts in World War. Starting over on a new continent, their trials are just beginning. Over the course of their lives, they will face test after test. But they will also find joy as they wait patiently for a day when they are exiles no more, and will find friends in the most unlikely of places. Through it all, it is that hope of being reunited with their home that keeps them going. And in the end, they will find that home might have been closer than they thought all along. (Publisher description)
The Great Unknown by Peg Kingman
What is your name? Where did you come from? And where are you going? In this immersive novel set in the 1840s Britain and France, these questions probe at the essence of what it means to be human. A wet nurse in a lively Scottish household goes by an assumed name but longs to know the identity of her father. A quarryman furtively extricates a remarkable fossil from an island on the Northumberland coast and promptly smuggles it abroad to Paris. A sensational bestselling book that shatters cherished notions about the universe and everything in it triggers widespread argument and speculation- but its author's name is a wellguarded secret. Another book, roundly ignored, neatly sets forth in an obscure appendix the principle that will become the centerpiece of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. All these threads- some historical, others fictional- converge and illuminate one another in unexpected ways in the climactic revelations of this brilliant story. (Publisher description)
Conjure Women by Afia Atakora
Conjure Women is a sweeping story that brings the world of the South before and after the Civil War vividly to life. Spanning eras and generations, it tells of the lives of three unforgettable women: Miss May Belle, a wise healing woman; her precocious and observant daughter Rue, who is reluctant to follow in her mother's footsteps as a midwife; and their master's daughter Varina. The secrets and bonds among these women and their community come to a head at the beginning of a war and at the birth of an accursed child, who sets the townspeople alight with fear and a spreading superstition that threatens their newly won, tenuous freedom. (Publisher description)
The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
The history of the Trần family over four generations is set against the tumultuous background of Vietnam in the 20th century. Diệu Lan’s life of privilege as a young person fades as she persists through tragedy after tragedy, and she ultimately shares her story with her granddaughter Hương when she becomes her sole caregiver. “Widely published in Vietnamese, poet, nonfiction writer, and translator Nguyễn’s first novel in English balances the unrelenting devastation of war with redemptive moments of surprising humanity.” (Booklist)
The Color of Air by Gail Tsukiyama
Daniel Abe, a young doctor in Chicago, is finally coming back to Hawai'i. He has his own reason for returning to his childhood home, but it is not to revisit the past, unlike his Uncle Koji. Koji lives with the memories of Daniel's mother, Mariko, the love of his life, and the scars of a life hard-lived. He can't wait to see Daniel, who he's always thought of as a son, but he knows the time has come to tell him the truth about his mother, and his father. But Daniel's arrival coincides with the awakening of the Mauna Loa volcano, and its dangerous path toward their village stirs both new and long ago passions in their community. (Publisher description)
Aria by Nazanine Hozar
Aria is abandoned as an infant, rescued by an army truck driver and raised by three different mothers in this novel that tells both the story of a young life and a country in tumult. “Making an impressive fiction debut, Hozar creates a vibrant, unsettling portrait of her native Iran from the 1950s to 1981, a period beset by poverty and oppression, chaos and revolution… An engrossing tale.” (Kirkus Reviews)
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