Top 10 Historian-Approved Historical Fiction
To celebrate the start of the summer reading season, we’ve put together a list of some of our favorite historical fiction. Help us add to the list with your own recommendations, and let us know what you think about our selections!
- Blindspot by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore (2009)
What if historians wrote historical fiction? That’s what award-winning historians Jill Lepore and Jane Kamensky set out to do with their novel, Blindspot. Set in revolutionary-era Boston, Blindspot tells the stories of two people caught up in the tumult of the American Revolution. Looking to run away from his debtors, Stewart Jameson, a Scottish portrait painter, ends up in Boston. After advertising for an apprentice, he meets Fanny Easton, a fallen woman from one of Boston’s elite families, disguising as a boy. Together, Easton and Jameson set out to solve the murder of an abolitionist amidst the spread of Revolution throughout Boston’s streets.
- Burr by Gore Vidal (1973)
Most of us know Aaron Burr as the treasonous Founding Father, who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton. But with wicked wit and keen observation, acclaimed American novelist, Gore Vidal, imagines Aaron Burr in an early-republican era America. In the process, he offers a highly engaging and entertaining novel to accompany the popularity of the hit musical, Hamilton.
- The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron (1967)
William Styron’s depiction of Nat Turner’s famed 1831 slave revolt won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967. Critics hailed the book for telling the story of slavery in America, but the novel met substantial backlash. While many prominent African-Americans, including James Baldwin, praised Styron, ten other writers published a “corrective” to what they saw as Styron’s attempt to appropriate the story of Nat Turner and slavery. Since then, some African-American writers, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., understand the book in more favorable terms. But together, the novel and its response helped spur an explosion of interest in slave narratives. This fall, moviegoers can see another interpretation of Nat Turner with the release of Nate Parker’s critically-acclaimed film, Birth of a Nation.
- The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove (1992)
What happened if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War? In this 1992 novel, Harry Turtledove presents an alternative history of the conflict, where time-travelling, white supremacist South Africans furnish General Robert E. Lee with AK-47s. With the help of his South African allies, Lee defeats the Union army and the U.S. breaks into two nations. But with time, Lee becomes convinced of the need to dissolve slavery, a sentiment at odds with his South African allies.
- March by Geraldine Brooks (2005)
Many of us know Louisa May Alcott’s famous novel, Little Women (1868), which tells the story of the March girls, living in Civil War-era New England. But what about their father? Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel picks up on the famous family, but tells their story from the perspective of the girls’ absent father, March. An abolitionist and chaplain during the Civil War, March leaves his beloved family and engages in a conflict that tests his faith in the Union and himself.
- The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (2011)
The Sisters Brothers tells the story of two brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, as they travel from the Oregon territory to California to find and kill Hermann Kermit Warm. Warm has a “formula” that allows gold diggers to find gold easily, but unleashes unanticipated effects upon those who use it. In a novel that the L.A. Times summed up as, “if Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor,” The Sisters Brothers offers a satirical take on the Gold Rush-era and the American western.
- Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (1975)
Capturing the spirit of the “Ragtime” era, E.L. Doctorow’s most famous novel tells the story of an upper middle-class white family, living outside New York City at the turn of the 20th century. A “pastiche” of Americana, the novel charts multiple paths for the family, and reimagines famous figures such as Henry Ford, anarchist Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan and ordinary Americans like ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker Jr.
- Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon (1991)
Before you tune into the T.V. show, check out Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. The series starts with Claire Randall, a WWII-era nurse, unexpectedly traveling back in time to 18th century Scotland. Claire eventually ends up in 1760s North Carolina, where she anticipates the coming of the American Revolution. The series charts Claire’s efforts to navigate a history vastly more complicated than what she learned in the 20th century.
- When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka (2002)
After the December 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which interned over 110,000 Japanese-American men, women and children. Julie Otsuka’s prize-winning novel considers the internment from the perspective of an unnamed family. She follows a mother, daughter and son as they travel from their home in Berkeley to an “assembly center” in San Francisco, to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah, and the father’s internment in a New Mexico camp for “dangerous enemy aliens.”
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
Jeffrey Eugendies’ Pulitzer-prize winning novel reinvents the American epic and tells the story of the Greek-American Stephanides family from the perspective of Callipoe, a child “born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” Calliope tries to uncover a deeply-hidden family secret that has travelled with the family from Greece, through Prohibition-era Detroit, to the brutal race riots of 1967.