Ok guys, we’re getting to the end of the school year and I can’t tell you how much I want to go on a vacation! But the kids still have over a month of school left, so for now I’m curbing the vacation craving with some incredible historical fiction–books that take me somewhere and somewhen else. (Remember the Reading Rainbow theme song? I…can go anywhere! I totally drank that kool-aid growing up.) Today I’m sharing ten amazing historical novels with you, novels that will transport you to a different time and give you a window into another way of life. Get ready for good writing, great stories, and even a little romance.
A quick note before we get to the list: When people find out I have 5 kids they often ask me how in the world I find time to read. The answer is simply this: I make time. Reading makes me happy, so I figure out how to fit it in. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent at the park with a book in one hand, pushing two or even three kids on the swings with the other hand. Now that audiobooks are so readily available, it’s even easier to find time for books (I seem to spend half my life driving people around these days, and audiobooks are perfect for time in the car). If you’re looking for a way to listen to your favorite books, check out Audible, the premiere source for audiobooks, with over 250,000 audio programs. We signed up for Audible years ago before a long car trip and downloaded a couple books to listen to with the kids on the road. It was so much fun it quickly became a tradition to get a new audiobook anytime we take a road trip. You can get your first audiobook free with a 30-day free trial. Thank you to Audible for sponsoring this post.
10 incredible works of historical fiction
These is My Words by Nancy Turner; Arizona Territories, 1880s
I have recommended this book before on the blog, but I just help recommending it again, as it’s one of my absolute favorites. Based on the author’s own family history, this novel tells the story of Sarah Agnes Prine, whom we first see as a 17 year old traveling with her family through the Arizona Territories. Over the course of the book we see her fight to defend her family from Indians, struggle through the hardships of living on the frontier, teach herself to read, fall in love, and become an incredible, tenacious mother. The book is absolutely riveting, not to mention one of the best love stories I’ve ever read, so don’t pick it up unless you can clear your schedule. And yes, it’s going to make you cry, but it’s entirely worth it!
Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown; Massachusetts, late 1600s
Based on a true story, Flight of the Sparrow tells the tale of Mary Rowlandson, a Puritan woman who is captured by Indians in a violent raid on their small township. Her home is destroyed, her children lost, and her freedom sold to a powerful tribeswoman. In the midst of hardship, she realizes that even as a slave to the Indians she has more freedoms than she did in the rigid lifestyle she lived before. Will her husband ransom her back to the English? And will she ever fit in with them again if he does? This was an incredible story and window into such a different life than the one I live. Content note: the description of the brutality in the initial Indian attack was quite disturbing.
War Brides by Helen Bryan; English countryside, WWII
Alice, the daughter of the local vicar, is distraught when her fiancee shows up with an American bride, Evangeline. Elsie is a poor evacuee from London, Tannie is a Jewish girl who has fled the horrors of Europe, and Frances is a wild debutante who’s been sent to the country to stay out of trouble. As the war descends on England, the five women forge a friendship over rationing, the threat of Nazi invasion, and a traitor in their midst. I really expected this to be a fluffy romance, but it turned out to be a rich story with a wealth of historical detail.
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber; Prairies of S. Dakota, early 1900s
Rachel is a cook in the slaughterhouse district of Chicago, desperate for a different life. When her employer’s son offers her a deal–he’ll marry her if she’ll give him the land she’s entitled to claim on the prairie–she jumps at the chance, envisioning herself as an upper class landowner. But as one of the first African American couples in an area that suffers punishing drought, life is nothing like she expected, leading her to difficult choices. Honestly, this book hooked me on the first page, with a vivid image of Rachel and her husband sending their 6-year-old daughter down the well to collect water for the family. I loved that it was such a different view of life on the prairie from other books I’ve read.
The Midwife’s Revolt by Jodi Daynard; Boston, 1775
When Lizzie Boyleston’s husband is killed in one of the early battles of the Revolutionary War, Lizzie throws herself into her work as a midwife. But when she develops a friendship with Abigail Adams, she’s drawn into the revolutionary cause and is soon willing to risk her life to discover who has been murdering fellow patriots in her small community. She begins to suspect even her closest allies: her good friend Martha and Martha’s appealing older brother. Part mystery and part romance, this novel gives a detailed look into the life of the women who were left behind when their husbands and sons went off to war. I especially enjoyed the many historically accurate details about the life of Abigail Adams.
The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen; Virginia, Civil War Era
This outstanding book only became more outstanding when I realized it is based on an actual person: a freed slave who returns to Virginia at the outset of the Civil War to spy for the North at great personal risk. We meet Mary Bowser as a young slave who has to hide her ability to read from her Master. When he dies and his progressive daughter inherits the estate, she frees Mary and sends her up North to be educated. When war breaks out, Mary decides to return to Richmond to see what she can do to help the Union’s cause, and ends up a servant and spy in Robert E. Lee’s household. This is an incredible story about a woman who helped the Union win the Civil War.
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein; Nazi Germany WWII
Rose is an 18-year-old American working for the ATA in Britain, ferrying planes from one location to another during WWII. Female pilots were not sent on combat missions, but their job was dangerous nonetheless; they often flew planes that had been so heavily damaged in combat they were barely flyable. On one such mission Rose is thrown off course and caught by the Germans, then sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women. There she meet the “rabbits”, female prisoners who have been experimented on by the Nazi doctors. Many portions of the story are, of course, heartbreaking, although it helps to know from the beginning that Rose survives the camps, and there are also uplifting portions that really celebrate the human spirit. It’s absolutely amazing. NOTE: this book is classified as “young adult” but it reads like adult lit to me. Also, there’s a companion book called Code Name Verity that I’ve recommended before that is absolutely incredible.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden; Japan 1930-1950s
This book was hugely popular when it came out almost twenty years ago, and if you haven’t come across it yet, you ought to find a copy! It’s a book that’s set in a time that doesn’t feel that long ago, but is literally worlds away from what most of us experience. When Sayuri is 9, she is sold to a geisha house. It’s a difficult life that she tries desperately to escape, but she eventually resigns herself to learning the arts of a geisha: how to dance, play music, pour tea, converse, and entertain. She eventually becomes one of the most successful geishas of the era, just in time for war to change everything. The book is absolutely beautiful and will completely immerse you in a different time, culture, and life. You will love Sayuri and her determination to take control of her own life and search for love in a setting when that was a nearly impossible task for a woman.
The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh; South Africa, 1880
Left penniless after her father’s death, Frances must choose between a life as a maid to her relatives, or accepting the marriage proposal of a man she barely knows and moving to South Africa with him. Obviously, she chooses the latter, hoping for a happily ever after and instead running into grim disappointments instead. I will admit, Frances drove me a little crazy for the first third of the novel; she’s silly, she’s stuck up, she’s unwilling to reconcile herself to her situation or figure out how to change it. But the unusual setting kept me going–I knew next to nothing about the diamond mines in South Africa in the late 1800s, and the novel does a great job depicting the harsh lives of the settlers, the brutal treatment of the native people, and the English settlers who fought to convince the mine owners to improve conditions. As the novel progresses, so does Frances, until I was cheering for her to find happiness.
A Memory of Violets by Hazel Gaynor; London, late 1800s
Florrie and Rosie are young orphans in London in the late 1800s, fending for themselves as “flower girls”. They live in extreme poverty, as do the many other orphaned or crippled children who peddle flowers in Covent Garden, hoping to earn enough money to keep starvation at bay. When Rosie is lost, heartbroken Florrie is rescued by a kind philantropist who has set up a home to help the flower girls. Forty years later Tillie gets a job at the home for Flower Girls, finds Florrie’s journal, and starts trying to unravel the mystery of Rosie’s disappearance many years ago. Even though it describes the difficult lives of children who exist in abject poverty, the book manages to be a very sweet tale, and it was cool to find out at the end that the group home and flower factory described are based on real ones established at that time period.
Ok, that’s ten, but here’s one more:
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte; Northern England, around 1800
While perhaps not strictly considered historical fiction, this classic story will certainly transport you to another time and place, as you read the story of poor ophaned Jane and her encounters with mysterious Mr. Rochester. It’s been one of my favorites for years. We were assigned to read it in high school and I can remember telling the kids who complained though the first few chapters to just keep reading because the twists and turns ahead are intense and the love story is wonderful. Just wait until you find out what the mysterious noises coming from the attic are! Yes, I was (and still am) a complete book nerd, but I convinced some of the others kids who ended up loving it just as much as I do. I don’t know how many times I’ve read this book now, but this time I’m listening to Audible’s new recording, read by Thandie Newton. Listening to this new production has given me a whole new appreciation for the language of the book. Plus the accents are amazing–it’s hard to believe one person was able to bring all these different characters to life so distinctly. I want to listen to Thandie Newton speaking as Mrs. Fairfax all day long! If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor and give it a try.
Be sure to visit Audible.com to download a free book of your choice as part of a free 1-month trial. You’ll find new productions of many of your favorite books narrated by famous names like Emma Thompson, James Franco, Jake Gyllenhaal, Kate Winslet and Tim Robbins. Even Colin Firth (a.k.a. Mr. Darcy) has narrated a book or two – I’m thinking I wouldn’t mind listening to those 😉
And, as always, leave your favorite book recommendations in the comments for all of us to check out. Thanks, and happy reading!
This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Audible. The opinions and text are all mine.