So. Historical fiction. I don't like historical fiction. That's what I tell myself, anyway. Just the same way that I don't like mysteries. But if you've read much of this blog, you'll know that what I really don't like is actively broadening my reading horizons. I like my comfort books. I like fantasy of a Certain Type and that's all I read, never mind that my book lists tell another story. I'm not sure why I tell myself that I don't like historical fiction. I have some vague notion that it's "boring," which is patently not true. A certain book might be boring, but let's not condemn an entire genre, shall we?
I've always had a hard time selling historical fiction to library patrons, and I think it's because this notion of history = boring lists of facts and figures is insidious and prevalent. I can sell a gruesome murder or ripping action yarn, but I can't seem to sell Ye Olden Tymes unless there are some cogs and steam-powered dirigibles thrown in. But here are some excellent works of historical fiction that everyone should read. Hopefully, one of you, Gentle Readers, is a better salesperson than I and can get these books out into the hands of readers who will love them.
The Wednesday Wars and Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt
These books are set in New York in the late 1960s, during the height of the Vietnam War. In The Wednesday Wars, Holling Hoodhood (that's his actual name, poor kid) must spend Wednesday afternoons with Mrs. Baker because he's the only kid in his Long Island middle school who attends neither Hebrew school or catechism. Mrs. Baker makes him read through the plays of Shakespeare, which means she totally hates him. Add this to a long list of middle school woes like bullies, the school play and the tenuous success of his father's new business, and Holling is sure he's not going to survive 7th grade.
Okay For Now is a companion novel to The Wednesday Wars. Doug Sweiteck, one of Holling's friends, must move to Marysville, a small town in the Catskills, when his father gets a job at the paper mill there. Everyone is sure Doug is just a thug, his father is abusive, and his brother is away fighting in Vietnam. Doug's story is more heartbreaking than Holling's but both novels capture the essence of the tumultuous time while still being engaging stories for modern readers who are sure to relate to the vivid protagonists. I'll have a fuller post up about OFN on Guys Lit Wire on Wednesday.
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Mattie Gokey dreams of escaping to New York City so she can attend college and become a writer. Words are a shelter into which she can escape the burdens of raising her sisters after her mother's death, her father's failing farm, the handsome but dull boy she could marry. But when Mattie takes a job at a hotel and a young woman ends up murdered, Mattie finds, through the young woman's words, a means to live her own life. This book is set in 1906, against the story of the real life murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. This is a book I have more success selling, especially to adults looking for teen fiction that is vampire-free. It's got a literary quality wrapped up in the romance and intrigue of the story. I read this book probably ten years ago, so while most of the details now escape me, the one thing that has never left is the memory of being stunned by the quality of the writing. I also recommend Donnelly's book Revolution, in which a girl finds the diary of a girl who lived during The Terror in France, although that book takes on a strange paranormal twist that I'm still not sure I liked, though it was thoroughly compelling. I tried to read Donnelly's historical novels for adults, starting with The Tea Rose, but I couldn't get more than a few pages in because Donelley writes out her characters' accents, which is one of the hugest peeves I have as a reader. I find few things more irritating than written-out accents and over use of dialect. But her novels for teens don't fall into that trap, so I highly recommend them.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
This is one of the single best novels I have ever read. The book, set in the last half of 1899, is the story of Calpurnia Virginia Tate, or Callie Vee, the only daughter of the Tate family or rural Texas. Callie Vee is expected to take to her domestic responsibilities cheerfully and willingly. But Callie Vee wants to go to college and become a scientist like the great Charles Darwin. The conflict between the expectations of her family and society and her desire to study (encouraged by her grandfather) play out the book, which ends on New Year's Eve. I wrote more about this book (link in the book title), but seriously, just read this book, eh? You won't be sorry.
A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper (first of a trilogy)
I'm cheating a tiny bit with this book, set on the fictional island kingdom of Montmary at the cusp of World War II, but the novel, told through the journal entries of Sophie FitzOsborne, a princess of Montmaray, is so evockative and compelling, rich in period detail and drama, that I hope you'll let the tiny fantasy part -- that there is no such place as Montmaray -- slide. This novel takes place on the island kingdom as the young Crown Prince and his family try to figure out how to stay on the island, safe from the horrors of war. But the Germans want the island as a strategic air strip, and by the end, the family is forced into exile in England (book two). War comes in book three, which I haven't read yet. I'm dying to read it, and I can get it, but I'm so worried for Sophie and her family that I dread reading what happens. I even emailed Michelle Cooper, and she assured me that while things would be dire, for it's a war, after all, things would work out in the end. She didn't say how, but I trust her and will get to this book soon. This book has a very similar feel to I Capture the Castle, which I adore with my whole heart.
Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang
I'm going to put another shout out to the sublime Boxers & Saints. I meant to write a review ages ago, but I still can't put the experience of reading these books into any sort of coherence. They moved me so deeply that I just have to carry the experience around with me. Luckily, the books made the longlist for the National Book Award for Young People's Fiction, so if you want to find out more, there's plenty of digital ink shed (like this from my colleague at Guys Lit Wire). I say, just read it.
The Luxe by Anna Godbersen
If I believed you should feel guilty for pleasures, The Luxe series is a total guilty pleasure read. Set in New York's Gilded Age, the series is pretty much about rich kids behaving badly. It's Gossip Girl for Edith Wharton lovers. In fact, the characters in The Luxe behave just the way I want the drips in Edith Wharton's books to behave. Rather, they behave in just the way many of Wharton's drips behaved, but the books play out with some satisfying modern twists. The jerks (generally) get their comeuppances and the nicer characters get a nice ending (except for the one poor, poor but perfect Farm Boy -- I mean, Stable Boy, but he was poor, after all). Generally I don't care for stories of rich people being rich and awful, but these novels were total brain candy, and they were pretty high quality -- brand name, not the bargain stuff I get at WinCo for my students.
Be sure to share your suggestions for great historical fiction (for any age) in the comments!