Top 10 Historian-Approved Historical Fiction

By Melissa J. Gismondi

LibraryShelf

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!

  1. Blindspot by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore (2009)

A picture of the book cover for "Blindspot."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.

 

  1. Burr by Gore Vidal (1973)

An image of the book cover for "Burr."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.

 

 

 

 

  1. The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron (1967)

An image of the book cover for "The Confessions of Nat Turner."

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.

 

  1. The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove (1992)

An image of the book cover for "The Guns of the South."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.

 

 

 

  1. March by Geraldine Brooks (2005)

An image of the book cover for "March."

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.

 

 

  1. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (2011)

An image of the book cover for "The Sisters Brothers."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.  

 

 

 

  1. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (1975)

An image of the book cover for "Ragtime."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.

 

 

  1. Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon (1991)

An image of the book cover for "Outlander."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.

 

 

 

  1. When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka (2002)

An image of the book cover for "When The Emperor Was Divine."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.”

 

  1. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

An image of the book cover for "Middlesex."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.    

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Comments (15)

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  1. Charlene Doland

    Thanks for this list! I have not read many of these, so look forward to exploring them. I recently read two of Ruta Sepetys books, Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea. They both are very effective at humanizing the brutality of World War II. Between Shades of Gray also heighten awareness of the suffering millions of people experienced under Josef Stalin’s reign.

    Reply
  2. Tina Williams

    This is just what I was looking for! I live in Chesterfield, and look forward each week to the your new podcast. I’m having surgery next week, so this gives me some great books to download on my Nook while I’m recovering. Stumbled upon you guys about a year ago, and I’ve listened to every episode. As a fairly new transplant to the Richmond area, I also appreciate the references to local historical sites like the Hollywood Cemetery and the Civil War Museum. Keep up the good work, guys. You are appreciated!
    Best-
    Tina Williams

    Reply
  3. Lori Cole

    Prefer Harry Turtledove’s *How Few Remain* — covers similar ground but without the sci-fi elements.

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  4. Jane Vaughan

    I would like to add to your list 2 books by Connie Lapallo of Virginia (the
    last of the trilogy will be out this year): DARK ENOUGH TO SEE THE STARS (1592-1611), AND WHEN THE MOON HAS NO MORE SILVER (1610-1620). They were researched for many years to provide accuracy to history facts. Connie has woven the true stories into suspenseful and heart-warming narrative. Her own ancestor, a woman, arrived in Jamestown in 1609, after a terrible storm at sea, just in time for The Starving Time. Readers of all ages will get so much out of this saga. History indeed comes alive.

    Reply
  5. Sharon Anderson

    I’m a 20-year fan of the Outlander series, and Middlesex was such an emotional family journey for me. I’m pretty excited about these suggestions, especially since they are listed with two of my favorite bits of reading. Thank you!

    Reply
  6. Anne

    Great list! I’m already a big fan of the Outlander books. I would add the Williamsburg novels by Elswyth Thane if they were still in print. They are fabulous books that follow members of the same family from the American Revolution to World War II. Beautifully told stories, interwoven with historical events and figures.

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  7. Scott MacArthur

    I’m very happy to see Gore Vidal’s “Burr” on the list. I also read his book “Lincoln” and was so hoping that he would eventually complete the story as that one ends with the emancipation proclamation.

    As a teen in the 60s, my Dad gave me the book series written by Kenneth Roberts about the period of the American Revolution in Maine. The books ( “Arundel”, “A Rabble in Arms”, and “Oliver Wiswell”) remain significant in helping me develop my own sense of American history.

    Each of the books offers up a completely different view from the traditionally ground that often seems heavily overworked. Seeing Benedict Arnold, before his treason, as a flawed but heroic character taught me much. And in “Oliver Wiswell”, seeing the entire Revolution from the point of view of a loyalist was revelatory.

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  8. Joyceann Gray

    This is great! Thank you for this list!
    I too have written an historical-factual-fiction novel about my family.
    “Yes We Remember”

    Thank you again, I was wondering what next to add to my learning and library

    Reply
  9. Harron68

    Pre- and Civil War era always gets too much attention. the “What Ifs Of American History” though military in nature at least offers different takes. Also, why no books on the West, Northwest, relations with Native Americans, non military Colonial America? There must be books that measure up!

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