As I’m sure you’ve noticed, there have been a LOT of books published lately set during World War II, many of which are excellent (which is why I wrote a whole post dedicated to books featuring that time period). But, for awhile there, I felt like I read SO many books about that period of history that I was ready for a little bit of change. While I will always love historical fiction, I don’t necessarily love to only read about one historical event over and over, which is why today’s list features a compilation of stellar titles that span many different time periods and locations.
Note: There are affiliate links in this post (each title, when clicked on, will take you to the book’s corresponding page on Amazon), but however you choose to get your hands on these books, they still come highly recommended by me!
Second Note: Many of these would make great presents for the readers in your life! If you have an older teen that enjoys reading, I would highly recommend My Lady Jane (which reads a bit like The Princess Bride and is a lot of fun and pretty clean, too!).
15 Historical Fiction Reads NOT Set During WWII
These Is My Words by Nancy Turner
This book was on my radar quite awhile before I read it, but I wasn’t immediately drawn to it and let it sit at the back of my TBR list for a long time. This book is written as a journal spanning two decades (from 1881-1901), penned by a woman living on the Western frontier just as it was being settled by non-indigenous pioneers. At first, the clumsy writing and numerous spelling errors that populate the beginning (on purpose) drove me crazy, but as the story went on, I was stunned by the emotional depth of the protagonist’s experiences, especially as she faced so much hardship living in such a harsh, sparsely-populated place. I don’t cry during very many books, but I definitely cried during this one. So, fair warning—this one’s a tearjerker, but it’s also one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read (and that’s coming from someone who hates romances in general, so know that this is NOT a traditional romance!).
Where the Light Falls by Alison and Owen Pataki
Admittedly, I knew very little about the French Revolution before reading this book, but I feel like now that I’m finished with it, I could at least give you a fair summary of many of the main events that went on because of the amount of research that the authors put into this one. This novel follows four main characters as their lives become entangled during the grimmest years of the Revolution, when those who had taken over the government were little better than the monarchy they’d overthrown, and where many people lived in fear and mistrust of everyone. The book mostly centers on the actions of one idealistic lawyer, who is called up by his conscience to represent a general–who had once been a hero for the Revolution but had since fallen out of favor–against one of the most powerful and dangerous lawyers of the time. While many of the guillotine and war scenes in this were awful in their detail (I shuddered at multiple points while reading), I thought this was overall a fairly action-packed read that taught me a lot about a time in history I knew very little about.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This book got a LOT of press last year, and for good reason–this was the author’s debut novel, and it was completely breathtaking in its scope, its exposure of the cruelties and injustices suffered over the course of generations by the black family at its core, and its evocative and descriptive prose. The book basically follows two Ghanian half-sisters, one of whom is condemned to life as a slave, and the other who marries an Englishman and lives in relative comfort in Cape Coast Castle. The sister living in the upstairs of the castle is completely unaware of the miseries going on below where her half-sister is sent just before her terrible trip overseas in one of the slave ships. This book traces the lineage of both the women through many generations, showing the major events that shape their family’s history and culminating in the unexpected links that bring them back together. This book starts in the 1700’s and spans all the way to the present day, so many historical figures and time periods are represented here.
The Girl You Left Behind by JoJo Moyes
This book is “cheating” a bit since half of it takes place in modern day, but because so much of the story takes place during WWI, I thought I could go ahead and count it. At the center of this book is a striking painting, done by the artist of his beloved wife before he went off to fight in World War I. Through a series of events, his wife, who runs the local inn, is forced to accommodate the German soldiers occupying her French town, and the painting ends up gone. A century later, the painting is in the possession of a young widow, who has no idea the impact it is about to have on her life. I went into this novel knowing very little, but I was pleasantly surprised by the connection between the two time periods through the painting, and though I didn’t like this as much as Moyes’s Me Before You, I thought it was a fun historical fiction read just the same.
My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand
If the last title was a cheater read, then this one definitely is too since the author takes MANY liberties switching around historical events and even throwing a bit of magic in there, for good measure. However, this book was too much fun to NOT include it, and since I was obsessed with England during the time period from King Henry VIII to Queen Elizabeth as a kid, I naturally found myself drawn toward this recent YA release. I don’t want to give too much away here, but this book starts with the reign of the young King Edward (who was made king after King Henry VIII), who is found to be terminally ill and must find a suitable replacement as his heir, since he is unmarried and has no children of his own. He ends up setting his sights on marrying his cousin off to his grand council’s second son to secure (supposedly) the future of England, but things don’t quite go as smoothly as he planned. Don’t go into this one expecting too much actual history, but DO go in expecting a lot of fun, and a decent amount of laughs, too. Goodreads calls this “a fantasy in the tradition of The Princess Bride,” and though I can’t say it 100% lives up to that famous tale, I can definitely see why the comparison was drawn.
Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham
This is another pick that toggles between the historical past and the present, and which does it extremely well. The book starts off with a modern-day teenager discovering a body under her parents’ house while they’re in the middle of a remodel, and because of certain things found with the corpse, she feels like it might have been a covered-up murder from way back in the days of the 1921 race riots in Tulsa. What follows is part gripping mystery, part immersion into a time period in history, and part commentary on the race relations of today. While this book has an important message about race and race relations, it wasn’t overly political or in-your-face about it, and “the message” never got in the way of the story, which I liked. This was easily one of my top YA reads this year, for sure.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I debated between this and Towles’s other work Rules of Civility (both of which I adored), but ultimately decided on this one because it had a slightly happier ending (which I’m always a sucker for, when done well). This book is unusual in that basically the entire thing takes place in a luxury hotel, where an “unrepentant aristocrat” named Count Alexander Rostov is condemned to live out the rest of his days by the Bolshevik party in Russia in the 1920’s. I think Towles is a brilliant writer, and there were so many passages in this I just read and re-read just for the sheer joy of experiencing them again (his prose is THAT good). While the plot on this one could hardly be called fast-paced, I still found this an engrossing read with a memorable cast of characters. Though I’m not much of a re-reader, I’m seriously tempted to make an exception for Towles’s novels.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Honestly, I’m kind of shocked that I’m including this one on the list because it took me soooooooo long to get through this one, and the parts where it switches back to the more modern present of the protagonist I possibly had to steel myself through. But—BUT!—there is a reason why many people list this book among their top favorites of all time, and even though I would have hated to admit it at the time (just because I felt it was so long and so hard to get through), I’ve got to say that this story has NEVER left me, and it’s one I can remember much of quite clearly, though it’s been around three years now since I finished it. (Guys, that’s AMAZING—I can hardly remember general plotlines after that long, much less specific details about a story!). Basically, the story starts out in the 1950’s, with the protagonist’s best friend hitting a foul ball during their ball game that ends up killing the protagonist’s mother. The book traces the extraordinary unfolding of what happens after, eventually dipping into events surrounding the Vietnam War. Even though I only grudgingly gave the book 3 stars back in 2014 when I read it, I think I’d give it more than that now if I were to go back and read it again, now that I know how long it has stayed with me. Definitely a book you won’t forget soon!
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
The Jazz Age of the 1920’s has always fascinated me, especially the stories of all the ex-pat writers (Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc.) who went to Paris from the U.S. and formed kind of an exclusive “club” of sorts there as they worked on the novels that would later make them famous. This particular novel follows Ernest Hemingway’s wife, who was in her late twenties and ready to give up on love when she met Hemingway. After a whirlwind courtship, they got married and moved to Paris, and this book traces her feelings and inner world as one of the only “non-artists” in a group very intent on their creative pursuits. Admittedly, this is not a happy book, but it IS a highly readable one—I remember finishing it in just a couple of days.
The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
Technically, this novel isn’t historical fiction in the traditional sense since it was set in the same period in which it was published (the early 1900’s). However, it so richly portrays the landscape of the American West at the time that you’ll be tipped right back into history as you read this story of an opera singer hoping to escape the confines of her small town in Colorado and “make it big.” I took a whole class on Willa Cather while getting my degree in English, and this one was by far my favorite that we studied that semester. If you haven’t given Cather’s works a try yet, this is a good place to get your feet wet as it combines a reasonably well-paced story with Cather’s fabulous descriptions of place and time.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big Lisa See fan (and nearly any of her works can count as historical fiction), but this one is probably my favorite, closely followed by Peony in Love. This book is set back in China in the 1800’s, where two young girls are paired as each other’s laotong (old same), which is an emotional match and binding friendship that will last a lifetime. Over the course of their lives, the two friends share in the horrors of foot binding, the hardships of their arranged marriages, and their feelings on motherhood through a secret language–painted onto fans that are sent back and forth–that only women know and understand. However, a terrible misunderstanding comes up that threatens to sever their bond forever, and what follows is the unfolding of all that happens because of it. I have always found ancient Chinese culture so fascinating, and I love how in each of See’s books, I feel like I learn a significant amount more about it.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
This was one of my favorite historical fiction reads when I was younger, and I remember reading it over and over again as a teenager. The Witch of Blackbird Pond takes place during the witch hunts of the 1600’s and follows the journey of one orphaned girl, Kit Tyler, as she is shipped to the Americas from her home in Barbados. In her new Puritan colony, she feels very much like the outsider she is, and she seeks refuge often in the nearby meadows, where she befriends an old Quaker woman who is referred to as The Witch of Blackbird Pond. However, before long, the people accuse her of being a witch herself, and she is left to defend herself against the suspicious and angry mob. Admittedly, it’s been a long time since I last read this one, but I remember LOVING it when I was younger, so it’s probably time to pick it up again!
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Perhaps because of its status as an American classic, I put off reading this one for a very long time, afraid it would be difficult to understand, slow-paced, and dense. Luckily for me, I was wrong on all counts. This novel about the Great Depression and the so-called “Dust Bowl Migration” that happened as a result follows the Joad family as they travel to the West when they are forced to abandon their dried-up homestead to search out better fortunes in California. As you can expect, the family encounters numerous hardships and troubles along the way, but the thing that stood out to me the most was the strength of the mother in this one–her fierce determination to keep her family together and safe and as well-cared-for as possible inspired me to write this blog post on mothers from fiction who inspire me to be a better one myself. Fair warning: if you like neatly tied-up endings, you will NOT like the ending of this one, which is rather ambiguous.
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
I’ve read a lot of books about slavery, but I had never read a book depicting slavery during the Revolutionary War before I picked up this first book (which is part of a trilogy, though each book reads well as a stand-alone novel, too). This novel follows 13-year-old Isabel as she seeks to fight for her own freedom, which she was promised upon the death of her old owner but which ended up not coming to pass as she was traded to a cruel couple in New York, who are against the idea of an American Revolution. Along the way, Isabel meets Curzon (who later becomes the main protagonist of the second book), who tells her she should spy on her owners, as he supports the Patriot cause. Isabel has no idea what she is in for, but when the unthinkable happens to her sister, she is forced to act, and act quickly, despite her fears. I always recommended this one very highly to my students when the time came for them to read a historical fiction novel (as well as the book The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, which also could have easily made this list).
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Rounding out the list is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is probably one of my top five favorite classics of all time. This book follows the fortunes of Francie Nolan as she comes of age at the turn of the century in a family stricken by poverty. Though this book doesn’t follow a typical plot structure (where it is building up to a major climax and resolution for the majority of the book), it is still one of the most nostalgic and touching novels about growing up and childhood that I’ve ever read. Francie goes through so much in her young life–much of which I, thankfully, never had to endure–but I still felt like her childhood reminded me so much of my own, and I suspect that many readers probably would feel the same way.
Linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Quick Lit on this one!
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What books would you add to the list?