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Perhaps because I firmly believe that we can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been, I dote on historical fiction, a genre that can nevertheless be fiendishly difficult to define. Yes, of course, it’s fiction set in the past, but the question is: How far in the past and whose past? Some say it’s fiction set before the reader was born; others argue it’s fiction set before its author was born; others argue it’s fiction set “outside living memory.”
As for me? I arbitrarily decree that it must be set at least 50 years in the past. All of these definitions make historical fiction a moving target, as time relentlessly marches on, making today yesterday and, thus, history.
That has set me to wondering what I would put in my own core collection of historical fiction. Here are 20 (or so) historical novels that are timeless! I start with what I regard as modern classics and inarguable staples of any collection of historical fiction. In alphabetical order by author’s last name, they are M. T. Anderson’s Printz Honor Award two-book series about Black protagonist Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation; Aidan Chambers’s Printz Award–winning Postcards from No Man’s Land; Mildred Taylor’s The Land (actually, I could list here all of the novels in her Logan family saga, but The Land is exceptional); and finally, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, another Printz Honor winner.
As for the rest, we’ll start here:
Laurie Halse Anderson’s powerful trilogy, comprised of Chains, Forge, and Ashes. Yes, it’s three novels, but I’m considering it a single novel in three volumes about the eighteenth-century lives and fortunes of Black co-protagonists Isabel and Curzon and their quest for freedom.
Julie Berry’s Lovely War, a tour de force that combines Greek Gods, human lovers, and others in a beautifully realized WWI setting. (Consider, too, Berry’s The Passion of Dolssa, a haunting combination of history and religion set in the thirteenth century.)
Jennifer Donnelly’s Printz Honor title A Northern Light, an unforgettable mash-up of history and mystery. Set in upstate New York in 1906, it features the real-life murder of Grace Brown and (fictional) 16-year-old Mattie’s involvement therein. Equally fascinating are the details of Mattie’s quotidian but never dull daily life at a time when women’s lives were devalued.
Leon Garfield’s Smith. Anything by Garfield belongs in a core collection, but start with his third book, the masterful story of a young pickpocket in eighteenth-century London. Yes, I know Garfield’s books are technically in the juvenile category, but for my money they’re suitable for all ages—even mine and I’m older than dirt!
Monica Hesse’s brilliant Holocaust novel They Went Left. This was a tough choice, since all three of her historical novels—the other two are The Girl in the Blue Coat and The War Outside—are exemplary. Is it any surprise that I’ve reviewed all three of these for Booklist and starred each one?
Antonio Iturbe’s The Librarian of Auschwitz; originally published in Spain, this is the unforgettable story of young Dita Adlerova, whose concentration camp library consisted of only eight books, but they were as precious to her as an entire collection.
Daniel Kraus’ The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch. The fantastic, two-volume story of the life and death of the eponymous Zebulon Finch, who, after being murdered in 1896, comes back to life. The epic, 1,500-page duology then charts his continuing life, its adventures, and, more often, misadventures well into the twentieth century. A mash-up of historical fiction and horror, this one is uniquely Kraus.
Walter Dean Myers’ visceral and vivid Fallen Angels is, inarguably, the single best YA novel about the Vietnam War. Myers did two other memorable war novels worth your attention: Sunrise over Fallujah, about the Iraq War, and Invasion, a dramatic recreation of WWII’s D-Day.
Sir Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, an irresistible Victorian romp about an artful tosher, a scavenger for treasures in London’s sewers. The novel begins with Dodger’s rescue of a mysterious damsel in distress. His fascination with her is life-changing and leads him to encounters with such real-life personages as Disraeli, Dickens (a delicious irony for a Dickensian novel) and, finally, the Queen herself. An irresistible treat for Dickens lovers.
Marcus Sedgwick’s Printz Award–winning Midwinterblood, a fascinating, well-nigh indescribable novel presented in seven sections. Told in reverse chronological order, the novel begins in 2073 and moves backward in time as it follows the lives of two characters who are periodically reborn.
Ruta Sepetys’s Carnegie Medal–winning Salt to the Sea. Set during WWII, it’s the tragic story of the sinking of the William Gustloff that resulted in the death of 9,400 of its 10,582 passengers. Among them is a quartet of young characters fleeing the advancing Russian army. In a bitter irony, it is Russian torpedoes that will sink the ship. Beautifully written and haunting.
Elizabeth Weins’ Code Name Verity, another haunting novel of WWII. This one finds double agent Julie (aka Verity) captured and tortured by the Nazis, who are determined to wrest from her the codes she memorized as a wireless operator before a crash landing in France. Aside from its impeccable recreation of history, this is also the story of the deep friendship between Julie and a British pilot, Maddie. It’s another Printz Honor title, an award richly deserved.
Deborah Wiles’ beautifully written novel Kent State, which brings to vivid life the tragic shootings by members of the Ohio National Guard of four innocent college students protesting the U. S. bombing of Cambodia at the eponymous university. A number of unattributed voices flesh out this compelling narrative.
So that’s my core collection, folks. What’s yours?
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