There are those that eschew historical fiction; they say that if you want to learn about history, read non-fiction history books. And despite the argument by some that “non-fiction history books” may at times be an oxymoron, I understand their reasoning. Fictionalizing history seems irrational. If you want to know facts, you want non-fiction.
But if being transported is what you’re after, historical fiction can be a wonderful vehicle, making real and tangible what in a history book often feels antiquated and disconnected from our twenty-first century world. It often engages a reader in a way a non-fiction history book doesn’t. From Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”) to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, (“We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”) Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, (“I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”) classic stories continue to take readers on a journey to times past.
Several examples of fictional travel to past times come to mind for me. I lived in nineteenth century Paris while reading David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. He made the people and events come alive in a way that few authors can. As a nurse, writer and lover of the arts, walking alongside my predecessors in those fields was exciting and edifying. I couldn’t put it down, eagerly devouring the nearly 560 pages and at the same time dreading that it would end. I wanted to continue into the 20th century, to follow the thread of advancement rather than have it cut short.
I experience this feeling more frequently with historical fiction than other genres. As much as I often don’t want a book to end, with contemporary fiction, it’s more about missing the characters or not wanting to leave the location. But with historical fiction, it can feel like forward progress is being interrupted; an unnatural ending has happened that feels disconcerting. More than once I have found myself gravitating to the non-fiction variety of history to learn more or to see where the story went.
I’ve talked about my love of mystery and psychological suspense (Blog #2: Who remembers Trixie Belden?) and that extends to historical fiction as well. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (which is also on my list of books about books) and The Swan Thieves (on my list of books related to psychology) are two of my favorites that incorporate history and also have an element of mystery.
I have also enjoyed Erik Larson’s books (actually creative non-fiction) for the interweaving of stories that kept me on the edge of my seat. The Devil in The White City and Thunderstruck are my favorites, although Thunderstruck’s setting in London has a strong pull. For me, location is a large part of the appeal of books with historical stories, and London holds a special fascination.
A recent read, Barbara Ridley’s When It’s Over, also had a London setting (as well as Prague and Paris) during WWII. Books set during wartime are often hard for me to read, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book which is based on the true story of the author’s parents. The relationships were the focus and that, along with the author’s meticulous research and beautiful prose, pulled me in.
Another masterful wartime story was Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See. Again, the characters and their relationships took hold of me. The hardship and brutality of war was difficult to read but the wonderful characterization, the unfolding thrill in the story and the beautiful writing kept me captivated until the end. Harsh reality is present throughout but the power of human connection and resilience shines brightly.
More enjoyable for me was the post WWII story, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows which I mentioned earlier in Blog #4: Books About Books. While there were tragic aspects of this story, the overall tone for me was hopeful and lighthearted. I enjoy epistolary novels and the characterization was wonderful. It thoroughly transported me to a different place and time, all the while wishing I could really immerse myself in such a community.
Much like in Blog #7: Girls Just Want to Have Fun, I know there will be more blogs to come on this genre, some in overlapping categories. Three of my favorites, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, while spanning very different time periods, all have in common their southern settings. Since this is a blog subject that has been percolating, I’ll hold these wonderful books until then!
For any Historical Fiction fans out there, what most pulls you in: The story? The Setting? Characters? Something else? And what book most exemplifies this?