By Jennifer Merritt
Historical fiction is like browsing the aisles of a big-box store — it offers something for everyone, and the selection is vast. So vast, in fact, there are subgenres to the genre. Whether you want to travel back in time to 1920s Japan, 1800s deep South, or the Wild West, here are 14 historical fiction titles worth adding to your reading repertoire.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Told through flashbacks, Toni Morrison’s 1873-set novel tells the story of Sethe, a Kentucky slave who escapes to Ohio, enduring a series of unfathomable events along the way. But perhaps the most unfathomable of all is the “rough choice” Sethe makes upon the threat of her and her children’s return to slavery. The story, however, does not end there, and nor do the perspectives end with that of Sethe’s. Morrison’s fifth novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, American Book Award, and Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Don’t let the page count daunt you — Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer winner may clock in at 544 pages, but it goes fast. The novel is written in short chapters that explore human nature through the horrors of World War II. The book revolves around the experiences of blind French girl Marie-Laure and German orphan boy Werner, living separate lives until their worlds collide in the most spectacular way.
Beyond Babylon by Igiaba Scego
Just last year, Igiaba Scego’s second novel won the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant, and it is now available in English. A Somali-Italian writer, Scego’s tale of a family of five migrates across time and three nations—Tunisia, the ‘dirty war’ of Argentina, and modern-day Italy. And like so much talk of immigration these days, it’s complicated.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Four generations of a poor Korean immigrant family struggle under the rule of 20th century Japan. This saga begins in Korea during the early 1900s with teenage Sunja falling pregnant to a married man but refusing to be bought. Instead, she marries a minister en route to Japan, where begins a tale of love, sacrifice, and ambition that lasts generations between these two fraught nations.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Set during the early 19th century in the deep American South, this is the tale of Celie, a poor black girl, who struggles amongst segregation and domestic abuse. Protecting her sister from familial abuse, Celie is later married off to an older, abusive husband, who cuts off Celie’s contact with her beloved sister. Finding solace in bonding with a glamorous performer, Shug Avery, Celie takes charge of her own destiny.
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
This is the first book in Cormac McCarthy’s trilogy that includes The Crossing and Cities of the Plain. John Grady Cole is a young man in 1948 Texas, who, despite his love of ranch life, runs away from home with his friend Rawlins to explore the Southwest and, ultimately, Mexico. What sounds like an idyllic coming-of-age story is actually quite brutal — illicit affairs, false confessions, violent attacks in a Mexican jail — and of course, what happens to all those pretty horses?
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
It’s not often readers get treated to a female-led spy novel, but that’s exactly what Kate Quinn’s novel is—and better yet, one grounded in real life. Members of the actual Alice Network were made up of men and women in France, who spied on the Germans during World War I. In the fictional version, the Network’s story is overlaid with that of Charlotte “Charlie” St. Clair, who travels to Europe to take care of what her mother calls her “little problem” of an unwanted pregnancy. Charlie decides she’ll also use the trip to track down her cousin Rose, which leads her to Eve Gardiner, who uncovers some truths of her own.
Anything for Billy by Larry McMurtry
Best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece Lonesome Dove, author Larry McMurtry revisits the 1800s American frontier in Anything for Billy. But this time, he builds his fictional narrative around a real-life outlaw. McMurtry’s ode to Billy the Kid offers a history of the legendary gunfighter, along with a dramatization of the tragedy, comedy, and poignancy surrounding his short life. Many reviewers liken the novel as a “tribute to dime novels,” which only adds to its charm.
A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles
You could wait for the television series to finish filming, or you could read the book (because you know the book is always better). Amor Towles’ novel follows the “former person” Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who has been placed under house arrest inside the Metropol Hotel in Moscow in 1922. For 30 years, Rostov lives in this luxurious hotel living a bit like a grown-up Eloise. But the outside world of Russia still exists, and painfully so. Be forewarned: “Outside” Russia is not a central plot point of Gentleman, so it helps to pick up the annotated version of this book in order to fully appreciate its gravity.
We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
When author Georgia Hunter was 15 years old, she discovered that members of her family were Holocaust survivors. That knowledge inspired her 2017 debut novel about a Polish-Jewish family torn apart by one of the darkest times in history. The story unfolds all over the globe during and after World War II, but Hunter’s characters all share the common threads of perseverance and a love of family.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
It’s the 1920s, and a 9-year-old Chiyo is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto, Japan, where she is placed in servitude until deemed to be of high enough quality to work for the house’s clientele: wealthy men who pay for conversation, dance, and song with the geishas. Arthur Golden’s story comes complete with an unrelenting rival, an unrequited love, and the consequences of World War II on the horizon.
Next Year In Havana by Chanel Cleeton
Chanel Cleeton’s novel tells the story of two women that spans from Havana in 1958 to Miami in 2017. Along the way, Cleeton weaves the tales of a fictional family’s history with that of Cuba’s real-life, ever-perilous political climate. The stories of Elisa Perez and her granddaughter Marisol Ferrera may be decades apart, but, as the reader learns, much is still the same.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
What if President John F. Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated? Furthermore, what if you had the chance to stop it? Those are the central questions of Stephen King’s 50th (50th!) novel, which transcends time and space—literally—to take Jake Epping, a teacher in Maine, to Dallas in 1958 so he can put a stop to a “loner” known as Lee Harvey Oswald. You know King as the, er, king of horror, but here he builds suspense as artfully as ever.
Underground Airlines by Ben Winters
In this 2016 novel by Ben Winters, readers are asked to imagine a world where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated prior to his 1861 inauguration and as such, the Civil War never happened. This results in a United States where parts are slave-free; others not so much. Particularly the “Hard Four” of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and a joined North and South Carolina. Winters’ text raises dystopian-like questions such as, “Who benefits from the slave trade?” and “Where do new slaves come from?” which you’re sure to be pondering well after the last page.