The following books about unknown history delve deep into the past, unearthing rousing accounts of hidden historical figures, overlooked heroes, and striking perspectives that were nearly lost to time. They’re sure to open your eyes and expand your mind.
11 Eye-Opening Books About Unknown History
These revelatory narratives demand to be read.
By Scott Shane
In Flee North, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Scott Shane shares the incredible true story of Thomas Smallwood, a little-known abolitionist in 19th-century America who helped guide hundreds of enslaved people to freedom and, as Shane fascinatingly reveals here, named the “underground railroad.” Shane’s new account is the first to chronicle Smallwood’s heroic journey in its entirety. Born into slavery, Smallwood bought his freedom at the age of 30 and started his own business, later teaming up with a young white activist named Charles Torrey to orchestrate mass escapes of enslaved people and help them reach freedom in the North. Racing against ruthless, greed-driven enslavers, Smallwood taunted his foes with satirical newspaper columns that championed his victories, all while helping men, women, and children break free from bondage in the South. A remarkable story of one man’s daring and worthy fight, Flee North belongs on everyone’s shelf.
By Margot Lee Shetterly
In the award-winning Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of the Black women mathematicians whose work was instrumental in putting NASA into space. Though it was the astronauts and company men who soaked up the spotlight, mathematicians like Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden were behind the calculations that cemented America’s victory in the Space Race. Forced to endure racism and discrimination, these four women forged ahead with nothing but adding machines, slide rules, and pencils on paper to solve equations that launched some of our country’s greatest scientific achievements. Eye-opening, informative, and effective, Hidden Figures is at once a moving narrative and an educational triumph.
A Woman of No Importance
By Sonia Purnell
In A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell tells the thrilling unknown history of Virginia Hall, a Baltimore socialite turned undercover agent whom the Gestapo called “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” Having talked her way into Churchill’s elite spy organization, Hall embedded herself behind enemy lines, established a spy network in France, and helped arm French resistance fighters. She made a daring escape over the Pyrenees when her cover was blown, then returned to France to lead victorious guerrilla campaigns against the Nazis after D-Day. Purnell’s extensive research fills out Hall’s incredible story — one that had been sparsely told until now — in this astounding tale of heroism and real-life spy craft.
The Lost City of Z
By David Grann
In 1925, British explorer Percy Fawcett set off into the Amazon rainforest in search of a lost civilization and never returned. Since then, the Amazon has claimed the lives of numerous explorers who have followed in Fawcett’s footsteps, each hoping in vain to discover a golden city buried deep in the jungle — what Fawcett called “The Lost City of Z.” Nine decades later, David Grann, the celebrated author of Killers of the Flower Moon, delves into the enduring mystery of Fawcett’s disappearance. An expert retelling of Fawcett’s obsessive quest interwoven with Grann’s own adventures into the Amazon, The Lost City of Z is a captivating unknown-history lesson with the narrative pacing of a thriller.
Ghosts of Gold Mountain
By Gordon H. Chang
Accomplished scholar Gordon H. Chang delivers a necessary correction to U.S. history in this award-winning American history book. Ghosts of Gold Mountain chronicles the building of the Western Transcontinental Railroad — a massive undertaking that facilitated the rise of connected industry in the United States — from the perspective of the Chinese immigrant laborers who actually built the railway. Pushed to the fringes of society in their time and all but erased from history books today, the once-forgotten Chinese railroad workers finally get their due in Chang’s fully researched and deeply human retelling. The New York Times calls Ghosts of Gold Mountain “a moving effort to recover their stories and honor their indispensable contribution to the building of modern America.”
By Janina Ramirez
In this international bestseller, Oxford and BBC historian Janina Ramirez gives a voice back to the women of medieval Europe. Femina shines a revealing light on the Dark Ages, an era viewed by most as overwhelmingly patriarchal. Hidden behind the historical accounts of kings and princes, however, a counternarrative unfolds. Through her research of archival documents, Ramirez has uncovered countless appearances of the word “Femina” scrawled beside struck-out names — those belonging to influential women who were intentionally removed from medieval records. Informed by her careful examination of writings and artifacts, Ramirez retells the history of the Middle Ages — this time with all the power players present.
By Erica Armstrong Dunbar
We all know George Washington as a Founding Father and America’s first President. In Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught, however, we see a villainous new side to the heralded figure. Once elected President, Washington moved from his plantation in Virginia to Philadelphia, where local law dictated that any enslaved person having resided in Pennsylvania for six months must be set free. Rather than free any of the enslaved people he’d brought with him, though, Washington sent them back down South just before the six-month mark to reset the clock. But one of those individuals, 22-year-old Ona Judge, was prepared to seize her freedom at the first opportunity. Never Caught tells the harrowing story of Ona Judge’s flight for freedom and the President who pursued her relentlessly in this eye-opening new perspective of America’s First Family.
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments
By Saidiya V. Hartman
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya V. Hartman offers an impeccably researched look into the vibrant culture and radical relationships that flourished in Black communities in Philadelphia and New York in the early 20th century. Adjusting to newfound freedoms, young Black women experimented with intimacy and kinship, disregarding societal expectations and rejecting confining Victorian notions of respectability and domesticity. In following their desires, these women gave birth to new cultural movements and transformed urban landscapes in America. Hartman brings it all to vivid life in this “rich resurrection of a forgotten history” (Parul Sehgal, New York Times).
Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts
By Rebecca Hall
In Wake, historian Dr. Rebecca Hall takes a closer look into the narratives of slave revolts on transatlantic slave ships. Though history cites the men who fought back, Hall presents finely researched accounts of the women warriors who challenged their captors, both on ships traveling to the Americas and later on the ground in Colonial New York. The granddaughter of enslaved people, Hall reflects on the ways her ancestry affects her life, alongside her telling of these epic revolutionaries. A vivid combination of graphic novel and memoir, Wake “sets a new standard for illustrating history” (NPR).
In the Heart of the Sea
By Nathaniel Philbrick
Moby Dick is a classic work of literature, but the real-life events that inspired Melville’s novel are not nearly as well-known. From award-winning author Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea tells the tragic true-life saga of the whaleship Essex. Informed by obscure documents and research into whaling traditions, Philbrick chronicles the crew’s desperate fight for survival. In 1820, the Essex went under after being rammed by a sperm whale. The surviving crew members were left to fend for themselves, drifting across the open ocean for months in a trio of small boats. Brilliantly detailed and brimming with historical whaling lore, In the Heart of the Sea is an enthralling, and chilling, true-life tale.
By Liza Mundy
Liza Mundy champions the women who served as top-secret code-breakers during World War II in this New York Times bestselling account of unknown history. While men were recruited to fight on the front lines, the U.S. Army and Navy quietly enlisted thousands of women from around the country to learn the methodical skill of code-breaking. Though their work was instrumental in saving lives and ending the war, their efforts were so shrouded in secrecy that their contributions were all but wiped from history. Code Girls rectifies this fact, delivering an illuminating story of unsung American heroes enriched by expert research and firsthand accounts from surviving code girls themselves.