Genre: Historical Fiction

October 28, 2014
MLS Whately

Benchmark: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

Historical Fiction Resources:

Notes on Discussion

Historical fiction is by definition (Saricks) set in the past, before the author’s lifetime or experience. Lots of research, historical detail. These books provide a painless method of learning history.

These are big books, require a major investment of time to read. They utilize a wide range of tone and mood. Characters’ lives and actions are shaped by the times, details and events of their historical period.

World-building is crucial. Readers will find a wealth of details relating to the setting. Accuracy is extremely important. Story lines follow either a particular character or characters or a particular time or event. They need to behave in ways consistent with their time period.

Pacing tends to feel slower because of the length of the story and the amount of detail.

Appropriate language depends upon the reader – some are intrigued by period language; others need more contemporary language to access the story.

Benchmark title: Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara.

Comments: Recommend to readers who like Hemingway. Books that may appeal to readers who enjoyed: Red Badge of Courage, Cold Mountain.

Second titles:

Physician by Noah Gordon. Reads steadily; lots of well-developed characters. Created clear, detailed 11th century Britain and Persia. Suspenseful in parts. Next books in the Cole trilogy: Shaman (Civil War) and Matters of Choice (contemporary 1990’s).

Pearl of China by Anchee Min (based on life of Pearl Buck). Strong sense of late 19th century China. Character-driven, engaging.

Doc by Mary Doria Russell (based on life of Doc Holliday). Moving, strong sense of 1878 Dodge City, Kansas. Descriptive, richly detailed. Character-driven. Robert B. Parker – Gunman’s Rhapsody; Loren D. Estleman – The Branch and the Scaffold.

Spider in a Tree by Susan Stinson (based on Jonathan Edwards’s time in Northampton). Leisurely paced, richly detailed. Stylistically complex.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (based on life of fossil hunter Mary Anning). 19th century English spinster. Dramatic. John Fowles –The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fanny Flagg. Mystery set in America in the 1940’s. Leisurely paced, funny, conversational.

Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Sweeping historical family saga of a business man who made his fortune in the quinine trade. His daughter becomes a distinguished botanist. A sweeping romance in the 18th century. Katharine McMahon – The Alchemist’s Daughter. Lori Baker – The Glass Ocean. Booklist Editors’ Choice – Best Fiction Books: 2013; New York Times Notable Books – Fiction and Poetry: 2013

The Wet Nurse’s Tale by Erica Eisdorfer. A Victorian woman takes a job as wet nurse to her own child, sold by her father. Engaging, bawdy; approachable for non-historical fiction readers.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Death tells the story of Liesel, a young German girl and book thief. Leisurely paced, character-driven. Haunting, stylistically complex. A compelling story.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. A French girl and German boy in the devastation of WWII. A/YA. Atmospheric, dramatic, moving. Compelling, stylistically complex. Michael Ondaatje – The English Patient; Jennifer Haigh – Baker Towers.

Shaggy Muses by Maureen Adams (nonfiction). Not historical fiction, but explores the relationships between five women writers and their dogs.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (YA). Not strictly historical fiction. Civil war in Sudan. Intricately plotted, strong sense of place. Moving.

Katherine by Anya Seton (based on life of Katherine Swynford of medieval England). The true love story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt. Character-driven, richly detailed. Chaucer’s England (14th century). Bernard Cornwell – Agincourt; Philippa Gregory – The King’s Curse.

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (based on the Dreyfus Affair). Dark, hard-edged story of conspiracy and espionage; atmospheric, suspenseful. Intricately plotted. Susan Daitch – The Paper Conspiracies; Leonard Wolf – Traitor.

Snobbery with Violence by Marion Chesney. Mystery in an Edwardian setting. Fast-paced, funny. Not strictly historical ficton.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. A/YA. WWII prisoner, held captive in France by sadistic Nazis. Character-driven; haunting, suspenseful. Booklist Editors’ Choice – Books for Youth – Older Readers Category: 2012; Library Journal Best YA Lit for Adults.

Anything Goes by Jill Churchill. After the Crash of 1929, siblings Lily and Robert are seemingly saved by inheriting Uncle Horatio’s mansion. Except he was murdered. More mystery than historical fiction. Character-driven, engaging. Susan Wittig Albert – The Darling Dahlias and the Silver Dollar Bush; Rhys Bowen – In Like Flynn.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue. Historical mystery set in 1870’s San Francisco. Fast-paced, atmospheric. Writing – lush, lyrical. Compelling. Sandra Dallas – Fallen Women; Phillip Margulies – Belle Cora.

Golden Age by Gore Vidal (Roosevelt and other historical figures). U.S. politics and culture from 1939 to 1954. Leisurely paced and intricately plotted. Richly detailed and atmospheric. Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall; E.L. Doctorow – Ragtime.

The Kept by James Scott (Hatfield author!). After her husband and four of her children are brutally murdered in the winter of 1897, midwife Elspeth Howell and her surviving son, twelve-year-old Caleb, takes on the frozen wilderness to find the men responsible for destroying their family. Character-driven. Compelling story, atmospheric, haunting, melancholy.

Second Titles

Name: Mary Bell

  • Title: Doc
  • Author: Mary Doria Russell
  • Appeal Factors: Pacing – deliberate; Characterization – detailed and compelling; Language – almost elegant, very descriptive and immersive;  Tone – elegiac, but not depressing;  Frame – tells the story of John Henry “Doc” Holliday’s life, but focuses primarily on Dodge City, Kansas, 1878.
  • Summary/Thoughts: Mary Doria Russell’s literary historical fiction explores the  life of John Henry Holliday, from his early days growing up in Georgia with his cousins to his fight with tuberculosis and eventual move to Dodge City, Kansas, where he forged his friendship with Morgan Earp and his brother, Wyatt. The writing style really shines, with great description and detail. The narrative voice sometimes comes out and talks to the reader, who is expected to know a little more than I did about what happens “after” this story – the gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona – and this future event hangs over the story giving it an almost melancholy tone. The story will continue in Epitaph, which comes out in March 2015.

Name: Jan Resnick

  • Title: The Physician
  • Author: Noah Gordon
  • Appeal Factors: Leisurely paced; Characterization – well-developed main character, complex secondary characters; Language – descriptive, engaging; Story – intricately-plotted, character-driven; Tone – strong sense of place and time, suspense; Frame – 11th century Britain and Persia
  • Summary/Thoughts: Nine year old Rob Cole loses his family to childbirth, illness and poverty.  When Barber takes him on as an apprentice, he finds salvation and his life purpose.  The traveling medicine gig with juggling, patter and some real understanding of healing, leads Rob to his passionate desire to become a true physician.  The education he desires leads him to disguise himself as a Jew and a two-year journey to Persia to study with the legendary teacher Ibn Sina.  From LJ:  “Gordon has written an adventurous and inspiring tale of a quest for medical knowledge pursued in a violent world full of superstition and prejudice.”
    The story will appeal to readers who like detailed, complex stories.  The novel provides lots of information on the development of medical learning and life in Britain and Persia.  Interesting background to current issues in the Middle East.
  • Similar authors:  Gordon – Shaman, Matters of Choice; Xinran – Sky Burial; Hilary Mantel

Name: Carol Baldwin

  • Title: A Long Walk to Water
  • Author: Linda Sue Park
  • Appeal Factors: Direct, simple, yet profoundly moving
  • Summary/Thoughts: This book tells the story of two people from Sudan, who face tremendous hardship. Their country is in turmoil, and one character’s story is set in 1985, the other in 2005. Told in a straightforward manner, the story is powerful and effective, appropriate for grade 6 reading level and beyond. Juv/YA

Name: Marjorie Curtis

  • Title: Anything Goes
  • Author: Jill Churchill
  • Appeal Factors: plot driven, strong sense of place and time
  • Summary/Thoughts: Though a mystery, this book and its sequels, are very firmly grounded in the Great Depression, and the effects on both those who were the moneyed and those who emphatically were not.  There is sometimes too much of the historical aspects to move the story along quickly, but does give a reason for the disparate characters to come together, and is good for those who wish to understand a little bit more of what it was like to live then . . .  and be mildly entertained by the mystery that is presented.

Name: Faith Kaufmann

  • Title: The signature of all things
  • Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Appeal Factors: sense of place and historical period, literary style, character-driven
  • Summary/Thoughts: Alma Whitaker is born in 1800 and the novel spans her 90 years plus 30 of her father’s before her. Their lives and characters development are integrated with a rich background covering the development of science in the 19th century. Botany, the early pharmaceutical industry, merchant shipping and whaling, the cultures of London, Amsterdam, Philadelphia and Tahiti (as missionaries both change that society and integrate themselves into it) are drawn in fascinating detail. The characters are explicit in their particulars, each unique, flawed and still sympathetic for the most part. The pacing is very good at first while Henry Whitaker’s early career takes him all over the globe, and Alma grows up isolated and highly educated on Henry’s New World estate. The language evokes Victorian novels, further drawing the reader into the historical frame. In the second half the action slowed and the protagonist’s inner thoughts became repetitious, but overall I’d recommend it and forgive you if you didn’t finish the whole thing.

Name: Lisa Downing

  • Title: Spider in a Tree
  • Author: Susan Stinson
  • Appeal Factors: Well researched, elegant writing, introspective
  • Summary/Thoughts: Set in Northampton in the time of Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth century preacher and theologian best known for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Leah and Saul, enslaved in the Edwards household, are central to the story.

Name: Lyndsay Johnson

  • Title: The Wet Nurse’s Tale
  • Author: Erica Eisdorfer
  • Appeal Factors: Character-Driven, Bittersweet, Mildly Sensuous

Name: Jodi Levine

  • Title: The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion
  • Author: Fannie Flagg
  • Appeal Factors: character-driven, homespun
  • Summary/Thoughts: When 60 year-old Southern woman raised by a domineering mother, a Southern belle proud of her heritage, suddenly learns that she was adopted and is the biological child of a Polish woman from Wisconsin.  Her life is turned upside down as she struggles to learn her heritage.  The narrative goes back & forth between her story in the 1980s and her birth family’s story set in the years leading up to WW2 through the war itself.  The family ran a gas station and some of the girls were barnstormers who later went on to fly with the WASPs during the war.  Very interesting feminist take on World War 2.  It talked about some aspects of the home front that I didn’t know much about.  A good crossover for readers who enjoy Southern fiction or women’s fiction.

Name: Linda Wentworth

  • Title: Remarkable Creatures
  • Author: Tracy Chevalier
  • Appeal Factors: rich setting, well-developed characters, interesting intellectual ideas
  • Summary/Thoughts: Fascinating story of 2 true-life women who lived in 18th-century England, and made many important scientific discoveries pertaining to evolution.

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