At least once a week, I get a text from a friend saying something along the lines of Hey, what’s up? I need a book list — stat! These requests come in from new mamas needing to unwind, busy teachers looking for an escape from reality, out-of-practice readers looking to rekindle their bookish flame but not sure where to start.
I absolutely relish these calls to action, certain that I can find something among the titles on my shelves to capture their interest. And here’s the thing: I can never choose just one title to share with them. It’s almost a burden, loving books so much . . . 😉
One of my favorite genres to recommend from: historical fiction & nonfiction. To be quite honest, I didn’t retain much from my high school/college history classes and I’m quite certain that 85% of what I know about past events comes from my obsessive reading of historical nonfiction and fiction. (Also a major reason I advocate so highly for frequent reading, as a teacher.)
To the point, though — here’s a list of some of my favorite historical reads, in both the fiction and nonfiction categories.
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Fiction. This multigenerational tome centers on the often-grueling circumstances of Sunja’s family: poor Koreans living in the shadow of Japanese racism post-WWII. Actually, the novel starts much earlier, at the start of the 1900s, with Sunja’s father’s birth; so readers gain a very insightful look at the relationship between Koreans and Japanese as well as both cultures. The writing is stark and though lengthy, the novel demands to be read diligently and without pause (when possible). Read more about it here.
- Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. Nonfiction. Quite possibly my favorite work of nonfiction, ever, Seabiscuit is an endearing and emotional tale of one of the nation’s most formidable racehorses — and an absolutely thrilling comeback story. The story opens in the early 1900s and follows the lives of Seabiscuit’s owner, jockey, and trainer before introducing the legend himself. In the tumultuous and dramatic times of the Great Depression and World War II, Seabiscuit became an American hero and a symbol of the working class. Hillenbrand’s novel offers a fascinating portrait of this era, as well as a heartwarming and rousing emotional read. (Bonus: the film adaptation is also fantastic.)
- The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Fiction. A searing tale of two young girls bound together by slavery — one, slave; the other, master — well into their adult years, The Invention of Wings is more than an engrossing narrative. It’s an uncomfortable, disturbing account of a piece of American history based on the very real lives of the Grimke sisters — born into a prominent Southern family of slaveowners, the pair were decidedly abolitionist in an unprecedented way for women of the time.
- October Sky by Homer Hickam. Nonfiction – Memoir. I originally discovered this gem in high school, some time after having watched the film adaptation. Originally titled Rocket Boys, this piece of NF is at once charming, laugh-inducing, gut-wrenching, and hopeful. Nestled in coal mining country in West Virginia, October Sky is the true story of Homer Hickam’s quest to be more than a miner and break free of the predetermined path set forth for boys in his town. Inspired by Sputnik‘s race across the sky, Hickam dreams of building his own rockets to send to the stars. His dad’s not happy about it, his mom can’t offer much in the way of open support, and he and his friends are the laughingstock of the drab community; but Hickam persists in his pursuit of outer space and the resulting narrative is an absolutely magnificent tale of perseverance and the heartbreaking nature of dreams.
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Fiction. This World War II-era novel is a bestseller for a reason: the gripping coming-of-age tale is absolutely stunning in its own haunted way. With an omniscient narrator (Death himself), the novel kicks off in Nazi-occupied Germany at the end of the 1930s. Liesel Meminger, given to strangers by her mother who cannot care for her any longer, comes to live on Himmel Street with the Hubermanns — a jovial man and his crabby wife who come to love Liesel like a daughter. I’m a huge fan of coming-of-age stories and the beautiful narration in this novel — coupled with the dramatic backdrop of a menacing time period — makes this an unputdownable read.
- ‘Tis by Frank McCourt. Nonfiction – Memoir. I didn’t know how much I loved memoirs until I read this gut-busting (and often tearjerking) tale of an Irish immigrant’s arrival in the “promised land” that America has been to so many over the decades. Frank McCourt arrived in America in 1949, fulfilling a dream of his and at once leaving behind the dismal poverty that had marked his life in Ireland (only to find more troubles in the land he’d so long dreamed of making his new home). I was fascinated by the tidbits of history and laughed out loud at the naive observations of the young Catholic boy in the big city of New York.
- The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Fiction. Set in post-WWII Germany, this brief novel (200 pages in my rather small edition) is utterly captivating. “When young Michael berg falls ill on his way home from school, he is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover, enthralling him with her passion, but puzzling him with her odd silences. Then she disappears. Michael next sees Hanna when she is on trial for a heinous crime, refusing to defend herself. As he watches, he begins to realize that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.”
- The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Nonfiction. This thrilling account of America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes, is closely woven into the history of the planning, design, and spectacle of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. As a work of narrative nonfiction, I found this novel relatively easy to read and only dry in a few places. The telling alternates a bit between Holmes’ arrival in Chicago (and his subsequent planning stages) and the World’s Fair architects and planning committees, offering readers more than just a glimpse at a serial killer’s timeline. I was fascinated to read about the birth of several modern-day amenities such as shredded wheat, sliced bread, and Juicy Fruit gum.
What are some of your favorite historical reads, both fiction and nonfiction? Tell me in the comments section below!