Walker's Bookshelf

A Window into the Past

There are a lot of ways that we, as readers, connect to literature. By providing a window into the past, historical fiction not only helps us understand a particular historical time period but also encourages us to empathize with others from a different time and a different place.

Here is a list of historical fiction novels you can borrow in the library now.

by Courtney Maum

What it is: 15-year-old Lara’s recounting of her heiress mother’s scheme to smuggle a group of Surrealist artists out of Nazi Germany and install them at Mexico’s posh Costalegre resort.

Inspired by: the complicated mother-daughter relationship of American socialite Peggy and painter Pegeen Guggenheim.

Why you might like it: Structured as a series of diary entries, this novel juxtaposes keen observations of Costalegre’s bohemian guests with a lonely girl’s quest to become an artist in her own right.

The Women of the Copper Country: A Novel
by Mary Doria Russell

Starring: Labor activist Annie Clements, who in 1913 led a strike against a Montana copper-mining company.

Is it for you? Closer in tone to Doc than The Sparrow, this well-researched historical novel unfolds from multiple perspectives, all rendered in lyrical prose.

Want a taste? “Running lengthwise down the peninsula’s center, like the blood gutter of a bayonet, are the richest copper desposits on earth.” 

The Ventriloquists: A Novel
by E.R. Ramzipoor

Belgium, 1943: Ordered to produce pro-Nazi propaganda, a group of journalists and resistance fighters instead publish a parody newspaper mocking the Fuhrer, knowing full well it will be the last thing they ever do.

Why you might like it: Inspired by true events, this well-researched novel boasts a briskly paced storyline, a balanced blend of humor and suspense, and an LBGTQIA-diverse cast that takes turns narrating.

For fans of: Paul Goldberg’s The Yid, which similarly unspools a madcap scheme to thwart fascists by a group of marginalized intellectuals.

Out of Darkness, Shining Light
by Petina Gappah

What it’s about: The harrowing 1,500-mile, nine-month journey undertaken by the African servants of Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone as they transport his body to the coast of Tanzania.

Narrated by: cynical Halima, the band’s cook, and loyal Jacob Wainwright, educated by missionaries following his manumission.

What sets it apart: Livingstone is a minor character in Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah’s novel, which “captures the diverse cultural milieu of colonial Africa with compelling detail” (Kirkus Reviews).

The Secrets We Kept
by Lara Prescott

What it’s about: The CIA’s plan to smuggle copies of Boris Pasternak’s banned novel Dr. Zhivago into Moscow as anti-Soviet propaganda.

Starring: Russian-born secretary-turned-spy Irina; her handler Sally, with whom she begins an affair; and Pasternak’s mistress, Olga, who refuses to incriminate her lover and lands in the gulag. 

Want a taste? “Some of us spoke Mandarin. Some could fly planes. Some of us could handle a Colt 1873 better than John Wayne. But all we were asked when interviewed was, ‘Can you type?'”

The Shadow King: A Novel
by Maaza Mengiste

Ethiopia, 1935: Orphaned Hirut joins the fight against Italy’s invading army by serving as bodyguard to the “Shadow King,” a stand-in for exiled Emperor Haile Selassie.

What sets it apart: Not only does this lyrical novel by the author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze depict a lesser-known conflict, Hirut’s journey from servant to soldier offers a change from war stories that portray women exclusively as casualties or refugees

The Sweetest Fruits
by Monique Truong

What it’s about: The peripatetic life of writer Lafcadio Hearn, the son of a Greek mother and an Irish father, who works as a journalist in the United States and Martinique before settling in Japan.

Why you might like it: Four women — Hearn’s mother, his wives, and his biographer — reveal different aspects of a protean man as he reinvents himself.

For fans of: iconoclastic biographical novels with multiple narrators who describe their relationships with charismatic men, such as T.C. Boyle’s The Women or Louisa Hall’s Trinity.

The Hunger
by Alma Katsu

What it is: a chilling, often visceral retelling of the Donner Party’s ill-fated overland journey, in which supernatural forces stalk the wagon train.

Is it for you? While this well-researched novel adheres closely to the known facts, the introduction of elements such as lycanthropy and ghosts may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

For fans of: menacing historical horror à la Dan Simmons’ The Terror or F.R. Tallis’ The Passenger.