Not too long ago I was out walking Sparky when one of my neighbors stopped me on the street and asked me what she should read on vacation. I’m good at this game. I asked her what she liked.
“Historical fiction,” she said.
Suddenly I’m not good at this game. When it comes to historical fiction I draw a blank, so I reach for my go-to historical fiction author and recommend the trusty and literary novels of Geraldine Brooks. My neighbor rolls her eyes. Do I think she’s been living under a rock? She’s already read all of Geraldine Brooks.
If Geraldine Brooks couldn’t solve my immediate problem of recommending a book to my neighbor, I figured she could solve my larger problem of being unschooled in historical fiction. As luck would have it, I don’t just read Geraldine Brooks, I know her. When I saw her recently I explained my short-comings and asked if she could recommend her favorite works of historical fiction so that I, in turn, would know what to recommend.
I told her this was an unacceptable answer, and as soon as she started thinking about it she came up with an excellent list. Here’s the problem: when a book is good you tend not to think of it in terms of a category. I don’t think of Geraldine’s fabulous Pulitzer Prize-winning book March as historical fiction, I just think of it as a perfectly written and deeply moving novel that I love. So maybe the problem is really one of perception. She put Cold Mountain on her list, a book I never thought about handing to people who want historical fiction. How thrilling! Cold Mountain came out 20 years ago, so it’s high time to reintroduce it to a new generation of readers.
As a gift to Musing readers, Geraldine Brooks has given us descriptions of her favorite historical novels. She writes:
This was the book that inspired me to write historical fiction. Renault captures the strangeness of the ancient world but connects us to it through the familiar and unchanging human emotions. Her narrator is the peripheral historical figure Bagoas, who served Alexander the Great during his years of conquest.
This is a deep dive into character, telling the story of the famed expedition through four distinct and remarkably evoked personalities. The primary one is the lonely, haunted Meriwether Lewis but the most creatively rendered is Sacagawea, whose thoughts flow in a Shoshone cadence that is both lush and earthy.
In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel seems to know Thomas Cromwell on the cellular level. If I believed in past lives, I’d be convinced she once was him, ducking and weaving through the perilous court of Henry VIII, feeling the nap of the velvet, breathing the mist on the Thames.
This novel takes scant references in Moby Dick to Captain Ahab’s young, unnamed bride and builds out the textured story of a woman fascinating enough to have attracted such a man. Una, intellectual, brave and ardent, is drawn into the roiling movements of 19th century antebellum America — transcendentalism, abolition, feminism. It’s as formidable as it needs to be to stand near Melville’s classic.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. One of my favorite love stories, with sentences so beautiful they make me sigh.
And to this list I’d ask that you please add these brilliant novels by Geraldine that you lovers of historical fiction have no doubt already read: Caleb’s Crossing, People of the Book, Year of Wonders, March, and The Secret Chord.
We’re going to put all these books together in the store and we’re going to take suggestions and keep expanding the list. It feels like a good time to look to the past. Even the difficult and exhausting parts of the past seem comforting and full of lessons right now. So come in a tell us your favorite historical novels. We’d love to hear about them, and we’d love to see you.
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PS: The bookstore staff chimed in with a few more. Consider these just the tip of the iceberg . . .
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks
Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
The Passion by Jeannette Winterson
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Victoria by Daisy Goodwin
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
The Chilbury Ladies Choir and The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
Circling the Sun and The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
Isadora by Amelia Gray
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit
The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
To Capture What We Cannot Keep by Beatrice Colin
News of the World by Paulette Giles
The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck