Historical (But Not WWII)
Read a historical novel that takes place anytime except during World War II.
June 1, 2021
Don’t get us wrong—we love novels set in World War II—but there are so many other eras to discover!
This list is part of the 2021 Adult Summer Reading program.
All the Children Are Home
When Dahlia decided to become a foster mother, she had a few caveats: no howling newborns, no delinquents, and above all, no girls. A harrowing incident years before left her a virtual prisoner in her own home, forever wary of the heartbreak and limitation of a girl’s life. Eleven years after they began fostering, Dahlia and Louie consider their family complete, but when the social worker begs them to take a young girl who has been horrifically abused and neglected, they can’t say no.
Six-year-old Agnes Juniper arrives with no knowledge of her Native American heritage or herself beyond a box of trinkets given to her by her mother and dreamlike memories of her sister. As the years pass and outside forces threaten to tear them apart, the children, now young adults, must find the courage and resilience to save themselves and each other.
Ten years after the Mayflower pilgrims arrived on rocky, unfamiliar soil, Plymouth is not the land its residents had imagined. Seemingly established on a dream of religious freedom, in reality the town is led by fervent puritans who prohibit the residents from living, trading, and worshiping as they choose. By the time an unfamiliar ship, bearing new colonists, appears on the horizon one summer morning, Anglican outsiders have had enough.
The Children’s Blizzard
Draws on oral histories of the Great Plains blizzard of 1888 to depict the experiences of two teachers, a servant, and a reporter who risk everything to protect the children of immigrant homesteaders.
A Fall of Marigolds
September 1911. On Ellis Island in New York Harbor, nurse Clara Wood cannot face returning to Manhattan, where the man she loved fell to his death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Then, while caring for a fevered immigrant whose own loss mirrors hers, she becomes intrigued by a name embroidered onto the scarf he carries… and finds herself caught in a dilemma that compels her to confront the truth about the assumptions she’s made. Will what she learns devastate her or free her?
The Frozen Hours
A clash between a North Korean invading army in 1950 South Korea and a U.S. defense force is challenged by overwhelmingly brutal weather conditions in a high-action account of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir that is told from the viewpoints of soldiers and leaders on both sides of the conflict.
The Girls With No Names
In New York City in the 1910s, Luella and Effie Tildon realize that even as wealthy young women, their freedoms come with limits. When the sisters discover a shocking secret about their father, Luella, the brazen elder sister, becomes emboldened to do as she pleases. Her rebellion comes with consequences, and Effie suspects her father has sent Luella to the “House of Mercy.” Effie gets herself committed to save her sister, but when Effie’s own escape seems impossible she must rely on an enigmatic girl named Mable to survive.
A short, piercing, deeply moving novel about the death of Shakespeare’s 11 year old son Hamnet and the years leading up to the production of his great play.
England, 1580. A young Latin tutor—penniless, bullied by a violent father—falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes understands plants and potions better than she does people, but once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose gifts as a writer are just beginning to awaken when his beloved young son succumbs to bubonic plague.
Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, unknown to each other, are born into two different tribal villages in 18th century Ghana. Effia will be married off to an English colonial, and will live in comfort in the sprawling, palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle, raising half-caste children who will be sent abroad to be educated in England before returning to the Gold Coast to serve as administrators of the Empire. Her sister, Esi, will be imprisoned beneath Effia in the Castle’s women’s dungeon, and then shipped off on a boat bound for America, where she will be sold into slavery.
Stretching from the tribal wars of Ghana to slavery and Civil War in America, from the coal mines in the north to the Great Migration to the streets of 20th century Harlem, Yaa Gyasi’s has written a modern masterpiece, a novel that moves through histories and geographies and—with outstanding economy and force—captures the troubled spirit of our own nation
The Man Who Lived Underground
Fred Daniels, a black man, is picked up randomly by the police after a brutal murder in a Chicago neighborhood and taken to the local precinct where he is tortured until he confesses to a crime he didn’t commit. After signing a confession, he escapes from the precinct and takes up residence in the sewers below the streets of Chicago.
The Mountains Sing
Phan Qué̂ Mai Nguyẽ̂n
The multigenerational tale of the Trà̂n family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trà̂n Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that will tear not just her beloved country but her family apart.
The Movement of Stars
Amateur astronomer Hannah Gardner Price has lived all twenty-four years of her life according to the principles of the Nantucket Quaker community in which she was raised. Then she meets Isaac Martin, a young, dark-skinned whaler from the Azores who, like herself, has ambitions beyond his expected station in life. Drawn to his intellectual curiosity and honest manner, Hannah agrees to take Isaac on as a student. But when their shared interest in the stars develops into something deeper, Hannah’s standing in the community begins to unravel.
My Name is Mary Sutter
Mary Sutter is a brilliant, headstrong midwife from Albany, New York, who dreams of becoming a surgeon. Determined to overcome the prejudices against women in medicine-and eager to run away from her recent heartbreak- Mary leaves home and travels to Washington, D.C. to help tend the legions of Civil War wounded.
Under the guidance of William Stipp and James Blevens-two surgeons who fall unwittingly in love with Mary’s courage, will, and stubbornness in the face of suffering-and resisting her mother’s pleas to return home to help with the birth of her twin sister’s baby, Mary pursues her medical career in the desperately overwhelmed hospitals of the capital.
The Nickel Boys
1960s Florida. Kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood Curtis is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South, one mistake is enough to destroy the future. He is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.” In reality, the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” He meets Turner, who knows that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. A decision creates repercussions that will echo down the decades.
No Graves as Yet
Learning about the untimely deaths of his parents, Cambridge professor Joseph Reavley is horrified when his father’s acts of sedition are discovered, a situation that is complicated by the murder of a gifted and popular student, in a novel set against the backdrop of World War I.
The Orphan Collector
Ellen Marie Wiseman
Thirteen-year-old German immigrant Pia Lange longs to be far from Philadelphia’s overcrowded slums and the anti-immigrant sentiment that compelled her father to enlist in the U.S. Army. But as her city celebrates the end of war, an even more urgent threat arrives: the Spanish flu. When food runs out, Pia must venture alone into the quarantined city in search of supplies, leaving her baby brothers behind.
Bernice Groves has become lost in grief and bitterness since her baby died from the Spanish flu. Watching Pia leave her brothers alone, Bernice makes a shocking, life-altering decision. It becomes her sinister mission to tear families apart when they’re at their most vulnerable, planning to transform the city’s orphans and immigrant children into what she feels are “true Americans.” As Bernice plots to keep the truth hidden at any cost in the months and years that follow, Pia must confront her own shame and fear, risking everything to see justice—and love—triumph at last.
Orphans of the Carnival
Vilified and celebrated for a facial disfigurement from hypertrichosis, Julia, an accomplished musician, dancer, and rider capable of speaking three languages makes her fortune touring the world before meeting a man who may love her or only want her for her fame.
Our Woman in Moscow
To save her sister, who, along with her American diplomat husband and children, is trapped behind the Iron Curtain, Ruth Macallister embarks on a dangerous mission, and as the sisters race toward safety, a dogged Soviet agent forces them to make a heartbreaking choice.
Min Jin Lee
Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all.
Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan. So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.
Pillars of the Earth
Set in twelfth-century England, this epic of kings and peasants juxtaposes the building of a magnificent church with the violence and treachery that often characterized the Middle Ages.
In 1782, during the final clashes of the Revolutionary War, one of our young nation’s most valiant and beloved soldiers was, secretly, a woman. When Deborah Samson disguised herself as a man and joined the Continental Army, she wasn’t just fighting for America’s independence—she was fighting for her own.
After years as an indentured servant in a sleepy Massachusetts town, chafing under the oppressive norms of colonial America, Deborah can’t contain her discontent any longer. When a sudden crisis forces her hand, she decides to finally make her escape. Embracing the peril and promise of the unknown, she cuts her hair, binds her chest, and, stealing clothes from a neighbor, rechristens herself Robert Shurtliff. It’s a desperate, dangerous, and complicated deception, and becomes only more so when, as Robert, she enlists in the Continental Army.
Simon the Fiddler
In March 1865, the long and bitter War between the States is winding down. Till now, twenty-three-year-old Simon Boudlin has evaded military duty thanks to his slight stature, youthful appearance, and utter lack of compunction about bending the truth. But following a barroom brawl in Victoria, Texas, Simon finds himself conscripted, however belatedly, into the Confederate Army.
Luckily his talent with a fiddle gets him a comparatively easy position in a regimental band. There the quick-thinking, audacious fiddler can’t help but notice the lovely Doris Mary Dillon, an indentured girl from Ireland. After the surrender, Simon and Doris go their separate ways. He will travel around Texas seeking fame and fortune as a musician. She must accompany the colonel’s family to finish her three years of service. But Simon cannot forget the fair Irish maiden, and vows that someday he will find her again.
Martha Hall Kelly
Union nurse Georgeanna Woolsey travels with her sister to Gettysburg, where they cross paths with a slave-turned-army conscript and her cruel plantation mistress.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
The narrator, a communist double agent, is a man of two minds; a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the Fall of Saigon, and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity and America, a gripping espionage novel, and a powerful story of love and friendship.
Three Day Road
Set in Canada and the battlefields of France and Belgium, Three-Day Road is a mesmerizing novel told through the eyes of Niska—a Canadian Oji-Cree woman living off the land who is the last of a line of healers and diviners—and her nephew Xavier.
At the urging of his friend Elijah, a Cree boy raised in reserve schools, Xavier joins the war effort. Both become snipers renowned for their uncanny accuracy. But while Xavier struggles to understand the purpose of the war and to come to terms with his conscience for the many lives he has ended, Elijah becomes obsessed with killing. Eventually the harrowing and bloody truth of war takes its toll on the two friends in different, profound ways. Intertwined with this account is the story of Niska, who herself has borne witness to a lifetime of death—the death of her people.
Washington Black is an eleven-year-old field slave who knows no other life than the Barbados sugar plantation where he was born. When his master’s eccentric brother chooses him to be his manservant, Wash is terrified of the cruelties he is certain await him. But Christopher Wilde, or “Titch,” is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor, and abolitionist. He initiates Wash into a world where a flying machine can carry a man across the sky; where two people, separated by an impossible divide, might begin to see each other as human; and where a boy born in chains can embrace a life of dignity and meaning.
When a man is killed and a bounty is placed on Wash’s head, Titch abandons everything to save him. What follows is their flight along the eastern coast of America, and, finally, to a remote outpost in the Arctic, where Wash, left on his own, must invent another new life.
Henry VIII’s challenge to the church’s power with his desire to divorce his queen and marry Anne Boleyn set off a tidal wave of religious, political and societal turmoil that reverberated throughout 16th-century Europe. Mantel boldly attempts to capture the sweeping internecine machinations of the times from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the lowborn man who became one of Henry’s closest advisers. Cromwell’s actual beginnings are historically ambiguous, and Mantel admirably fills in the blanks, portraying Cromwell as an oft-beaten son who fled his father’s home, fought for the French, studied law and was fluent in French, Latin and Italian.