Don’t Know Much About History

by Marie B. 

I was a not a good student when the subject was history.  Oh, I passed those classes in high school, but not due to any fervor on my part for the subject matter.  History always seemed so dry.  In fact, it bored my socks off.  If only my teachers had assigned a good historical fiction novel!

There are some variations on the historical fiction theme so there is something for virtually everyone.

Historical fiction can include story lines that run alongside true events.  In John JakesNorth and South, the lives of two friends play out against the backdrop of the American Civil War.

In clever twists, authors alter history to explore the what-if factor.  What if there was a way to stop the assassination of President Kennedy?  That is precisely the scenario Stephen King explores in 11/22/63.

In biographical fiction, real people appear in fictionalized stories.  A good example of this sub-genre is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, which plants a plucky (fictional) boy into the lives of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky.

The best historical fiction novels are compelling reads that leave me wanting to know more about the people and events of the times.   “Meeting” real people from history within the pages of a novel somehow makes them feel more real.  I don’t have a favorite period in history, though many readers do.  Rather, my reading spans millennia. 

The Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters feature a soldier-turned-monk who sidelines as an amateur sleuth in this series set in medieval England.  Tired from life as a soldier in the Crusades, Cadfael becomes a Benedictine monk and is happy in his work as Shrewsbury Abbey’s herbalist.  When the evil that men do gets too close to home, Cadfael sometimes assists the local constabulary.   What I love most about these novels is Peters’ knowledge of the language and details of the times.  If you enjoy the stories as much as I do, I also recommend the television adaptation featuring Derek Jacobi as Cadfael.

My Irish pen pal recommended Trinity by Leon Uris.  Although it’s a work of fiction, Margaret claimed she’d never read another book that was as faithful to Irish history.   I admit to being daunted when the paperback arrived in my hot little hands.  It was nearly 1000 pages in minuscule print.  Frankly, it felt like homework and I found myself feeling indignant.  I planned to give it the old Rule of 50 try, and, after reading the requisite number of pages, I’d toss it aside with a clean conscience.  Except I couldn’t put it down.  It was beautifully written, page-turning reading from the first paragraph to the last sentence.   It’s intricately plotted, filled with people I quickly came to care about, and it brought Ireland to life in vivid detail.  It remains one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read.

I found myself smack dab in the middle of a bucolic village in 20th century England with Alan C. Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries.  The youngest of three motherless children, Flavia lives with her father and sisters in the crumbling family home.  A genius with a particular affection for poisons, she’s been given the run of her uncle’s chemistry lab.  Flavia navigates the vagaries of childhood and solves the odd mystery.  Warning:  You must read these in order or doom will befall you.  Start with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

What are your favorite historical fiction titles and authors?  Do you have a favorite period?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.  Meanwhile, check out this list with a few more titles you might enjoy.



8 responses to “Don’t Know Much About History”

  1. Lindsey A. says:

    I’ve never heard of Trinity! It sounds right up my alley so I had to add it to my TBR. And I STILL need to read the Brother Cadfael and Flavia de Luce mysteries. You brought those to my attention years ago!

  2. Erin L. says:

    I too am adding Trinity to my list! Also, if you like the Brother Cadfael mysteries you might like the Sister Fidelma mysteries by Peter Tremayne aka Peter Berresford Ellis. As an historian he uses his knowledge of 7th century Ireland and creates a fictional character in Sister Fidelma who is a nun but is also a law scholar/private investigator. Each book starts with a list of historical facts that are not generally known and makes the fiction that much deeper. Let’s just say ancient Ireland was much more progressive than we imagine in it’s laws and customs.

    • Marie B. says:

      Thanks for the recommendation, Erin. The presentation of facts at the beginning sound like the perfect way to pique my interest – and get me reading nonfiction to discover more. The Sister Fidelma series is now on my to-read list!

  3. Rachel Mead says:

    Thanks to all for introducing me to “new to me” historical fiction authors, Peter Tremayne and Alan Bradley. I can’t wait to read them. I am also anxious to read Stephen King’s “11-22-63”. I had no idea he wrote historical fiction. Thank you so much. Rachel M.

  4. Emilly says:

    I enjoy civil war fiction and WW2 stories
    I did enjoy history in school, but mostly because I was learning about other customs and peoples.

    • Marie B. says:

      Emily, if you enjoy Civil War fiction, you may enjoy Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January mysteries, which are set in New Orleans in the 1830s. The first in the series is A Free Man of Color. I love the rich historical detail and compelling plot.

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