Fourteen works of historical fiction to read during Women’s History Month

In light of March being Women’s History Month and today being International Women’s Day, I thought I would compile a list of a dozen works of historical fiction that are worth adding to your To Be Read list. I made my selections based in part on whether a book had not received as much attention as it deserves. (That’s why this list does not include Pachinko, Great Circle, Hamnet, The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois, Take My Hand, and other novels that have been nominated for awards or selected by one of the celebrity book clubs.)

Many of these novels shine a light on little known people, issues, and times. They range from the 16th century to the 20th century and from England and Argentina to Canada and Tibet. The books with American settings take place in New York City, San Francisco, rural California, Colorado, and Texas. I’m confident that there is something here for every reader.

Five Little Indians – Michelle Good (2020)

The horrifying abuses committed at Indian Residential Schools in Canada have been in the news the last few years. The government and Catholic Church joined forces to take Native children from their families to be raised and educated at schools that were more like prisons. (Similar schools and policies existed in the U.S. until the 1970s.) Good’s powerful and heartbreaking novel follows five students after their release (and in one case, escape) from a “school” in rural British Columbia, starting in the late 1960s and continuing for several decades. Each character copes with their traumatic experiences in different ways, some more successfully than others. Required reading.

Prize for the Fire – Rilla Askew (2022)

Rilla Askew has written novels about the Tulsa Race Riots (Fire in Beulah), a family drama about Oklahoma pioneers (The Mercy Seat), and the complexities of immigration (Kind of Kin). In her latest novel, she strikes out in a new direction: 16th century England. Prize for the Fire is the story of a fiercely independent young woman named Anne Askew who is forced to take her dead sister’s place in an arranged marriage. She is determined to escape her marriage and the confining expectations in the time of Henry VIII. It’s a timely reminder of the high cost of the struggle for self-determination that has gone on for hundreds (thousands?) of years.

Properties of Thirst – Marianne Wiggins (2022)

Rockwell “Rocky” Rhodes has spent years protecting his California high desert ranch from the LA Water Corporation. In the early days of WWII, his son Stryker enlists and is stationed at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attack. The following year, when the U.S. government decides to build an internment camp for Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans next to the ranch, Rocky is faced with another threat to the family property. Although the Department of the Interior official sent to oversee the construction of the camp is a good man faced with an ethical dilemma, matters become complicated when he befriends Sunny and learns of Rocky’s problems. Properties of Thirst is Wiggins’s first novel since Evidence of Things Unseen (2003), which was a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist. She had nearly finished the manuscript in 2016 when she suffered a stroke. Her daughter, photographer Lara Porzak, worked closely with her mother to finish it over the next few years. It’s a big, gritty, cinematic novel of the American West at mid-century.

Peach Blossom Spring – Melissa Fu (2022)

Peach Blossom Spring is the story of four generations of one family over 60 years. When Japan invades China in 1938, Meilin and her young son, Dao Renshu, flee their home in central China. They eventually end up in Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalists have migrated with the hope of returning to mainland China after the Communists are defeated. The first half of Peach Blossom Spring is an alternately harrowing and heartwarming depiction of refugee life. The second half of the book is the story of Renshu, now renamed Henry Dao, as he attends graduate school in Chicago in the 1960s and settles into life in the United States. But family and political issues complicate his otherwise contented life. Peach Blossom Spring is a satisfying novel that begins as a riveting story of war and refugee life and then shifts to a domestic drama that explores immigration, culture, and heritage.

Passage West – Rishi Reddi (2020)

It’s 1914 when Ram Singh accepts an offer from a friend to work on his farm in California’s Imperial Valley, near the Mexican border. He joins a small group of Indian immigrants trying to make their way in the U.S. Singh’s wife and son are still in India, and he is determined to build a new life in America for them. The Valley has attracted other immigrants, including Mexicans who have fought in the recent revolution. The environment is challenging for farming and farmers, especially when White residents begin to turn against their immigrant neighbors. Passage West is a compelling depiction of a little-known chapter in California’s history.

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On a Night of a Thousand Stars – Andrea Yaryura Clark (2022)

Most Americans are unfamiliar with Argentina’s notorious Dirty War of the mid-1970s, in which the military regime attempted to crush dissent by “disappearing” dissidents and other opponents. In her debut novel, Clark tells the story of Argentine diplomat Santiago Larrea and his family. When he’s named Ambassador to the UN, his daughter Paloma begins to investigate his life in the years leading up to the start of the Dirty War in 1976. What she learns forces her to reconsider her own life. [For nonfiction about this dark chapter in Argentina’s history, read Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number by influential newspaper publisher Jacobo Timerman and My Name is Victoria: The Extraordinary Story of One Woman’s Struggle to Reclaim Her True Identity (Other Press) by Victoria Donda.]

Gilded Mountain – Kate Manning (2022)

This book hits my sweet spot for historical fiction: a young and determined female protagonist who comes of age amidst a labor strike against a powerful company that dominates the local community. In Gilded Mountain, the Pelletiers, a French-Canadian family, settle in Colorado and the father goes to work at the marble quarry. Seventeen-year-old Sylvie Pelletier works for the local newspaper, which has exposed the quarry’s working conditions and is covering the resulting labor strife. Add a credible love story, a probing examination of race and class, a strong sense of place, and prose as clean and crisp as the mountain air, and you’ve got an intellectually and emotionally satisfying read.

Moon and the Mars – Kia Corthron (2021)

Kia Corthron is an award-winning playwright who has turned her hand to writing novels. The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, a portrayal of the lives two white brothers from Alabama and two Black brothers from Maryland from the 1940s into the new century, won the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Award. Moon and the Mars goes back to Civil War-era Lower Manhattan, where the Black and immigrant Irish communities live and work. We see the changing life of the neighborhood and America through the eyes of Theo, who bounces back and forth between her Black and Irish grandmothers but is mostly independent and very observant. This is a deeply researched story, particularly in terms of the dialect spoken by the characters and its depiction of the draft riots (which most people know about from Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York).

A Ballad of Love and Glory – Reyna Grande (2022)

If you’re like most Americans, you probably don’t know much about the Mexican-American War. Grande’s first historical/romance is the story of Ximena Salome, a young curandera who joins the Mexican Army as a nurse when Texas Rangers murder her husband. She meets John Riley and other Irish mercenaries who have deserted the Union Army in Texas to join the Mexican Army and form the St. Patrick’s Battalion. While Ballad was a little more of a melodramatic romance than my usual reading, I enjoyed these characters and learned a lot about the war from the Mexican point of view.

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies – Tsering Yangzom Lama (2022)

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is a capacious novel that sweeps over continents, decades, and generations to depict one family’s escape from Tibet after China’s invasion in the 1950s to a refugee camp in Nepal, then eventually to Canada. The various sections are told from the perspectives of Lhamo, who was a child when she fled across the Himalayas; her younger sister, Tenkyi, the smart, promising one; her daughter, Dolma, a Tibetan Studies scholar in Toronto; and her heart’s love, Samphel, who disappears and reappears in her life like a passing breeze. The question Lama asks through this novel is what will the world do about this injustice, about the plight of displaced Tibetans?

Woman of Light – Kali Fajardo-Anstine (2022)

Fajardo-Anstine’s debut collection, Sabrina & Corina, which explored the lives of Latinas of Indigenous ancestry in New Mexico and Colorado, was a National Book Award finalist. Her first novel follows Luz “Little Light” Lopez, a tea leaf reader, as she struggles to make it on her own in 1930s Denver. She begins to have visions of her Indigenous ancestors, which allows Fajardo-Anstine to explore their history in the Lost Territory of the Southwest. Woman of Light folds a necessary history lesson into a story of oppression, resistance, and adaptation. It seems destined to become a movie or series.

The Sharp Edge of Mercy – Connie Hertzberg Mayo (2022)

Set in New York City in 1893, The Sharp Edge of Mercy is the story of 18-year-old Lillian Dolan, a newly hired nurse assistant at the New York Cancer Hospital. Her work ethic and incisive mind eventually make an impression on the new head surgeon, Dr. Bauer. But she soon finds herself enmeshed in conflicts involving medical ethics, sexual mores, and class. At the same time, her older cousin Michael, an Irish immigrant, is introducing the sheltered Lillian to the realities of turn-of-the-century New York City, forcing her to reconsider some of her strict Catholic viewpoints. Mayo weaves Lillian’s coming of age and Michael’s self-discovery into a compelling narrative.

Vera – Carol Edgarian (2021)

Fifteen-year-old Vera Johnson is the illegitimate daughter of Rose, the infamous madam of a bordello in the Barbary Coast section of town, and a father whose identity remains unknown to Vera. Rose has farmed Vera out to be raised by a Swedish immigrant widow with a daughter of her own. Not surprisingly, Vera feels she has no real family and grows into a scrappy, street-smart girl. Her unsettled childhood has prepared her to adapt to a city and society in ruins. Vera begins shortly before the April 18 quake and follows Vera and her family and friends during a year that changes their lives. This coming-of-age story about a young woman and a city that didn’t play by the rules is a satisfying read.

The Yield — Tara June Winch (2020)

Winch tells the heartbreaking story of the attempted genocide of Aboriginal Australians, first by British colonizers and then by Australians in the 20th century, followed by government policies and a national culture that has marginalized Indigenous people. The heart of The Yield concerns August Gondiwindi, who is living in self-imposed exile in England when she learns that her grandfather Albert, who raised her, has died. Twenty years after her sister Jedda’s disappearance when she was 10, August returns to the farming town of Massacre Plains for the funeral. She soon learns that a huge mining company has purchased the land on which her family lived, which technically belonged to the government. The mostly white residents of Massacre Plains are desperate for the jobs the mine will bring, and they care little about the destruction of the Gondiwindi property outside of town. The issues depicted in The Yield are both particularly Australian and sadly universal.


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