Jan 24, 2012

Top Ten Historical Fiction Titles

The Broke and the Bookish, a brilliant book blog, 
hosts a weekly top ten list meme.

I like this meme because I like lists. I like this meme because it reminds me of the Top 5 lists from High Fidelity (by Nick Hornby as a book, starring John Cusak as a movie). And I like this meme because it causes me to think long and hard about book-related topics. So here goes:

Top Ten Historical Fiction Titles
(Quick note: Thank all that is holy I've started categorizing the books I've read on Goodreads. It was SO helpful to be able to look through my "historical fiction" list.)
Forgive me as I've needed to create two lists, one for adult fiction and one for children's/YA fiction.

1. Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley

Hands down my favorite book of all time. Some of you may know that already. For those who don't, this is the New York Times bestselling authorized sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind. Don't be put off by the romance novel-esque cover (unless you like romance novels in which case, go ahead and like that aspect of it); there is no bodice-ripping to be found. Instead, all of the potential that Scarlett shows in Gone With the Wind is fully realized in this 400+ page novel that picks up right where GWtW leaves off and ends when Scarlett has finally grown up, thankfully without losing her impish charm and backbone of steel in the process.

Definitely #2 on the list of favorite historical fiction titles (apparently this list really IS going in order of appreciation). The sweeping epic is a dual-narrator epistolary novel switching between the perspectives of a White American young woman who has been taken away to live in the UK following a scandal in US society and a high-yellow former slave from New Orleans who has also made his way to Great Britain. Encompassing racial politics on the verge of the Civil War in the US, as well as the spiritual medium craze of that time in the UK, coupled with a political and social commentary on society's rules and expectations of young women, this brilliant book is sadly the only one published by Ms. Hague and is currently out-of-print but is SO worth the find.

3. The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

Spanning the 40 years between the 1960s and the 21st century, this is a story about 4 people and the lengths they will go to protect the innocent, uphold promises, and believe in love, set to the backdrop of the history of mental institutions, racial tension, and the raising of a child. Read my review here.

4. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
This is, in my opinion, the best thing Geraldine Brooks has ever written. I have tried, again and again, to read her other books (and have finished most of them), but none of them are as well-written, thought-provoking, and engaging as this one. The historical fiction chapters in People of the Book come close, but I think that one is ruined by the contemporary storyline that weaves throughout. Regardless, this tale based on a true story of a village that chooses to close themselves off to the rest of the world to contain the plague outbreak, all told from the point-of-view of a village housemaid, is heartbreaking and beautifully told. Read my review here.

5. Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

Let's discuss epic, shall we? The first two of this incredible trilogy are out, and I can't decide whether to advise you to wait until #3 has come out to begin reading or to run out and grab the first one right away. Both, I guess. These novels are almost unbelievable in the scope of what Mr. Ghosh is trying (and succeeding!) to accomplish. So many characters, so many styles of writing and speaking, so many dialects, so many countries, so many plot points! I admit it's hard to keep them all straight but this is definitely a series that makes that small headache worthwhile. Centered around the opium trade between India and Great Britain, with China as a major port of transfer, everyone from the poppy growers to the opium traders, British gardeners to escaped convicts, there is no one too large to too small to not be fully explored in these books. It would take me days to read a chapter and yet every time I put the book down, my head almost spinning with the assault of plot and unfamiliar language, all I wanted to do was pick it back up again to be literally swept away, immersed in so many sensory experiences that were nearly unbelievable to me. Mr. Ghosh is a true genius in how he is able to bring so many people and threads of plot together. I am greatly anticipating the final book but fear I will have a few years to wait.

The entire Flavia de Luce mystery series, really, as they are all so charmingly written and perfectly present the village life of post-World War II British countryside, including the land-rich, cash-poor local gentry around whose family manor the stories center. Read my review of Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie here and my review of I am Half-Sick of Shadows here.

7. Serena by Ron Rash

Ooh, Southern writer creates a truly reprehensible character that you can't stop reading about in Serena. Set in North Carolina just before the Great Depression, the story centers around a lumber town and has great political and social commentary about logging and environmental protection efforts, all with a backdrop of murder. Read my review here.

8. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
Confession: It has been too long since I've read this to give it an in-depth blurb here. Second confession: I have been unimpressed with any Anita Diamant book I have picked up since. But, I do remember reading this, really enjoying it, sharing it with my BFF and my mother, and so I recommend it to you.

9. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Though its historical context is not a main plot point in this novel, and there are fantasy elements - certainly magic exists - that may make some people question it being on this list, it is so wholly enjoyable, and so delicately described, and so fully imagined, that I dare anyone to read it and not enjoy it.

10. Miss Timmins' School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy

I, myself, was surprised how much I enjoyed this book, knowing nothing about it when I picked it up, but it quietly sneaks in and grabs hold of you with its descriptions of places I've never seen, feelings I've never felt, rules and expectations I'll never have to live by, and a point-of-view change that enhances that unusual foreign sensibility rather than detracting from the story. Read my review here.


I believe Scott O'Dell to be the preeminent children's historical fiction writer. Also, Native American history (and present) is a personal interest of mine, so I was always on the hunt for books that at least tried to present Indian history in a truthful and culturally sensitive way. Thunder Rolling in the Mountains is about the sad plight/flight of the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph's niece, while Streams is Sacagawea at her fictional best (with a hopeful ending imagined for her and her child).

2. Anne of Green Gables (series) by L.M. Montgomery

Do books like this count? Because they technically weren't really historical fiction when they were written? Well, there will be a few more on this list like that, just to warn you. The first 4 books and #8 (Rilla of Ingleside) are my personal favorites.

3. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

Not just my favorite, this Printz Medal winner is a wonderfully imagined experience of an American teenager caught up with her British cousins in wartime in England. Brutal and brilliant, self-sacrificing and exploring first-love, the writing style will spare no emotional punches as you run from scene to scene, experience to experience, leave and are brought back to the hope and love that binds the cousins together.

4. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Another medal winner, this time the Newbery, this middle grade novel tells the fictionalized true story of the courageous attempt of Denmark's citizens to help save their Jewish population. As a Jew, this made a HUGE impression on me as a child, and continues to be meaningful in my life as an adult.

5. The Agency (series) by Y.S.Lee

This is a new series, only books 1 and 2 are currently available, but they've captured my attention with the plucky heroine and society of secret female spies. Also, though I love romantic tension, I equally love it when the storyline ISN'T focused on the girl getting the guy. Plus, who doesn't enjoy a little cross-dressing? Racial tension between whites and Chinese, class warfare, and political intrigue abound in this thrilling YA historical spy series. Read my thoughts about it here.

6. The Little House on the Prairie (series) by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Do I really have to explain this? I hope not. Also, please do begin with Little House in the Big Woods, which is the real first book in the series, despite the series title taken after book 3.

7. Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife's Apprentice and Matilda Bone and Alchemy and Meggy Swann and pretty much any other book with a female protagonist set in the Middle Ages written by Karen Cushman

What is so engaging about all of these titles is how easy it is to relate to each character, even as they experience life so very differently than how we experience it today. That, and the amount of factual information, the truly impressive amount of accurate historical detail that is put into each novel, is in itself worth noting and praising. Read my review of Alchemy and Meggy Swann here.

8. Sorcery and Cecelia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
Delicious and delightful. A teenage regency romance that operates under the supposition that magic exists. Some people have it, some people don't. Two cousins - Kate and Cecelia - write letters back-and-forth as one spends the season in London and the other spends it in the country, both working to solve the mystery of the enchanted chocolate pot (and possibly find husbands in the bargain).

9. Eight Cousins and A Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott

Both were childhood favorites and continue to be, I believe, some of LMA's best writing. Eight Cousins is about one girl, on the cusp of young adult-hood, sent to live with her Uncle, some aunts, and 7 boy cousins after having been raised an only child attending a prestigious school for girls. She's got a lot to learn (and luckily, to teach) as she and her cousins figure out just what to do with each other. A Rose in Bloom is what happens once the cousins are grown up.

10. A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter

This is my all-time favorite young adult novel. Another one of those, not sure it can be considered historical fiction because she was writing about her own time period, sort of books, GSP published this first in 1904. GSP was a pioneer in her own time, being one of the first female nature photographers, one of the first females to work in the film industry in CA, loved and was married to a man she did not share a residence with, published both fiction and non-fiction with themes way ahead of her time but that spoke to millions, etc. An all-around amazing woman who wrote some incredible books. This one, in particular, tells the story of Elnora Comstock, a poor farm girl who lives out of town near the Limberlost, who overcomes all sorts of adversity on her quest for education.


  1. Aww, I DID enjoy Sorcery and Cecelia. That was a good'un. And I remember basically everyone in my 4th grade class reading Catherine Called Birdy, but I don't think I ever did.

  2. I was just browsing through my shelves last night and pulled off A Girl of the Limberlost; I can't remember the last time that I re-read it...must be time for another re-read!

    Wholly enjoyed reading your list!

  3. So many great books that I need to read. Great list. :)

  4. Oooh, I forgot about The Red Tent. That was an awesome book! And I used to love the movie version of Girl of the Limberlost, but never read the actual book. This list has brought back some great memories :)


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