Here's the list:
East of Eden by John Steinbeck – Published 1952
To me, a truly great book is organic, meaning it changes as the reader changes.I first read this book when I was in my 20s.I loved it then, but for different reasons.Re-reading it in my 50s was a completely different experience.Steinbeck takes the reader from the Civil War era to early 20th century California in this story about the lives of two generations of brothers in this family saga.He imbibes the setting of Salinas, California with the novel’s biblical theme of good and evil, making the imagery rich and succulent. California comes alive on the page; the sounds and smells overwhelming the psyche.The characters are literary perfection; hopelessly flawed; permeated with promise as well as tragedy.Adam Trask, his brother Charles Trask, and Adam’s sons Cal and Aaron live their lives in a circumference of one woman, who embodies both good and evil to the detriment of all that encounter her.She is a true chameleon; a Satanic figure that spits venom and sweetness.In the end, Steinbeck lets the reader decide what is good, and what is evil in this work written later in his career.This novel becomes a part of you, you will remember it forever.That, in my estimation, is what great literature does.
Roots by Alex Haley – Published 1976
This book, with all the controversy behind it, is still one of the only books that tells the story of the human journey of Africans being brought to America as slaves with honesty and without falsehoods and embellishments.It was the first time many white Americans got a clear view into the barbarism, hatred, and oppression that these people faced when they were brought to America against their will; told from the point of view of the men and women who lived it.Haley put a human face on his characters; letting the reader experience their strife, suffering, and as times goes by, their joys and triumphs.The story inspires every emotion; you’ll find yourself cringing, crying, laughing, and looking at our African-American brothers and sisters with a greater empathy and understanding.
Poldark by Winston Graham – Published 1945
The Poldark novels (there are 12) are similar to “East of Eden” in the sense that setting acts as character. That setting is Cornwall, with its rocky coasts and raging ocean breakers.It is the center of life of all its inhabitants, who run the gamut between dirt poor and moderately wealthy.The first novel introduces Ross Poldark, a captain in the army returning home from fighting in the American Revolutionary war.Ross comes home to some unpleasant surprises; his father is dead, the girl he loved is marrying his cousin, and his ancestral home is filled with inebriated servants and barnyard animals.But Ross Poldark is no ordinary guy.He is a rebel; a 18th century Robin Hood whose strength of character enables him to buck his own class at every turn.This rebellion includes marrying a girl he hires as a maid to save her from her abusive father, and standing up for the lower-class poor that work in his mines.The 12 novels that span from 1783 to 1820 are rife with history of both England and France.But what endures me to these novels are beautifully rendered characters of every kind.Rich, poor, stupid, brilliant and beyond grace these pages.You are pulled into their lives, and will be compelled to see how it all turns out, right to the last page of the last novel.
Outlander by Diana Galbadon – Published 1991
Diana Galbadon’s story of Claire Beechum Randall, a brave and gutsy World War II nurse who encounters the ancient stones on Scotland’s Craig na Dun and is accidentally drawn in by their mysterious forces, transporting her back 200 years, is enjoying great popularity due to the television show.But these novels stand on their own merits.Claire is strong and tender and most of all smart, using her nursing skills to transform herself into a healer to survive in the brutal and sometimes barbaric environment of the 1740s Scotland that she is transport to.But what brings the true beauty to this novel is the unexpected and passionate love Claire encounters with Jamie Fraser, a young Scottish Highlander.Galbadon takes you on a journey, not only through 18th century Scotland, but through the ups and downs of a once in a lifetime love that cannot be broken, even by time.
There are eight of these novels, but I recommended the first four as the best.My only complaint is that the writer tends to write pages and pages of description, which makes the books drag in certain parts.But the story of Jamie and Claire and their adventures make it worth it.We all wish to believe love can endure anything, and the hero and heroine of Outlander feeds that need in all of us.
Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen – Published 1986
Koen’s novel set in early 18th century England launched Koen into the stratosphere in the late 1980s, paying her an unprecedented advance at the time of $350,000.00.It was money well spent.The protagonist, 15-year- old Barbara Alderly, is catapulted into the aristocratic world of excess and debauchery when she marries the very much senior Earl Devane.We watch young Barbara go from a sweet and trusting innocent girl to one whose world is shattered by a cruel and ugly one she had no idea existed.She grows up quickly, coming into her own in just a few short years, right before what is known as the South Sea Bubble takes place, which caused an economic crisis in Britain in 1720 that nearly bankrupted the government, sending many in the aristocracy to the poorhouse. The author can depict Barbara’s emotions so well that the readers feels every triumph and every ache as if it were their own.We experience her growth from a child to a woman in a very personal way.Also, the extensive research Koen did conveys the period to the reader in a way you would swear you were there.One of the best historical fiction reads ever!
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory – Published 2001
I’ve been a big fan of Gregory’s novels ever since I first read Wideacre, published back in 1987. The Other Boleyn Girl is by far her best. The novel is told from the point of view of Mary Boleyn,
older sister of future queen Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII’s mistress before Anne, the story depicts
the victimization and vulnerability of women in the Tudor aristocracy. When Henry wanted an
already married Mary Boleyn for his mistress, she or her husband had little choice in the matter. Henry got what he wanted. After Mary bears Henry two children (one of them a son) she falls in love with the King, only to be cast aside by the jealous and competitive Anne, who lures the King into her trap with her charms. But once Mary recovers, she realizes what she truly wants is a normal life, and moves away from court.
But being the sister of Anne Boleyn does not allow for such normalcy. Mary ends up having a ringside seat to the rise of her sister as Queen of England, as well as her demise, and the demise of her once powerful family. I loved this book so much I read it in just one sitting (some 600 pages) one New Year’s Eve after my husband and daughter fell asleep. It does what a great historical fiction read should do; immerses you in another time while it teaches you about the period. Don’t miss it!!
America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie – Published 2016
It is not easy to find really great fiction set during the Revolutionary War period, but this book nails It. The story follows Martha Jefferson Randolph, daughter of Thomas and Martha Jefferson, through her turbulent life. Martha’s unconventional feelings and relationship with her father touched every part of her life, which included her relationship with Sally Hemings, her own brothers and sisters, as well as her difficult and jealous spouse Thomas Mann Randolph. Written from Martha’s POV, we experience her love hate relationship with her physically and emotionally absent father. Martha is a smart and intense woman whose first priority is protecting her father and his legacy, often at the cost of everything else in her life. Another great page turner that will endear you to the heart of this wonderful character.
Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard by Sally Cabot – Published 2013
This novel chronicles the life of William Franklin, the son of Ben Franklin and his mistress Anne. The boy is raised by Franklin’s wife Deborah, who resents the boy at every turn. William
grows up to take his own path, a path opposite of his father’s, and he eventually becomes the loyalist governor of New Jersey. Cabot’s characters inspire strong emotions in us, along with
giving clear insights into the very common conflicts that emerged between families during the American Revolution. We get to know both father and son with all their gifts and flaws alike.
Another great title that combines great history with great people living in it.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – Published 1936
What list of historical fiction books would be complete without this timeless classic? Scarlett O”Hara is one of the most recognized and revered characters not only in this genre, but in fiction itself. We love her, we pity her, we hate her, along with her foils; the perfect Melanie, the bratty Sue-Ellen, the weak Charles and Frank, the whimsical Ashley, and of course, Rhett Butler, the dynamic character who turns from rake to hero on a dime. As the Civil War churns its turbulent winds about them, they witness the end of the old southern lifestyle and learn how to survive in a whole new world. This book doesn’t need a recommendation. Everyone who loves this genre should read it, period.
The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Howard Creel – Published 2002
This book has a similar theme to Outlander in how it depicts a young man and woman who come together during extraordinary times as strangers that eventually grow to love each other. Olivia, a graduate student, gets pregnant after a one nighter with a soldier during World War II. Her fierce minister father arranges a marriage for her to a young farmer that lives away from her Denver home on eastern Colorado’s desolate plains. Married to a man she doesn’t know or understand, she seeks solace in other things. But even in this small quiet town, the war and its repercussions touch their lives when she makes friends with two Japanese girls who work on her husband’s farm while living in an internment camp. Olivia, driven by loneliness and isolation, unwittingly becomes mixed up in their illegal activities. She encounters betrayal all around her, until she finally sees that the love she needs is right in front of her all the time. Creel depicts that period well with descriptions of historical events, including details of the internment camp. A warm fuzzy of a book set in a time everyone should be familiar with.
Happy reading and learning!!