By Natalie Baliker
History is written in black and white, words on a page. Often, the darker parts of history are so many years removed from the present that we can safely regard the deaths of many as an “event” rather than the tragedy it was for those who lived through it. But when we are in the midst of a crisis, it is hard to look at it objectively. It is difficult to separate from our emotions and say “this will be an influential event of the 21st century.” History is in the past, but the present is history being written. We cannot skip to the next chapter in the book to find out what happens after this. We must live in the unknown with no safety net.
Living through the coronavirus is much the same, and makes me wonder how different it was to live through other pandemics throughout history. Now, they are relegated to death tolls, fatality rates, infection percentages … all numbers. There is so little humanity in the historical summaries of these events. And so it is difficult to think past this one, to even consider what happens afterwards. Because the history books never tell us what it feels like to live in those times, during those historical milestones.
I find it comforting to immerse myself in fictional worlds, but with reality starting to close in, it can be more helpful to read historical novels instead. I can remind myself that although these events happened (or at least, they could have happened, in the case of fiction), eventually the world regained its balance. I can read about wars and revolutions, inventions and horrors, all narrated by someone who is living through those things. It helps put my own feelings into perspective. I am not alone. We are not alone.
So, without further ado, let’s travel back in time…
The Light Over London, by Julia Kelly
A tale from two perspectives: a WWII gunner girl, and the woman who finds her diary in 2017. While this started as an airport book I picked up to keep me entertained on my flight, it became a mystery I couldn’t put down. Partly a romance, but also a tale of courage and camaraderie among the women who joined the war effort in England. If you’re interested in historical fiction, but you want something more light-hearted, this is a great choice!
The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth
By naming the main character Philip Roth, and using real events and facts to enrich this novel, Roth creates a hauntingly possible story. In his novel, Lindbergh garnered support because many Americans believed he would keep them out of World War II. Roth asks the question, what would have happened if Charles A. Lindbergh — a heroic aviator — won the presidential election instead of FDR? If America was run by a man who was friends with Hitler? If you’re not afraid of creepy parallels to our modern political environment, take a look at this alternate history book.
The Winter Rose, by Jennifer Donnelly
In the mood for an unlikely love story, perhaps with a bit of mystery and crime thrown into the mix? This book, told through the perspectives of a notorious gangster and a headstrong woman doctor, takes you back a hundred years to a London so vivid, you can almost smell it (though perhaps it’s a good thing we can’t). It’s the second book in a trilogy, but I didn’t know that when I picked it up at a church book sale. And I couldn’t be bothered to put it down to find the first book, since I was so taken by the vivid tale. You can instantly tell how much research Donnelly put into this behemoth of a novel. While the story may be fiction, East London feels real enough.
Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers
Want to go even farther back in time? How about the late 1400s? Set in ancient Brittany, one of the duchies still resisting annexation to France, Robin LaFevers has created a fantastical tale around actual historical events. Pay attention to Anne of Brittany, a marvelous character, but even more intriguing when you read about her in history books. Yes, she actually did all that! If, upon reading this novel, you find yourself intrigued by the teenage girl who managed to fend for herself in a world that rejected female inheritance, I have a further reading for you. Check out Anne of Brittany; the story of a Duchess and Twice-Crowned Queen, a biography written by Helen J. Sanborn. It’s a fascinating compilation of information about the duchess’ life, including castles Anne resided in, as well as period-accurate furniture. If you can’t get your hands on a paper copy from your local library, since most are closed for the coronavirus, you even read it online–this website allows you to digitally flip the pages! And now that I’ve fangirled sufficiently…shall we get back to the fiction?
Obviously, the god of death didn’t actually have a bunch of assassin nuns on his payroll, but they certainly make for good entertainment while stuck at home. In case you’re doubting how much of the novels are historically accurate, take a look at LaFever’s website, where she explains the books’ historical backbone. And if you like this book, there are two more in the series. Plus, her newest novel that takes place after Anne travels to France (which I didn’t know about until now…guess I have another book on my reading list).
In case it’s not obvious, no, the characters from 1490 do not look like this…
Do you have a favorite historical fiction or history book? Comment below to add to our list!
Natalie Baliker is the Long River Review design center liaison and a poetry panel reader. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.