Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Best Historical Fiction of 2020

The Historical Novel Society defines the historical fiction genre as works "written at least fifty years after the events described." The books I identify as Pigeon Pie or Historical Fiction fit that category which means that those written in 2020 portray events during or prior to 1970. I also include novels set in both the time period at least fifty years ago and today. That means that a novel that alternates between today and the past make my list. Some say novels set twenty-five years ago are historical fiction. Since the time period itself is such an important part of the setting and usually of the narrative, I find it difficult to include books written in the 1990s in this genre so I'll stick with the fifty year rule. One of the distinctive aspects of great historical fiction is it's depiction of details and social conditions of the period. Looking at what people wore and how they behaved in the 1950s and 60s feels more evocative than following the clothing and actions of characters in the 1990s. Regardless of the time period, the following novels are exceptional narratives that evoke the times in which they occur and they're great stories with unique characters. 

The very best historical novels I read in 2020 are ones that I highlighted in my list of the best books of 2020

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey by Kathleen Rooney In 1918, Cher Ami, a British-trained carrier pigeon, flew a dangerous mission in France and delivered a vital message that might save US troops. One hundred years later, the pigeon, now stuffed, is on display at the Smithsonian where she remembers the past. Major Charles Whittlesey, an erudite Manhattan attorney and the leader of what became known as The Lost Battalion, tells how he and his men were trapped in enemy territory for six days by the Germans and US friendly fire. He wrote the note Cher Ami carried. Returning home, the Major is hailed as a hero but feels responsible for so many deaths. Flying above it all, Cher Ami sees everything clearly. This is based on actual events of World War I. It touched me deeply. I want everyone I know to select if for their book clubs and to invite me to the discussion.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich is pure Erdrich perfection. Based on the life of Erdrich’s grandfather Patrick Gourneau, a night watchman and tribal elder who fought the US attempt to remove natives from their North Dakota land in 1953, this story offers an intriguing tale with compelling characters, a touch of magic realism, and a view of history we all need to see. Erdrich notes, “if you should ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document can shatter spirits and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt. Conversely, if you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change those dry words, let this book give you heart.” Readers, it did give me heart. You won’t be able to read this without falling in love with Patrice, Thomas, and the other residents of the Turtle Mountain Reservation. It’s a masterpiece. Read my complete review.

Northernmost by Peter Geye tells the harrowing tale of Odd Einar Eide trying to survive alone in the Arctic Circle in 1897 combined with his great-great-great granddaughter’s struggles redefining herself and her own escape from a frozen marriage. When Greta discovers her ancestor’s story, she examines her own life as she retells his remarkable adventures. This is a compelling adventure, but first it’s a love story told with heat and compassion. This is the third novel in the Eide trilogy, but it stands alone and can be enjoyed without reading the previous books. The writing is exquisite. It’s arguably the best novel published this year.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyon won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, was a Man Booker
finalist, and was on the New York Times best books of 2018 list. It combines a swashbuckling adventure with a sensitive tale of slavery and freedom. “Wash” Black is an enslaved ten-year-old on a Barbados plantation in 1830 when he’s selected to assist his master’s brother with his invention. After a bounty is put on Wash, he escapes with Titch, who is now his master. This is a miraculous tale of loyalty and freedom. Select it for your book club and get ready for an endless conversation.I can't recall a novel topping it as a book club choice. Although it was published in 2018, it seems made to understand the events of today.

The following novels are outstanding examples of historical fiction that will take you away from today while helping you see how history repeats itself. They're all perfect reads for the coming winter.

Answer Creek by Ashley E. Sweeney follows the Donner party across the desert and mountains in 1846. Strong on research and the real story, Answer Creek focuses on Ada, a fictional heroine who survives despite a lack of food, water, and boots. Imagine spending 124 days in a remote cabin in the winter without food or heat while eating only shoe leather. Ada persists and her grit and intellect offer insight and wisdom. Sweeney’s landscape portraits equal that in her stellar debut Eliza Waite. This would be a stellar choice for book clubs. Read my complete review here.

Greenwood by Michael Christie, It’s 2038 and most of the earth’s old growth forests are gone due to disease. Jacinda, “Jake” Greenwood is a guide on Greenwood Island, a Canadian resort for the ultra-wealthy where trees still exist. She has heavy student loan debts and needs her job to survive. She learns that she might have inherited rights to the island, but unraveling the story of the Greenwood lumber fortune back to 1908 reveals a frightening tale. Looking at the way we abused our forests one hundred years ago will make you think about what we're doing today. This is a fine generational saga for fans of The Overstory.

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende begins in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War where Victor, an army doctor saves lives as his brother dies leaving his unknowing pregnant widow Roser escaping into the Pyrenees. When Victor finds Roser, they enter a marriage of convenience so they can escape on a ship chartered by poet Pablo Neruda that’s taking refugees to Chile. The two build a life with their “son” and the novel expertly shares their story along with the changes in the coming decades in Chile under Allende and Pinochet. Beautiful characters share love, hope, history, and exile. Book clubs will love talking about this one.

Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon shares the stories of three Laotian kids working in a makeshift hospital near the Thai border during the war in 1969. Their viewpoints offer a searing image of the devastation of war and the lasting impact of violence on survivors. The story ends in 2018 with one of the three remembering his friends. It’s difficult to read emotionally as the language crisply details the tragedies. The fully realized characters are brilliant. 

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles is a fine descriptive novel filled with memorable characters — a few of whom were in my favorite Jiles novel, News of the World. While I adored the last fifty pages of Simon the Fiddler, I found the early sections missing the narrative punch of her previous novels.That doesn't mean it isn't a fine novel, it's simply that I hold Jiles to the highest standards as I think she's one of our finest authors. Despite that, this is a fine work of post Civil War historical fiction that would make for a great discussion.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett explores identity through the lives of twin sisters escaping their tiny hometown in 1968. All the town’s residents are light-skinned African Americans. Twin Stella easily passes as white and her sister Desiree marries the darkest man she meets. Ten years later, Desiree returns home with her coal-black daughter. Desiree and Stella’s grown daughters then illustrate how secrets affect being. The novel beautifully probes issues of colorism, sexual identity, and self-hatred via careful attention to its vibrant characters and compelling story line. 

The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell sheds light on Annie Clements, called “America’s Joan of Arc,” who in 1913 led a fight for union recognition for copper miners in Calumet, Michigan after one too many deaths. This novel will make you cheer for Annie and wonder about the importance of Calumet, Michigan a century ago. My book club found the history entrancing. Russell is best known for writing The Sparrow, but her meticulous research in books like this and one of my favorites, A Thread of Grace, makes her a phenomenal writer of historical fiction. If you love historical fiction and haven't read A Thread of Grace, add it to your list too. It's a magnificent novel set in World War II Italy.