Monday, January 3, 2022

The Best Historical Fiction of 2021

Historical fiction is a favorite genre for readers because it combines story with an intriguing setting, allows readers to learn about characters whose problems are different than their own, and helps us understand how the past shapes who we are today. Reading historical fiction allows us to dwell in a different time and place thus it often feels like taking a vacation. In other cases, it plants us in places where we’d never want to live while making us ponder why events like the holocaust happened. 

I wrote about the three best books I read in this category, Hamnet, The Removed, and Zorrie here. I hope you enjoy traveling across the years with the following titles. They’re in alphabetical order by title. For the purpose of this site, I define historical fiction as set a minimum of fifty years ago.

The Best Historical Fiction (Pigeon Pie) of 2021

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd tells the story of the life of Jesus through the eyes of Ana, his imagined wife. That it’s possible that Jesus would have married, feels real because Kidd uses historical information to bolster the story. The first section is long, but the information about real communes and a discovered book will make you look at the gospels in new ways. It’s fascinating and my book club loved discussing it. Kidd, best known for The Secret Life of Bees, was a writer for Guideposts magazine for many years. GPR/PP/SF/SN, BC (2020)

The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin evokes the 1888 blizzard that swept across the Great Plains taking the lives of 235 children, some only steps from home. The novel focuses on Raina, a new young teacher, and her sister Gerda, teaching in a school a three-day ride away as they attempt to help their pupils survive the coming blizzard. It’s a compelling portrait of families eking out a living as homesteaders and it’s filled with unique characters like the journalist who made the survivors famous and whose words prodded many to settle there. GPR/PP/SN, BC  

Deacon King Kong by James McBride is a joy-filled look at a serious subject. The Deacon, a man usually referred to as Sportcoat, drinks too much as he grieves the loss of his wife Hettie. The Bronx projects in 1969 feature strong ties to the Black church although drugs threaten to ruin trust. When troubles call, sometimes you need to laugh. Fabulous characters abound. GPR/PP, BC (2020)

Fifty Words for Rain by Asha LemmieNoriko should be a princess. Born into Japanese nobility, she’s the illegitimate child of an African-American serviceman and her Japanese maternal grandparents ignore her existence. In 1948 when she’s eight, her mother leaves her with them and they banish her to an attic then send her to be trained as a geisha and sold to the highest bidder. Soon the older half-brother she didn’t know existed champions and protects her and we follow her life into the 1960s. This riveting, fast-paced look at history, prejudice, and survival offers a unique view of Japanese culture. I’m dying to discuss it. GPR/PP/SN, BC

The Girl from the Channel Islands by Jenny LeCoat is based on a true story set in British Jersey under the German occupation from 1940 to 1945. For Hedy, who’s Jewish, the occupation means she may be deported, but she becomes a translator for the Germans and secretly works against them. When she falls in love with a German officer, her survival is even trickier. This fine tale of love and sacrifice is an engaging and meaningful read. GPR/PP/SBP/SN, BC

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan celebrates friendship, women, and food. Set in the English countryside in the third year of World War II, it shows the resilience of women especially when they help each other. It’s a fast-paced, plot-driven narrative that readers looking for respite will devour. Sharing recipes created with the few ingredients available provides authenticity. CC/D/PP

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge is a free-born Black woman living with her light-skinned mother, a brilliant doctor, in post-Civil War Brooklyn. Libertie is expected to become a doctor like her mother, but white women won’t let her touch them while allowing her mother to do so. Libertie fails in college then marries Emmanuel, her mother’s student, and moves to Haiti with him. Colorism, island mysticism, and Emmanuel’s family’s secrets complicate their lives in this lyrical, thoughtful, and brilliant novel. G/PP/SN, BC

Things Fall Apart by China Achebethe classic of African literature, is a universal tale of power, patriarchy, colonialism, religious fervor, and pride. I read this in 1997 (thank you, notes on the inside cover) and was grateful my book club chose it as I think I could reread it every year and find something new. Set in the late 1800s in Nigeria when British colonization began, it tells of Okonkwu, a respected tribal elder, and the traditions of his clan and village. The last paragraph is one of the most meaningful in literature for me. Over twenty women in my book club were glad they read it too. G/PP/SBP/SN (1958)

These Granite Islands by Sarah Stonich affords a view of marriage, friendship, and aging that book clubs will love. It’s 1936 in a small Minnesota mining town and Isobel stays home with her daughter when husband Virgil takes their boys to an island for the summer. New resident Cathryn meets Isobel and a friendship develops until Isobel is put in a tough position. Years later, Isobel is hospitalized and reminisces with her now almost 70-year-old son. Fantastic descriptive passages make this debut sing. GPR/PP, BC (2001)

What a Wonderful World This Could Be by Lee Zacharias, Readers interested in the 1960s will fall into the setting, based on Indiana University, that rings true for the time, place, and people populating it. In 1964, neglected teen Alex falls for a 27-year-old professor and learns photography from him. Two years later she falls in love with and marries Ted, a civil rights activist, who disappears when charged with a crime. Looking back from the day in 1982 when she learns that Ted has been shot, the novel examines the times beautifully while showing how Alex avoided intimacy. GPR/PP/SN, BC