25 fascinating true stories you didn’t learn about in history class

25 fascinating true stories you didn’t learn about in history class

I love nonfiction books that read like novels, especially when the story surprises me—or better yet—blows my mind by revealing a slice of history I never learned about in school.

These stories make for a page-turning reading experience because I’m eager to know what happened—or how it happened—and fit it into my previous knowledge of the event or time period.

Today I’m sharing 25 books that explore untold, overlooked, or erstwhile top-secret stories in a compelling narrative. The authors on this list have scoured declassified files for secrets that are now safe to bring to light. Or they’ve found the unsung heroes behind big historical events and placed their contributions front and center.

These books would make great holiday gifts for the history buff in your life (or for your nonfiction-loving self). With a mix of subjects including art, film, history, true crime, and more, there’s a title to satisfy nearly every curious reader on this list. I hope you find several new-to-you nonfiction favorites to read or to gift.

25 overlooked and untold true stories

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The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

A fascinating true story about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The project began in 1857, and took 70 years to complete, even with the help of thousands of contributors. One of the most prolific contributors, submitting nearly ten thousand entries over the course of 20 years, was Dr. William Chester Minor, an American Civil War veteran from Connecticut, who turned out to be an inmate at one of Britain’s harshest insane asylums. Years after reading it, I can’t stop recommending the audio version. More info →
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Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

The true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. During the Space Race era, these women were segregated from their white counterparts and were the object of ruthless discrimination, despite their important work calculating flight paths for space missions. They ultimately worked their way up to highly influential positions in science, physics, mathematics, and technology; this book highlights their triumphs and the struggles that came first. Shetterly touches on the culture of the United States at this time relating to the Space Race, the civil rights movement, the Cold War, and the women's rights movement. More info →
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The Radium Girls

The Radium Girls

Author:
This sobering nonfiction read tells the story of more than two dozen women who made their living painting luminous watch faces in the early twentieth century. Many were charmed by the "shining substance"—radium—that gave the watch its glow, but as we now know, radium is deadly. Moore uncovers what happened next. This is a story with heroes and villains, and can be hard to read (because the truth of history is sometimes painful), but it's an incredibly researched, captivating read. More info →
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Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II

Author:
This is the story of the American female code breakers who helped win World War II, but whose vital work has gone unsung for decades. 10,000 American women served the U.S. Army and Navy as cryptanalysts; their call to action came in the form of a letter that asked them two short questions: did they like crossword puzzles, and were they engaged to be married? Despite their critical role in protecting the Allies and exposing the plans of the Axis powers, their work in cryptanalysis was kept secret. Mundy conducted extensive research to capture their story, including interviews with surviving code girls. A fascinating, thoroughly researched, and well-told true account. More info →
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Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Author:
Grann’s award-winning true crime story reads like a novel, and addresses a topic excluded from most history textbooks: the identity, heritage, and wealth of the Osage Indian nation. In 1920s Oklahoma, members were among the richest people in the world, thanks to the vast oil reserves that lay beneath their reservation. But during the period of 1921-1926, more than two dozen Osage died suspiciously in the “Reign of Terror,” and when corrupt local law enforcement repeatedly bungled their cases, J. Edgar Hoover came in, laying the groundwork for the FBI in the process. More info →
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The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight

The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight

Author:
The relatively unknown story of thirteen women who underwent astronaut training at the legendary Lovelace Foundation, though they never had the opportunity to journey into space with their male counterparts, widely known as the the Mercury 7. The women underwent the same tests and rigorous programming, sometimes with higher scores than their male colleagues. Though never recognized, these women women nevertheless went on to do great things in a wide variety of fields. More info →
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The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick

Author:
As an avid fan of monster movies, Mallory O'Meara was thrilled to discover that a woman designed the monster from one of her favorite films, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. But as O'Meara soon discovered, Millicent Patrick's design accomplishments were hidden from history, due to jealous male colleagues and pervasive sexism in the film industry. Following along with O'Meara's research process is just as delightful as learning all about Millicent. I got to chat with Mallory on Episode 176 of What Should I Read Next, and despite my total avoidance of the horror genre, we found some readerly common ground! I am pleased to report that Mallory's book is not-too-scary, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. More info →
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The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in WWII

The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in WWII

Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich shares stories of women's experiences in WWII "on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories" in this oral history. A powerful collection of untold true stories of sacrifice, patriotism, and danger. Sensitive readers take note: these accounts include gruesome war stories and violence in detail. This would make an excellent pairing with Kate Quinn's The Alice Network or The Huntress. More info →
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Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Author:
I recently recommended this among "a plethora of political(ish) book recs" on WSIRN. It's a story about Garfield, his assassin, the circumstances under which he was shot, and the medical care that killed him for ages. Millard devotes considerable space to Charles J. Guiteau, the man who thought he was doing a political rival a service by pulling the trigger, but I found this thread far less interesting than that of Garfield's political career and short presidency. I'm sure I learned some of the details of his nomination and subsequent electoral win in history class, but I had completely forgotten how reluctant he had been to assume office—and how scholars agree that he would have survived the bullet wound just fine if the doctors had only left him alone. I'm interested in reading more by Millard. More info →
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Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

An in-depth account of the devastating Chernobyl disaster and its reverberating effects. Higginbotham combines piles of research with interviews and firsthand accounts in this compulsively readable report. Starting at the beginning, in the nuclear power plant control room, the reader follows the tragedy from early mistakes, to government lies, to worldwide disaster response. The political, social, and scientific implications of this event are fascinating and terrifying. This is a must-read for any history-lover or nonfiction fan. More info →
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D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II

D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II

Author:
Three women: a young mother, an aristocrat, and a resistance organizer work behind the scenes in order to set up a successful D-Day invasion. Among thirty-nine other recruited spies, part of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), these women planned careful attacks on the enemy, gathered essential intelligence, and played an important role in WWII. A testament to the power of female leadership and willpower, this well-research account is inspiring and educational. More info →
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A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

Author:
"She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her." The spy in question? Virginia Hall, an American socialite and secret operative for the Allies. She worked her way onto Churchill’s exclusive “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” and completed missions behind enemy lines, as a woman—with a prosthetic leg. She set up spy networks, escaped death more than once, and saved countless lives. This extraordinary account of her exploits is a must-read for fans of The Alice Network. More info →
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The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler’s U-boats

The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler’s U-boats

Author:
My husband loved this book. During WWII, merchant ships carrying important supplies became prime targets for German U-boat attacks. The captains of these merchant ships faced harsh conditions at sea and wartime dangers with bravery and skill. Eisenhower said, "there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine." Among those deserving more credit were seven brothers from Matthews, County VA fought those dangers down the United States coast. This is their untold story of heroism and of the community who supported them. More info →
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The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War

Author:
Russian agent Oleg Gordievsky came from KGB parents and attended the best Soviet institutions in the country, but he turned against his country and became a double agent. Partnering with British intelligence, Gordievsky exposed agents, disrupted plots, and helped the West against the KBG for a decade. Macintyre's account of his exploits covers everything from tensions and gamesmanship between MI6 and the CIA to a harrowing escape from a Moscow. For fans of The Americans TV show or The Secrets We Kept by Laura Prescott. More info →
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The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History

The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History

Author:
Who are the animators behind our favorite classic Disney movies? Often, the artists and animators receive little recognition compared to the writers and voice actors. Holt shares stories from interviews and Disney archives to put an influential group of women in the spotlight. These women created stunning artwork and utilized brand new technology in order to create the stories we know and love, all while facing sexist harassment and abuse. Connecting these women to present day achievements in animated filmmaking, this book is a must-read for Disney fans or film history buffs. Reviews say that the audiobook version is excellent, narrated by Saskia Maarleveld. More info →
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Broad Band: The Untold Story of Women Who Made the Internet

Broad Band: The Untold Story of Women Who Made the Internet

Author:
The founders of huge tech companies like Google, Facebook, or Apple often come to mind when we think of the people behind today's internet, but we owe much of our online technological achievements to women who rarely get credit for their contributions. Going all the way back to the 1800s with Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter and an incredible mathematician, and up through WWII and the 1980s, Evans share stories of the female pioneers who broke conventions to be "database poets, information-wranglers, hypertext dreamers, and glass ceiling-shattering dot com-era entrepreneurs." More info →
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The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor

The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor

Author:
In 2009, 53 U.S. troops battled 400 Taliban fighters in what was one of the deadliest battles of the war in Afghanistan. Stationed at Combat Outpost Keating in the valley of three mountains, the American soldiers were completely vulnerable to attack. A Pentagon investigation later revealed that they never should have been placed in such a dangerous position. With expert investigative reporting, Jake Tapper follows the troops from 2006 when they were first stationed at the outpost to 2009 when the battle was heroically, but desperately fought. He highlights two soldiers who were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroic actions. This is a heartbreaking read that focuses on one small piece of the war in Afghanistan but illuminates a larger picture of deadly mistakes and mismanagement. More info →
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Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art

Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art

Author:
I've been slowly working my way through this 900 page tome for the last few years. It's fascinating—I've just been picking up other nonfiction reads in between chapters. You don't have to be an art expert to appreciate the way Gabriel weaves the stories of five groundbreaking women artists into a powerful narrative. At a time when women were mainly muses or collectors in the art scene, these artists entered the male-dominated world of abstract art and opened the art world to a new generation of women. Gabriel connects their stories to the larger cultural shifts of post-war America and shares inspiring accounts of what happens when you're brave enough to break all the rules. More info →
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Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires

Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires

Author:
Shomari Wills shares the stories of six Black millionaires who made their fortunes prior to the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. One woman put her Gold Rush money behind abolitionist causes. Another built and empire in Harlem with money from her lover. Savvy and inventive, a Mississippi schoolteacher developed land in Tulsa, OK that eventually came to be known as "Black Wall Street." With straightforward storytelling, Wills shares the triumphs and the trials of America's first Black millionaires, offering a glimpse at unforgettable, but overlooked, titans. More info →
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Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

When George Washington moved to Philadelphia to serve as President, he brought nine enslaved people with him from Mount Vernon. At the time, Pennsylvania stated that after six months of residency, all enslaved people must be set free. Rather than comply, Washington sent his household down to the south every six months, just when freedom was within grasp. Ona Judge couldn't ignore the taste of freedom she had in Pennsylvania, so one day, she escaped to New England. Washington used all of this resources for a manhunt to capture Ona Judge and return her as his property. A well-researched account of a woman who risked everything for freedom. More info →
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Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War

Author:
I recommended this one in WSIRN Episode 20: Southern classics, sweeping sagas, and spunky women with Sarah Russell Giglio. Abbott brings four little-known stories to life—four women who were spies in the Civil War. Confederate spy Belle Boyd used her southern charms to seduce men into telling their secrets. Emma Edmonds went undercover as a male enlisted soldier. Rose O’Neale Greenhow used her connections and status as a prominent widow to gather intelligence, and abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew covered an entire espionage ring, tricking rebel soldiers with her proper manners. Well-known characters enter the narrative, like Walt Whitman, Pinkerton, and the Lincolns as Abbott takes you inside the war and undercover with these incredibly bold women. More info →
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Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

Author:
Months before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat, a young teenager named Claudette Colvin did the very same thing—but her story is not well-known or celebrated. On March 2, 1955, Colvin, fed up with a system that placed daily injustices in her path, fought to keep her seat. However, young and pregnant Colvin was shunned and overlooked instead of heralded. Her story didn't end there. One year later, she served as a key plaintiff in Browder vs. Gayle and helped to strike down segregation laws. Combining interviews with Colvin herself and detailed historical research, Hoose gives Colvin much-deserved credit for her important role in shaping history. This award-winning middle grade book is not just for young readers. It's an excellent account of Colvin's story and the Civil Rights Movement. More info →
A Thousand Sisters: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II

A Thousand Sisters: The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II

Author:
From the author of Code Name Verity, a middle grade nonfiction account of women flying combat planes in WWII. Led by Marina Raskova, three Soviet regiments allowed female pilots to enter combat. Known as "the night witches," these women, many of them young teens, deployed as pilots, mechanics, and navigators. They faced the harsh conditions of war and played a pivotal role in their country's war efforts. My daughter read this a few years ago and enjoyed learning about this lesser-known part of history. More info →
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Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

Author:
I haven't read this, but my son really enjoyed it. I picked it up at Square Books in Oxford; when I described my son's reading preferences they instantly reached for this book. This is the true story of how the Leningrad Symphony played a surprising role on the path to allied victory. From 1941-1944, Hitler's Wermacht surrounded Leningrad, laying siege to the city and preventing supplies from getting in or out. Those three years saw utter destruction, over a million deaths, and horrifying poverty. Trapped yet inspired by his countrymen, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote the Leningrad Symphony. Audiobook listeners: this one includes snippets of the music as you listen, providing a layered experience. More info →
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A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown

Author:
Traci Thomas of The Stacks Podcast recommended this book on Episode 162 and Episode 212 of What Should I Read Next. Traci knows her nonfiction and says that this book is an excellent account of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. A charismatic preacher, Jones drew people into his congregation with sermons on social justice. When his sermons grew darker, and his behavior more unpredictable, it got harder and harder for people to leave his community. Eventually, the U.S. government got involved, but it was far too late. Julia Scheeres' haunting account focuses on the people who lived in Jonestown, based on declassified FBI documents, interviews, and rare video footage. More info →
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What titles look good to you? What would you add to the list?

P.S. Elevate your reading experience with 8 terrific novels paired with 8 illuminating nonfiction picks or enjoy 10 nonfiction books that read like novels.

P.P.S. Nonfiction readers, you might also enjoy listening to WSIRN Episode 204: Nonfiction that reads like a thrilling novel or 254: A plethora of political(ish) book recs.

25 fascinating true stories you didn’t learn about in history class

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108 comments | Comment

108 comments

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  1. Adrienne says:

    Oh, I LOVE this list! I just blew up my TBR and found a couple that I will give as Christmas gifts. So many great books here. I’ve read Hidden Figures, and Code Girls, and The Radium Girls, which was so incredibly hard to read. I work in the nuclear power industry, so Midnight in Chernobyl has been on my TBR for a while, and I just moved it up along with Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. I really enjoy narrative nonfiction; it’s so much more enjoyable to read than the dry history books I remember from HS and college.
    Happy Reading!

  2. Nicholas Ertz says:

    Good list. To be complete the list should include all of Erik Larson’s works, starting with The Devil in the White City. I’d also include Deborah Blum’s Poison Squad for an early look at the beginning of the FDA.

    • Mariah Hanley says:

      Yes! Erik Larson for sure. I actually liked Devil in the White City the least of what I’ve read by him- my absolute favorite is Dead Wake. I haven’t read Splendid and the Vile yet.

    • Deborah says:

      I read Deborah Blum’s earlier “Poisoners Handbook: Murder & the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York”–which might appeal to fans of vintage mysteries.

    • Mary says:

      I got hooked on Erik Larson starting with Isaac’s Storm. Highly recommend that one too, about the Galveston hurricane of 1900.

  3. Heather O. says:

    So many look interesting! Very excited to read about the Disney animators. I’d add The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to this list, it was fascinating!

  4. Stacey Conley says:

    Code Name Hélène: A Novel, by Ariel Lawhon, is an excellent novel based on the female WWII spy, Nancy Wake. It’s considered historical fiction, but Nancy Wake was an actual person. AMAZING story.

    • Sara Baker says:

      I just checked the audio version of this out from the library, I think I found it recommended on this blog. The narrator is fantastic!!

    • Tracy Dye says:

      Great suggestion! I read that thus summer. Just finished Radium Girls. Had been thinking about Henrietta Lacks as I was looking at the list. So many TBR!

  5. Meg Evans says:

    And, like so many others, my TBR just exploded. I have read a few of the books on this list, but that was just the tip of the iceberg! This list should take me through the winter months easily. A Thousand Lives might have a good flight pick in The End of October–I just read that novel, so it sprang to mind immediately. Time to edit my TBR list.

  6. Monica Wilson says:

    I love this category of books! I agree with Nicholas that Erik Larson’s books should be included. Some of my other favorite non-fiction include Falling Leaves, The Boys in the Boat, They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky.

  7. Byrd says:

    Adding my vote for A Thousand Sisters – the author is a pilot herself and she does a great job with the subject. It read to me like it was written for early teens, but I loved it for myself too.

  8. Roberta Sheahan says:

    Great choices! Rachel Declan’s A Girl Stands in the Door looks at the overlooked women who worked to desecrate schools with persistence, class and grace under pressure. Also Giles Milton’s Samurai William

  9. Cathy says:

    I would add Cher Ami and Major Whittlesly by Kathleen Rooney. Just out at the end of the summer. Based on a true story of a U.S. regiment that was trapped in the Argonne Forest…the most delightful slant as the chapters alternate between the Major (Whittlesly) AND the Homing Pigeon (Cher Ami) who saved them! BTW…the pigeon is on display in the Smithsonian!

  10. Laura says:

    Manny of these sound fascinating to me! Some were already on my TBR list. I’m adding others. I really enjoyed Forty Autumns by Nina Willner.

    • Beth says:

      Forty Autumns was so good! I listened to it about six months ago and I still think about it a lot. The courage it took to leave East Germany when it meant going against both country and family was astounding.

    • Gaylene Comfort says:

      Forty Autumns was very good! My history loving young adult daughter enjoyed it as well, and it was recommended to me by my history loving younger brother. It is appealing to a wide audience.

  11. Malory says:

    I just finished Ninth Street Women! It took me several months, but it is absolutely worth it. Radium Girls and Hidden Figures were also both brilliant.

  12. Julie R says:

    The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan is really good too. I learned so much about Oak Ridge, Tennessee and the role women played in the development of the atomic bomb.

    • Denise L says:

      I stumbled upon the museum in Oak Ridge a few years ago. Spent several hours touring. Worth a visit. It also prompted me to tour the museum in Los Alamos, NM. I need to complete my Manhattan Project tour and make my way to Hanford, WA

  13. Libby Miner says:

    “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown is my favorite historical nonfiction book. This is a great list. Also “The Professor and the Madman” is a far off ancestor-cousin on my husband’s side. Thankfully the mental illness he experienced doesn’t run in the family! It definitely shows the trauma of war on the mind before it was really understood.

    • Libby Miner says:

      I really loved Code Girls, although it gets a bit technical, the overall story was so fascinating, especially how many women took their secret jobs to the grave with them.

      • Paula says:

        If you liked the topic I really liked “The women who smashed codes” by Jason Fagone. It’s the story of Elizabeth Friedman and her code breaking skills during WWII. It does get a bit technical but the author does a good job.

        • Deborah says:

          Those who enjoyed those two books might also try “Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code” by Margaret Fox, about deciphering Minoan script Linear B–painstaking work by Alice Kober in pre-computer days was incredibly impressive.
          Some other titles I’ve read this year on lesser-known historical niche topics: “Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the most famous chessmen in the world and the woman who made them” by Nancy Marie Brown.
          “Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, his son, and the quest to build the world’s greatest library” by Edward Wilson-Lee. Read earlier “Food of a Younger Land” by Martin Kurlansky, about WPA’s recording of American cooking & eating. MMD’s list here aims at narrative non-fiction that reads like fast-paced novels. Many lightly call themselves History geeks or nerds, but readers truly fascinated by gathering & arranging information might be interested in my Summer Reading, such as “Map of Knowledge” or “Year 1000” by Valerie Hansen & “The Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia” by Christine Thompson. My TBR includes “Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the ancient Southwest”, “Braiding Sweetgrass”, “Man who Loved China”, Beautiful Country & the Middle Kingdom”, “Crack in the Edge of the World” (about San Francisco 1906 earthquake). I think all are audio e-books, and plan to listen while knitting afghans & socks this winter!

  14. Helen says:

    Great list. I would also include one you have talked about several times- Bad Blood- especially since the trial is starting soon.

  15. JB says:

    The Library Book by Susan Orlean – about a huge fire deliberately set in the 1980’s at the main branch of the LA library. House of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor of Savile Row by Lance Richardson – about ‘the’ tailor to the stars in swinging 1960s & 70s London. The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century by Simon Baatz about the shooting of Stanford White.Daughter of Empire: My Life as a Mountbatten by Pamela Hicks – amazing memoir by the youngest daughter of Lord Mountbatten, first cousin to Prince Phillip, lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth.

  16. Anne Simpson says:

    I really enjoy books that solve historic mysteries, or at least attempt to. Two of my favorites are The Lost King of France: How DNA Solved the Mystery of the Murdered Son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony. Both of those books unearthed a lot of history heretofore unknown to me!

  17. Suzanne says:

    Adding another vote for anything Erik Larson, especially ‘The Splendid & The Vile’ and ‘Dead Wake’. Also, anything Doris Kearns Goodwin. Her ‘Team of Rivals’ and a copy of the movie Lincoln (based on the book) would make a great gift.

  18. April Schmick says:

    I recommend Blood at the Root:A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips that details a Georgia County that chased out all the African Americans and remained that way into the 1990’s.

  19. Stephanie S says:

    Great list! I’d add Poison Squad about early food safety efforts and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks about how researchers got the cells that are used in cancer research.

  20. Natalie says:

    Great list! A Thousand Lives was already on my list, but another great book about the Jonestown tragedy that I have already read is “Stories of Jonestown” by Leigh Fondakowski. Fascinating and heartbreaking.

    • Margy Dolan says:

      Love this list so much!! A good one you might want to add here is West With The Night by Beryl Markham! So fascinating and you can’t believe you have never heard of her!

  21. Jenn Martino says:

    This is a fabulous list! I have a few of these on my TBR already, and my husband has read a few of these, including The Mathew’s Men which he loved. I have to add a couple of others that he has loved centered around WWII. We Die Alone by David Howarth was one of his absolute favorites! And The Forgotten 500 by Gregory A. Freeman he also enjoyed very much. Happy reading!

  22. Danielle Carriera says:

    Anne, this is a great list! Thank you! Some of these I’ve never heard of! Thanks for opening my eyes and expanding the horizon!

  23. Kara says:

    I just came across The Professor and The Madman a couple of weeks ago and immediately added it to my TBR stack. I’m looking forward to it and am eager to hear what others think as well!

  24. Nanette Stearns says:

    Great list. I agree with earlier comments about adding Erik Larson. He’s a master at making history come alive. Ever since I read Kate Quinn’s The Huntress I’ve been wanting to read A Thousand Sisters. I had no idea there were Russian women flying bomber missions in WW2! Thanks for the wonderful list.

  25. Jayda Justus says:

    I have read and loved many on this list and now have added several to my TBR list! One that I would add to the list is The League of Wives by Heath Hardage Lee. She uncovers the little known story of Vietnam POW wives and how they fought for their husbands’ lives, sometimes against our own government. It is truly a great story of female empowerment and women getting the job done!

  26. Tracey says:

    I second what others said about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. So good!
    Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson, about the Attica Prison Uprising seriously blew my mind and was one of the best books I read in 2018.
    And the Band Played On (about the early days of the AIDS crisis in the US) and The Mayor of Castro Street (about Harvey Milk) are both by Randy Schilts and both are brilliant.
    The Stone Thrower by Jael Richardson about her father’s experience as a Black quarterback.
    Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Tallahassee about the suspicious deaths of seven Indigenous young people in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada (there’s also an excellent and devastating podcast about this story called Thunder Bay).

  27. Lindy McGee says:

    I would add “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures” by Fadiman. A great read for everyone, especially for those who work in healthcare.

  28. Carol Quan says:

    Love this list! My favorite non-fiction books this year were Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker and Caste. I read both with Oprah’s Book Club which included weekly discussions and podcasts. Hidden Valley Road highlights the experience of one family’s with schizophrenia and gives the history of treatment. Caste looks at the system of hierarchy in India, Germany and the United States I immediately bought The Warmth of Other Suns, which is Isabel Wilkerson’s earlier book. That one is slated for 2021.

  29. JG says:

    Flu, by Gina Kolata, is one of the most accessible books on the 1918 influenza epidemic. There is enough science, enough detective story, and enough history to please those who love Henrietta Lacks.

  30. Sara Oliver says:

    I would also recommend “The Demon Under the Microscope” by Thomas Hager- it’s about the development of the first antibiotics and the role that WWI and the build up to WWII set the stage for this ground-breaking work. It was fascinating!!

  31. Betst says:

    Great list!! I’ve added many to my TBR list, especially those with a war theme. I would add Bad Blood , the thrilling story of Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of the Silicon Valley medical startup. Her coverup and total belief in a bogus product was fascinating read! Enjoy

  32. Tricia Pearce says:

    Two amazing books that I would like to add are: ‘Unbroken’ by Laura Hillenbrand and ‘The Only Plane in the Sky’ by Garrett K Graft (which was especially powerful in audio).

  33. Marie Shelton says:

    Great list!. I’ve read several and saw one that I plan to reread. Consider ‘The Only Woman in the Room’ by Marie Benedict. It’s about glamorous movie star Hedy Lamaar who had several significant patents including one that provided the foundation of today’s cell phones.

    ps Is this list printable?

  34. Lisa F. says:

    For anyone with an interest in medieval history, Dan Jones is a terrific storyteller who makes the era come alive in detail.

  35. Debra Benton says:

    Love this list. Will help me with Christmas shopping for my husband! He loves all Erik Larsen books. I second (or third) Unbroken and Boys in the Boat. Both were excellent reads! I’ve had Hidden Figures for a while so need to move it up the TBR.

    So funny about the Professor and Madman, this is second time this week I have heard about it. It was a recc from my Book of the Day calendar this week. The calendar that came in my MMD box last winter! Fun coincidence.

  36. Stacie says:

    Just added a lot to my TBL (to be listened…i don’t like fiction audio but love non fiction audio)

    I did get a chuckle out of how many titled include the word “Untold.” 🙂

  37. Tracey says:

    I forgot two that I was lucky enough to have as assigned reading in undergrad classes – love those profs that pick narrative books! Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee by Paul Chaat Smith and Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West were both excellent.

  38. C Waggoner says:

    One I would add to this list is Secret Rescue, An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics behind Nazi lines by Cate Lineberry. This is a riveting story that was classified until the 1990s to protect the identities of the individuals that helped guide our servicemen and women to safety after their plane crash-landed in Nazi-occupied Albania. It definitely fits the category of true-story that reads like a page-turner novel!

  39. Martin says:

    “Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Joan Druett is true story that inspired Jules Verne novel Mysterious Island (both titles were on Summer Reading Program list I made of titles featuring oceans & islands). Druett has also written about lesser known sea faring women.

  40. Janice says:

    Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing is a great one. Another good one, Beneath a Scarlet Sky is based on a true story.

  41. Marion says:

    England’s treatment of the Irish. Hedge Schools were secretly held due to the Irish were not permitted to learn how to read. Of course the Genecide of the Irish is another topic for a history lesson. We wish we had been taught how the Irish were treated when they came to America. Signs of help wanted IRISH NEED NOT APPLY.

  42. JJ says:

    I read a lot of historical nonfiction, and David McCullough and Stephen Ambrose are my favorite. Undaunted Courage (about Lewis & Clark’s expedition to the west coast) by Ambrose is one of my all-time faves. Two others in that category for me are And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts about the AIDS crisis (recommended by someone above), and What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer about the 1988 political campaign cycle.

    I’d also add Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
    by Patrick Radden Keefe, which was a 2019 National Book Award nominee.

  43. Amy S says:

    I’d also like to add Robert Kurson to the list. His latest “Rocket Men” is about the Apollo 8 mission and how it made the moon landing possible. Also really enjoyed “Shadow Divers” and “Pirate Hunters”

    • Denise L says:

      Love Robert Kurson. Shadow Divers is my favorite nonfiction book (reads like a thriller). Read Rocket Men this year and is one of my top reads this year. He also wrote Crashing Through, which also was a good read.

  44. Amy L says:

    So many excellent suggestions! An “oldie but goodie” that I love to give as gifts is Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History by Andrew Carroll. The author went across America to find unmarked historic sights – it’s a collection of fascinating stories.

  45. CSmith says:

    I would add a couple a books by Dava Sobel—Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (this book has my favorite book closing line) and The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

  46. Jennifer says:

    I second JJ’s list. I would add Secret History of Wonder Woman, Boom Town, Color of Law, Power Broker, Red Notice, anything by Jill Lepore and Isabel Wilkerson.

  47. Marie McDaniel says:

    What a wonderful list. I would also suggest Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. Also, a little older but so much fun, Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World.

  48. Libby says:

    It’s been mentioned once above, but deserves another: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is the best book I’ve read this year. It is engagingly written, historically dense without being slow, and provides so much context for why America is the way it is.
    Food Explorer by Daniel Stone- about a USDA botanist who traveled the world in the early 1900s collecting, shipping, and growing plants he thought would benefit the USA. You can thank him for having avocados, lemons, and mangos in your average grocery store!
    Priceless- I listened to this one on audiobook, it’s by a former FBI agent who investigated art thefts
    When Death becomes Life by Joshua Mezrich- it’s dual memoir/nonfiction by a transplant surgeon about his career path and also the history of transplant medicine. He gets pretty detailed about the ethics of our current system of organ donation, very thought provoking.
    Also, if anyone has recommendations for books about the 1960s, I would love those! My fiancee and I really enjoyed the Chicago Seven movie on Netflix, and I have Conspiracy in the Streets on hold, but would love to add some more books about that time period in the US.

    • Libby says:

      Oh, and I forgot one! The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers by Bryan Christy. I’m not going to pretend this is the greatest literary work I have ever read. But I bought it at a thrift store in Alabama for $2, and it might be my most book enjoyment per dollar. The subject matter is fascinating, and the author did a really good job researching and detailing all the problems with our current animal sale laws that incentivize and make rare reptile smuggling possible. I find myself constantly referencing information from this book in every day conversations.

  49. christina mermis says:

    Great list! Just in time for Christmas too! I would add a less known but very talented author to this category – Richard A. Serrano. He writes excellent, compelling nonfiction. My favorite is “American Endurance, Buffalo Bill, the Great Cowboy Race of 1893, and the Vanishing Wild West”.

  50. Lisa White says:

    Nathaniel Philbrick is a terrific non-fiction author. My current favorite is In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. (This event is the basis of Melville’s Moby Dick.) Fascinating. Several people have mentioned Unbroken, which is fabulous. If,like me, you never fully recovered from your “horse phase”, Hillenbrand’s equally fabulous Seabiscuit: An American Legend will scratch that itch nicely.

  51. Mary says:

    My TBR list also just exploded 🙂
    My recs:
    – Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, about the 1854 cholera epidemic in London, where John Snow (not that one lol) figured out the issue was from the Broad Street pump. He’s considered the father of epidemiology for this.
    – The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko, about the 1983 speed run down the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon in a crazy flood.
    – The Ghost Ships of Archangel- The Arctic Voyage That Defied the Nazis, by William Geroux. This is military/maritime history I knew nothing about, trying to get supplies to Russia in the early 1940s when the sea was full of German u-boats.

    • Mary says:

      Oh, and I’m not sure if this counts as narrative nonfiction or is more of biography, but anyone interested in Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books/TV show would like ‘Prairie Fires’ by Caroline Fraser. A detailed look at the life of LIW and the times she lived in; her life was much harder than she wrote about in her books.

  52. Kristen E says:

    I would love to suggest the following titles:
    The Great Halifax Explosion by John U Bacon – This book kept me on the edge of my seat and was such a fascinating read.

    The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11- by Lawrence Wright – This is a more behind the scenes book about the events that led up to 9/11. Amazingly well written.
    A Greater Journey- Americans in Paris by David McCoullough The book goes into details about the medical students and art scene in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Details are not spared, and the insights are fascinating about so many Artist, Literary figures, and Medical greats that are well known today.

    Wilson by Scott A Berg- by far the most fascinating presidential biography I wasn’t sure I wanted to read. Fair warning- the paperback is a whopping 832 pages, but I still thought each was worth every bit of the read.

  53. Jessica says:

    Tehran Children by Mikhal Dekel is another excellent one–I listened to it on audiobook with Suzanne Toren narrating. The author is the daughter of a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor who traveled through the Soviet Union and Middle East to finally end up in Israel. The style is a combination of history and memoir as the author researches her father’s journey and retraces his journey as a refugee. There was an incredible amount of information that I had never known about WWII–I highly recommend!

  54. Maryalene says:

    Lots of titles to add to my to-read list here!

    I recently read Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill and found that to be a fascinating look at history I did not know.

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