Readers, we just released a delightful episode of What Should I Read Next featuring our first grandmother-granddaughter duo. Rebekah and Beverly might be from different generations, but judging by their taste in books, you’d never know it!
One of their favorite spans of common ground is their mutual love of realistic books that are based around—or simply include—lesser-known historical events. I so enjoyed hearing their favorites when we talked, and after our recording I spotted a plethora of titles on my own shelves that would likely make similarly-minded readers very happy.
Although I certainly enjoy nonfiction about historical events, there’s something special about the way a fictional story illuminates a piece of history. Fictional characters spark our imaginations and immerse us in the setting, inviting us to empathize with their journeys while we learn something new on every page.
Today I’m sharing 15 novels that incorporate real historical events and careful research but focus on the story. And we’re betting these novels focus on events you didn’t learn about in history class!
The 1937 Hindenburg disaster might not qualify as "lesser known," depending on which history courses you've taken. My own history classes glossed right over it, so I was eager to read more about this monumental event. This entertaining, suspenseful tale is told from multiple points of view and is based on the lives of real characters, and the enigmatic setting—aboard the luxurious yet claustrophobic airship—captures your imagination. My husband surprised me by loving this, too. More info →
You know about the Titanic, and maybe even the Lusitania disaster (the subject of Erik Larson's Dead Wake). But you've likely never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff, though the number of lives lost dwarfs the number of people who died in those two better-known disasters at sea. The ship was hugely over capacity when it sunk in the Baltic Sea after being hit by Soviet torpedoes. This is a gripping and page turning YA novels equally beloved by tweens, teens, and grown-ups. More info →
After a scorching summer and months of no rain, the largest fires in Maine's history swept over its coast, from Bar Harbor to Kittery. In Shreve's claustrophobic domestic suspense we experience this real event through the eyes of Grace Holland, whose marriage is its own sort of natural disaster. Her husband came back from the war a little broken. So did her friend's husbands, yet they don't seem as cruel. When wildfires break out, her husband leaves to help dig a fire break, and Grace and her children flee to the ocean to escape the flames. When her husband doesn't return, Grace thinks she's lost him forever—and she's far from devastated. But then he returns, and the real trouble begins. Dark and a little melodramatic, but oh-so-discussable. More info →
The Alice Network author Quinn also takes on the aftermath of WWII in her most recent historical release. Inspired by a true story she stumbled upon in the historical archives (which would totally spoil the big reveal—you're going to have to read the author's note to learn all!), Quinn weaves together three perspectives to tell a gripping story: Jordan is a Boston teenager who works in her father’s Boston antiques store, Ian is a British journalist determined to bring his brother’s killer— known as “the Huntress”—to justice, and Nina is a Russian fighter pilot and the only woman alive who can identify the Huntress. There's no weak link in the story; each thread is fascinating—and when they began to come together I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. A mesmerizing tale of war crimes, coming of age, love and fidelity, and the pursuit of justice, with stirring implications for today. The audio version, narrated by Saskia Maarleveld, is fantastic. More info →
Historian-turned-novelist Robson sets her latest historical release in 1947, when times are grim: so many have lost so much, war rationing continues, Britain is in ruins. But in a bleak year, there's a bright spot: Princess Elizabeth's royal wedding captured the hearts of a nation, and was a beacon of hope to a country on its knees. The people insisted on a real celebration, including a beautiful gown. Robson's story shifts among three protagonists and spans 70 years, but the common thread is Elizabeth's gown—and specifically, the women who make it. While Robson has a fine eye for detail, and her behind-the-scenes descriptions of the fine atelier's workroom are riveting, the heartbeat of the story comes from female friendship, secret pasts, and life after loss. While a royal wedding is rarely overlooked, this book illuminates the often-neglected postwar era in a fascinating way. More info →
Books have the power to change lives, and this is wondrously shown in the story of 19-year-old Cussy Carter, an Appalachian woman who joins the Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and delivers books to the impoverished hill people of Eastern Kentucky. She's also the last living female with Blue People ancestry, all of whom had a skin condition called methemoglobinemia, which really did turn their skin blue. Inspired by real history and set in 1936, this is a story of hope and heartbreak and how fierce determination can challenge the grasp of poverty and oppression. I learned so much Kentucky history reading this—and I live here! Library lovers will especially appreciate the untold story of the Library Project. More info →
I always count on Lisa See for sweeping historical fiction stories. This one opens in the late 1930's night club scene in San Francisco and spans major events of WWII, like the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the horrors of Japanese internment camps. Showgirls Ruby, Helen, and Grace compete for roles and share their pasts. Grace and Helen are from Chinese families and escaped to find new lives in the city. Ruby is Japanese but passes for Chinese, which only her closest friends know. When she's suddenly among the many Japanese Americans under suspicion after Pearl Harbor, Ruby grapples with betrayal and faces an uncertain future. See writes friendship so well, and I appreciated this less-familiar look at the WWII era. More info →
The story behind this historical thriller could launch its own novel. Author Lara Prescott always loved the book Dr Zhivago, and was stunned—along with the rest of the world—when the CIA declassified documents revealing that it had played a role in the book's covert publication and distribution in Russia during the Cold War. This is Prescott's imagining of what that might have looked like. The story moves between East, where the focus is on Pasternak and his muse/mistress, and West, where readers get to know the female spies of the OSS. The book has the feel of Kate Quinn’s The Huntress, with some of the storytelling flavor of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, or Brit Bennet’s The Mothers. More info →
The 1918 Spanish flu epidemic isn't nearly as unfamiliar to us as it was a year ago—now that we've seen a pandemic firsthand and witnessed countless charts, graphs, and comparisons to the past. But when Meissner was writing this book, it was little known to contemporary readers. In fact, even many months after it was published, Meissner bemoaned that though 50 million people died of the 1918 influenza, we appeared then to be making little effort to remember. In her novel, Pauline Bright and her husband are newly arrived in Philadelphia with their three daughters; they hope to give their girls a chance at a better life. But shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, the great illness that came to be known as the Spanish flu meets them in their new city, bringing loss and heartache in its wake. But there's also hope, as the family takes in a baby orphaned by the illness. (Please be mindful of whether you're ready to read a pandemic tale before picking this one up!) More info →
In this standalone novel from the author of Next Year in Havana, three women's lives become entangled over the course of Labor Day weekend, 1935, when the storm of the century slams into Key West. The story is told from three perspectives, that of three different women who seem to share little in common, but whose lives are about to intersect in ways no one could foresee. Helen is a Key West native, poor and pregnant, fleeing her abusive husband. Mirta is Cuban, newly married to a man she barely knows, and just beginning her honeymoon. And Elizabeth, who’s come south on a dangerous search for a long-lost loved one. A captivating novel about a little-known historical event. More info →
Lee's compelling novel takes a real historical event as its backdrop: the devastating earthquake that struck San Francisco on April 18, 1906, causing fires and destruction. Mercy Wong is thrilled to gain admittance to St. Clare's school for girls; it's her ticket out of poverty in Chinatown. Though shunned by the wealthy white students, Mercy stays strong and focuses on her studies—until the earthquake destroys everything. While Mercy and her classmates wait for help in a temporary encampment, her "bossy" can-do attitude and entrepreneurial spirit prove helpful. If you love heroines you can root for and evocative writing, this book is for you. More info →
This is a story of two brothers who get mixed up in the labor movement in 1909 in Spokane, Washington. After the heartbreaking loss of their mother, the two young men travel to the nearest big city to find work and make a future for themselves. But their plans are halted when the brothers end up at a labor protest and then in jail. As a result of their circumstances, they get mixed up with activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a real-life labor leader. Hers was not a name I recognized, but so many plot points sent me rushing to Google to discern fact from fiction—and to learn more about the real historical events underpinning the story. I talked about the meaning of the title and a few of my favorite scenes on IGTV, if you need more convincing to add this one to your library holds list. More info →
I thought this author's name was familiar, and sure enough, it turns out G. Willow Wilson wrote a bunch of recent Ms. Marvel comics. Her most recent release, a historical fiction and fantasy novel, takes place during the Spanish invasion of the Iberian peninsula in 1491, a setting I've never read about. Hassan, the palace mapmaker, has the unique ability to draw places he has never seen, altering reality in the process. When the Spanish forces arrive and see his mapmaking gift as a threat to Christian Spanish rule, his best friend Fatima must step in to help him escape. This takes them on an epic journey outside the palace walls in this tale of freedom, magic, and religion. More info →
I've read many WWII historical fiction stories, but few focus on the Women's Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, a group that was created by the U.S. Army to help defeat Germany and Japan. Ida Mae's father was a Black pilot who taught her to fly planes, though her race and gender prevent her from following in his footsteps. Eager to soar, Ida is ready to join WASP as a way to fly and to help her brother who is fighting in the Pacific. But when the new organization denies her entry based on her race, Ida's only choice is to pass as white in order to live her dream. Smith expertly explores identity, family, and legacy while immersing her readers in history in this fantastic YA novel. More info →
In 1948, the Empire Windrush arrived in Essex, London, carrying 492 Jamaican immigrants who were recruited by the British government to help rebuild the economy after WWII. In her debut novel, Louise Hare tells a fictional story about recent immigrant Lawrie Matthews who works as a postman by day, a jazz musician by night. In between, he makes time to woo the girl next door. When Lawrie discovers something terrible on his way to work one day, he becomes a criminal suspect, despite all evidence to the contrary. The local community turns against him in a show of xenophobia and racism, dashing his dreams for the future. With vivid historical detail, Hare combines mystery and romance and provides a decidedly hopeful ending. More info →
Do you have a favorite book about a lesser-known historical event? Build out our TBR in the comments.