Pages of the Past: Historical Fiction


Books can function as time machines for readers when authors people the past with fictional characters or imagine the details of the lives of actual personages in history. Historical fiction spans the centuries and the globe. Some writers specialize in particular topics or time periods. Jeff Shaara sets his novels during wars from the American Revolution to World War II. Jean Auel’s books take place during the prehistoric era.


“Wolf Hall”

by Hilary Mantel
This heavy tome won the 2009 Man Booker Prize and the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Thomas Cromwell was the son of an abusive blacksmith, but he rose to prominence in the service of Cardinal Wolsey in King Henry VIII’s court. “But for the cardinal, any contentious point must be wrapped around and around again with a fine filament of words, fine as split hairs. Any dangerous opinion must be so plumped out with laughing apologies that it is as fat and harmless as the cushions you lean on.” When Wolsey loses his position, Cromwell maintains his own power and eventually becomes closer to the royal family as Anne Boleyn hopes to become queen of England. “This visit has compacted the court’s quarrels and intrigues, trapped them in the small space within the town’s walls. The travelers have become as intimate with each other as cards in a pack: contiguous, but their paper eyes blind.” Covering the years 1500-35, this is the first book in the Wolf Hall trilogy. For a view of King Henry VIII’s court and Anne Boleyn through the eyes of her sister Mary, try Philippa Gregory’s “The Other Boleyn Girl.” It is less densely packed with characters and historical details but still portrays the intrigues of the time.

“Caleb’s Crossing” by Geraldine Brooks. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Brooks sets her story in 1660s Massachusetts. Bethia is a minister’s daughter with a quick mind but constrained by the religion and world in which she grows up. “In the morning, I did not speak of what I had overheard. Listening not speaking, has been my way. I have become most proficient in it. My mother taught me the use of silence. While she lived, I think that not above a dozen people in this settlement ever heard the sound of her voice.” As a girl Bethia roams the island with a young Wampanoag boy she nicknames Caleb. “I made this island mine, mile by mile, from the soft, oozing clay of the rainbow cliffs to the rough chill of the granite boulders that rise abruptly in the fields, thwarting the plough, shading the sheep. I love the fogs that wreathe us all in milky veils .… We are taught early here to see Nature as a foe to be subdued. But I came, by stages, to worship it. You could say that for me, this island and her bounties became the first of my false gods, the original sin that begot so much idolatry.” There are many memorable facets of this book including the use of language, the images of Puritan and Wampanoag cultures, and the growth of the characters themselves.

0821_Loc_WolfHall“The American Heiress”
by Daisy Goodwin
Cora’s mother is an overbearing woman whose goal is to climb ever higher in society. Cora’s debut in 1893 is a smashing success and her mother takes her overseas to find a prospective husband with a royal title. “She was fascinated by all the stories about her wedding in the newspapers. In public, it was very bad form to admit that you had read any of the scandal rags, but in private Cora devoured them.” As a young wife, Cora must find her way in British society, which does not fall as easily to her charms as did the wealthy of Newport and New York City. Nor does she understand the subtle rules of British upper-class etiquette and the secrets her husband keeps. Cora’s personal maid, Bertha, also experiences the differences between America and England. “Bertha wondered what she disliked most: to be noticed for her colour or to be ignored for her class.” The historical aspect is depicted most by the clothes and manners of the characters. “Mrs. Cash was in gold brocade trimmed with sable. On her head, she wore a fur toque pinned with a brilliant diamond aigrette and a delicate lace veil.”

0821_Loc_Twelvetribes“The Twelve Tribes of Hattie”
by Ayana Mathis
In 1923, 15-year-old Hattie left Georgia for Philadelphia. “Hattie looked more closely at the crowd on the sidewalk. The Negroes did not step into the gutters to let the whites pass, and they did not stare doggedly at their own feet. Four Negro girls walked by, teenagers like Hattie, chatting to one another. Just girls in conversation, giggling and easy, the way only white girls walked and talked in the city streets of Georgia.” Hattie is the constant thread throughout the different chapters that reveal portions of the lives of Hattie and her 11 children, who are affected in part by the times in which they live. Hattie’s sister and brother-in-law are bullied because of their color in 1954 Jim Crow south. Franklin is a scared soldier in Vietnam in 1969. Every character comes to life, blemishes and all, as the decades pass and Hattie ages.

Rutland Free Library has these and many more historical fiction titles on its shelves. What’s your favorite time period to read about?

Happy reading!

Janet Clapp is an adult services librarian at Rutland Free Library.

Janet Clapp

Janet Clapp is an adult services librarian at Rutland Free Library.

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