First Cosmic Velocity
Most Americans are aware of the country’s achievements in the Space Race, but they may not be familiar with just how hard the Soviet Union was working to beat America to the moon—or so we’ve always thought. Zach Powers’s novel combines the real history of Soviet cosmonauts with his own devilishly funny fictional take. In 1964, the Soviet space program is celebrating its successful launch of five capsules into space. But what its scientists aren’t telling anyone—especially their government—is that while they can launch those rockets into space, they have no idea how to get them back down. So far, they’ve been able to fool everyone by producing an identical twin for each ill-fated cosmonaut, but now they’ve run out of twins. And when Khrushchev demands they launch his beloved dog into space and bring him home again, the scientists must scramble to cover up their failures.
The Nickel Boys
In June 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in St. Augustine, Florida, for attempting to enter a whites-only restaurant, a reminder that Florida was part of the Jim Crow South. In Whitehead’s stunning followup after his wildly successful The Underground Railroad, readers meet Elwood Curtis, a Black teenager who admires Dr. King and tries to model his own behavior based on King’s example. But when Elwood is arrested on a bogus charge and sent to the Nickel Academy, his treatment at the hands of the reformatory’s staff tests his commitment to nonviolent responses to injustice. Based on the the real-life Dozier School that ran for over a century in northern Florida and tortured thousands of boys during that time, Whitehead’s searing novel demonstrates that reform was never the goal.
The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted
In 1960s Australia, Tom Hope has been left hopeless and broken after the sudden rupture of his marriage. In the wake of his wife’s leaving, Tom’s life on his farm becomes more lonely than he fears he can bear. But when Tom meets Hannah Babel, an immigrant newly arrived from Hungary, he’s intrigued. When she hires him to help her to build a bookshop, sparks fly. But Hannah is a suffering soul herself. Twenty-four years before, she had been imprisoned in a concentration camp, and she still carries the psychic scars. For Tom, who’s never had much call to read, and Hannah, who needs a reason to believe again, the bookstore becomes the shelter in which the two work to recover their sense of self and to learn how to trust—and love—again.
In a secret city hidden deep within the Soviet wilderness, scientists are developing a nuclear device that dwarfs any atomic weapon before it. But when one of the city’s brightest physicists is found dead and his body swamped from within by radioactivity, a KGB major is sent to investigate a murder that’s occurred in a city that doesn’t exist. The scientists working on the nuclear leviathan throw up shields against Major Vasin’s investigation, and he finds himself not only matching wits with their quick intellects but becoming aware that Khrushchev himself is invested in the outcome, and the Soviet premier may be willing to sacrifice the truth in order to pursue his nuclear objectives.
When Charles Manson was put on trial for his role in the 1969 murders of eight people, his followers maintained a vigil outside the courthouse. Several had participated in the murders and were also on trial, and the sight of Manson surrounded by young women and teenaged girls both troubled and fascinated the public. In The Girls, Cline imagines the lives of young women drawn to a similar character with delusions of messiah-hood. The story’s told from the perspective of teen Evie Boyd, who’s drawn to a group of young women hanging out in the park. She attaches herself to alpha-girl Suzanne and accompanies her to their ranch in the California hills, and there meets the mesmerizing male leader. As Evie gives herself over to the sense of love and connection she feels in this makeshift cult, readers are pulled in alongside her, empathetic with the desires to belong and to be loved.
Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Between 1967 and 1970, civil war raged in Nigeria. The country had gained its independence from Great Britain in 1963, but four years later the people of Biafra, a southern province, declared their intention to secede. War erupted. For Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the war cost her both of her grandfathers. She chronicles the war years through the perspectives of five separate characters, whose stories she juggles with tremendous aplomb. She immerses readers in the time and texture of 1960s Nigeria and grants them access to what it felt like to be present as a young country faced its first disastrous challenge to nationhood. Peoples thrown together by colonial borders fought to establish their own identities as they wrestled and warred for political power. Awarded one of Great Britain’s most prestigious literary prizes, Adichie’s sophomore novel established her as a powerhouse writer.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
John le Carré
In the early ’60s, the British Intelligence community was humiliated on a world stage when five of its agents defected to the USSR after serving as double agents for decades. In this intricate novel, LeCarre takes readers into MI-5 as George Smiley works to ferret out the Soviet mole who has cost British agents their lives. Operating with code names for the suspected agents, he begins the thankless task of digging out and eradicating the rot at the heart of the agency. Smiley intuits that Karla, Smiley’s Soviet nemesis, is manipulating British agents. Together with those loyal to him, Smiley sets traps for double agents, Soviet moles, and—if he plays his pieces close to his vest—maybe the Soviet spymaster himself.
Along the Infinite Sea
When Pepper discovers that she’s pregnant by her married, prominent politician lover, she fixes up an old Mercedes to try to raise funds for her new life. But the woman who comes to buy it—Annabelle—has her own complex history that began in Europe prior to World War II. In stories that weave the events of 1936 and 1966, each woman provides motion to the other’s story, so that together, they create rich music. They also discover that the same narrow choices regarding their pregnancies don’t seem to have been affected by a change in decades or continents. As the two women form a bond, men come into their lives who complicate matters even further. A tale of romance, politics, and the lengths a woman will go to in order to protect her children.
Two brothers contend with the challenges of adulthood and fractious politics against the backdrop of Calcutta. Subhash and Udayan have grown up as close as brothers can be, but as they enter their 20s, their paths diverge. Udayan joins a radical political group in college, while Subhash pursues postgraduate studies in the U.S. When Udayan marries Gauri, he writes to his brother that he wishes him to meet his new bride. But when brother and bride meet, it’s under strained circumstances they all failed to predict. A story of fraternal envy and love set against radical movements in India and cultural chaos in America, Lahiri gives readers a powerful story of growth and grief.
Going After Cacciato
One day, a soldier in the Vietnam War decides he won’t fight anymore. He lays down his arms and sets off on a journey for Paris. Tim O’Brien deftly weaves elements of fantasy with the horrors of war and the exigencies of survival. Readers enter into the narrative at various points, and as Cacciato continues his hero’s quest, we’re introduced to other voices whose experiences overlap and contrast with Cacciato’s and call into question where fantasy ends and reality begins. O’Brien was awarded the 1979 National Book Award for his novel that spins the dross of war into the gold of classic literature.
The Peacock Emporium
Athene Forster never takes no for an answer. Her verve and tenaciousness attract the wealthy Douglas Fairley-Hulme, and their wedding is the beginning of her fairy-tale life. Except that just two years later, Athene’s indiscretion with a young salesman causes her downfall. Decades later, Athene’s legacy throws the life of her daughter, Suzanna, into shadow. Desperate to be her own person, Suzanna opens an eclectic shop she calls The Peacock Emporium. The store represents more than a daughter’s freedom—Suzanna’s life is a struggle due to the impact of violence. How she builds the necessary brick-and-mortar of her own existence is at the center of this novel.
When We Left Cuba
Some of the most concentrated heat of the Cold War was focused on the island of Cuba. A revolution in the late 1950s swept the corrupt government from power, but the new government led by Fidel Castro exercised its power by claiming families’ properties in the name of equality. Cuban families forced into exile gathered in Florida. Beatriz Perez is a member of one of those families, and she wants revenge against Castro for dispossessing her of her rich inheritance. She’s recruited by the CIA to infiltrate his closest circle, and she becomes a spy at great risk to herself. But when she discovers true love and passion with a man whose world view challenges her own, she’s forced to reevaluate her past in order to understand what’s at stake in her future.
Park Avenue Summer
Alice Weiss joins thousands of young people who leave behind their childhood homes to follow their dreams in New York City. Her dream is to be a photographer, but an unexpected opportunity is handed to her by Helen Gurley Brown, who’s stepping up to be Cosmopolitan magazine’s first female editor-in-chief. But Gurley Brown’s new book scandalizes the magazine’s established staff, and many of them resign in protest. Alice seizes the opportunity and is plunged into a high-pressure life that involves long working hours tempered by swanky parties and elegant dinners. As her relationship with her boss solidifies, she’s approached by those who want to sabotage Gurley Brown. Will she be able to protect her boss? And what will be the cost to her if she chooses the wrong side in the power struggle?
Lenny Snyder was the jester of ’60s counterculture, but his son, Fred, would prefer to forget about his father. The problem is, when you’re born into cultural royalty, followers expect you to perform. Instead, Fred has grown up to become the chronicler of his father’s exploits, and in Furst’s novel, readers learn everything they know about Lenny in the words of his unimpressed son. As Fred delves deeper into his childhood, he recognizes that the narcissistic father—beloved by all—couldn’t maintain the façade with his wife and child. In fact, Fred’s childhood was pretty messed up. He recounts life in the center ring of the circus, where every day was an adventure, but the ringmaster alternated between kindness and cruelty. As readers watch Lenny’s triumphs through his son’s eyes, the ’60s is brought to vivid life.
Where the Crawdads Sing
Two boys riding their bikes on an October morning in 1969 discover the body of Chase Andrews in the marsh. The prime suspect is Kya Clark, who locals derisively call the Marsh Girl. But Kya is not the simpleton the townspeople believe. She’s a sensitive, intelligent woman whose beauty attracts attention from two young men. Delia Owen’s blockbuster novel has inspired discussions as readers talk about the novel’s resolution, but it’s also inspired reflections on its message about women and nature. Suffused with attention to the natural world that have made writers such as Barbara Kingsolver and Karen Russell beloved to their fans, Where the Crawdads Sing is a paean to nature—and a cautionary tale about human nature.
Swimming Between Worlds
Elaine Neil Orr
As Winston-Salem, North Carolina, enters the 1960s, it’s riven by long-overdue social and cultural changes. The bitter legacy of racism and the Civil War has resulted in separate and unequal access to everything from jobs to swimming pools. But enormous social change occurs when individuals change, and in her novel, Elaine Neil Orr brings together three characters whose actions mirror what’s happening in their community. Gaines Towson, Kate Monroe, and Tacker Hart enter the summer carrying their own burdens. But as each faces their fears and commits themselves to courses of action, great change becomes possible—even inevitable—despite opposition from unexpected sources. A testament to the human heart, this triumphant novel will give you the summer feels.
The ’60s is often characterized as a decade in which revolutionary movements took to the streets. These challenges to the status quo resulted in watershed cultural and political changes around the world; those unable to reap the benefits of the ’60s liberation movements would later use their examples in inciting challenges to outdated systems. The ’60s was also a period of tremendous technological growth and scientific discovery, which saw the first successful moon landings, the first heart transplant, and a plethora of advancements that changed medicine and science forever.
And yet, the upheavals of the ’60s were not without pain. In America, the assassinations of JFK, his brother Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. shocked the consciences of all Americans. Riots in urban areas brought attention to poverty and racial discrimination. The conflict in Vietnam forced many to realize that American foreign policy was not always focused on noble causes, and the continued Cold War created global disquietude as the U.S. and USSR conducted proxy wars and rattled nuclear sabers at each other.
Changes in the arts smashed boundaries and gave birth to entire new movements in music, visual arts, literature, and performing arts. New Journalism did its best to chronicle counterculture, and both were forever changed. And films, books, and television tried to keep up with a world that in 1969 didn’t look much like it had in 1960.
In these 16 historical fiction novels set in the ’60s, authors tackle some of the decade’s transformations and predicaments, its quandaries and triumphs. Each read is a great place to begin untangling the decade’s legacy.
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