Lusitania disaster, 1915
With World War I reaching the end of its first year, the luxury liner Lusitania set sail, those aboard believing that, despite it being wartime, maritime law and honor would allow the ship a peaceful voyage. Instead, its torpedoing by a German U-boat would take more than 1,000 lives and eventually push America into joining the war on the side of the Allies. Larson’s retelling highlights new details and makes each character—from the boat’s architect to President Woodrow Wilson to its passengers—stand out through their impact on the voyage and the ensuing disaster.
The Night Watch
WWII air raids, 1941
By moving back through time, Waters highlights three fierce, tenacious women staying alive during World War II. Whether driving ambulances and sorting through homes reduced to rubble or exploring their sexuality among each other, these characters represent the larger female population, who were granted freedom and agency in the war but then forced to abandon that new independence once the men returned home.
The Scarlet Letter
Puritan era, 1642
No other book sums up the Puritans’ toxic blend of private sin and public shame like Hawthorne’s classic. The bold red “A” borne by Hester Prynne has become an unforgettable trope; the novel was one of the first to tackle the taboo themes of adultery through a literary lens.
A Brief History of Seven Killings
Attempted assassination of Bob Marley, 1976
New York City crack wars, 1980s
Redefining Jamaica, 1990s
James’s Man Booker Prize–winning novel straddles more than one turning point. Starting with gunmen storming “the singer’s” home just days before the Smile Jamaica Concert, the novel carries these motifs of violence and invasion through the next two decades—especially where the CIA’s involvement in Jamaica changes the course of history more than once.
The Salem witch trials, 1692
Second Red Scare, 1953
Miller wrote his classic play about a few girls’ hysteria snowballing into the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for another turning point in history: the 1950s McCarthyism, during which the House Un-American Activities Committee helped to blacklist prominent members of the entertainment industry, including Miller himself.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Taiping Rebellion, 1850-1864
Plenty of friendships can’t survive the misunderstandings and betrayals that weaken Lily and Snow Flower’s laotong bond. But few are as resilient as these “old sames,” who weather not only the aforementioned petty squabbles but also literally keep each other alive during the bloody civil war that forces them to escape into the mountains during a savage winter.
Girl at War
Croatian War of Independence, 1991
In Nović’s debut novel, it’s 2001 and 20-year-old college student Ana is haunted by the wars of her childhood in Croatia a decade earlier. While Ana is in denial to her friends and boyfriend, flashbacks reveal how she lost her family in the war and was forced to become a child soldier as the only means of survival. Just as the Yugoslav Wars broke up Yugoslavia into independent nations, so too does this novel follow a girl’s brutal coming-of-age.
A History of the World in 100 Objects
100 turning points in history
Perhaps it’s cheating to include MacGregor’s massive book (inspired by his landmark radio program with the BBC), but this collection brings both quantity and quality. By examining objects ranging from friezes to figurines to flagons, MacGregor asks questions about how competing regimes shape their citizens, the movement of goods and ideas, and how we first started identifying as humans.
Perhaps the best way to make sense of history—including the historical moments we’re currently living through—is to read books that make history come to life. The world changes in each of these stories: a country sees devastating losses in war and disasters; laws and customs evolve; illness, violence, or revolution reshape physical and cultural spaces. Even though these books are based on major happenings, their impact is not only measured by the history they portray—their protagonists, average people caught in impossible situations, embody change and transformation.
Featured Image: @lukasnorth/Twenty20