Lusitania disaster, 1915
With World War I reaching the end of its first year, the luxury liner Lusitania set sail, believing that, despite it being wartime, maritime law and honor would allow the ship a peaceful voyage. Instead, its torpedoing and sinking by a German U-boat would take over a thousand lives and eventually push America into joining the war on the side of the Allies. Larson’s thrilling retelling highlights new details and makes each character—from the boat’s architect to President Woodrow Wilson to its passengers—stand out in 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 bravely driving ambulances and sorting through homes reduced to rubble, or exploring their sexuality with one another, 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
Just as James’ Man Booker Prize-winning novel has seven (really, many more) killings, it also 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 is 2001 and 20-year-old college student Ana is haunted—not by the fresh terror of 9/11, but 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.
The best way to make the vastness of history come alive is to create (or reimagine) compelling characters at key points in history. The world changes in each of these books: 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 around major happenings, their impact is not measured just by how accurately they portray history; their protagonists, average people caught in impossible situations, embody that change and transformation.
Which books have made history come alive for you? What works of historical fiction did we miss? Post to FB or email us to keep the conversation going.
Bookshelf curated by Natalie Zutter.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
Image credits:Theodore Trimmer / Shutterstock.com