It has always been difficult for me to understand why one human being would want to own another human being, and yet we know from history that people have been enslaved for various reasons. In this stunning novel, Veronique Olmi presents the story of Bakhita—a name given to a young Sudanese girl by her captors—who was enslaved at the age of seven. When she is thirteen, the Italian consul in Khartoum purchases her, and eventually Bakhita goes to Italy. Readers will be fascinated by Bakhita’s journey, which leads to her canonization. The feast day for Saint Josephine Bakhita, the patron saint of Sudan, is February 8.
Home for Erring and Outcast Girls
In the early 1900s, one mistake by a young woman could destroy her life, especially if it involved an out-of-wedlock pregnancy or if desperation had led her to sell sex for money. The Berachah Home for the Redemption and Protection of Erring Girls in Texas, took in women who had were society’s “cast-offs” for these types of mistakes. A century after the home closes, however, a librarian, Cate Sutton, discovers the lives of Mattie McBride and Lizzie Bates—two women who passed through the home—and uncovers secrets that will have an impact on Sutton’s own life. The real-life story of this institution inspired Kibler when she noticed inscriptions on one of the gravestones in the Home’s cemetery.
Enchantress of Numbers
Ada Lovelace might have led a life of ease and boredom if not for her mother, Lady Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron, who left Ada’s famous father, Lord Byron, when Ada was only seven weeks. She educated her daughter in mathematics, rather than poetry, as a means of protecting her. As a young woman, Ada Lovelace combined her father’s wildness and passion with a fierce mathematical intelligence. When she encountered Charles Babbage, the results were startling.
In this remarkable novel, readers meet the small girl who learns human anatomy while working in her father’s laboratory. Before the age of selfies, long before the invention of the camera, few people had any idea what they, or the people they read about in newspapers, looked like. Marie’s remarkable skills meant that she could create wax images of faces. When Paris erupted in revolution in 1789, those skills were in high demand as members of the nobility—faced with Madame Guillotine—wanted some record that they had once existed. Marie Tussaud changed the ways that we “see” the rich and famous.
Song of a Captive Bird
This novel has stayed with me after reading it last year. Forugh Farrokhzad is raised in Tehran by parents who insist that being an obedient, modest daughter is the most important thing she can be. But Farrokhzad envisioned a different life for herself, which included a passion for poetry. But writing poetry brings her into conflict with her parents, and against her will, they marry her to man with whom she has nothing in common. She rebels by continuing to write poetry, and by commencing an extra-marital affair. Farrokhzad faced repercussions for her choices, but decades later, her story will inspire readers. Some of her poems can be found here.
The Kennedy Debutante
Kathleen Kennedy was the sister of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. Of all of the Kennedy siblings, “Kick” as she was nicknamed, was perhaps the most rebellious and the most free-thinking, which is why her mother, Rose, tried to interfere in so many of Kennedy’s choices. In 1938, when her father was appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom, Kick Kennedy attracted a great deal of attention for the combination of good looks and intelligence she brought to London society. But beneath the heart of a debutante lay a rebel, who wanted to love whom she loved and to work in situations that put her in danger. This forgotten member of the Kennedy family is brought to vivid life in Maher’s novel.
Venetia Stanley would have been lost to history if not for Eyre’s mind-bending novel of alchemy and beauty secrets at the court of King Charles I of England. One of the court’s great beauties, Stanley inspired poets such as Ben Jonson to write about her and painters to capture her image on their canvases. But time begins to change Stanley’s looks, and in search of a solution, she turns to apothecaries to supply her with a product known as “viper wine.” But viper wine is not the only thing fermenting in the English countryside: the English Civil War is on the horizon, and in Eyre’s novel, Stanley’s activities at court feed directly into the resentment of those who fear the court is “corrupt.”
I Was Anastasia
During the Russian Revolution of 1917, the four daughters of the Tsar and Tsarina were captured and held prisoner. Resentment against the family’s over-the-top lavish lifestyle—maintained while many in the country starved—meant that few had sympathy when they were later executed. In the 1920s, however, Anna Anderson surfaced in Berlin, and she claimed that she was really Anastasia Romanov. Lawhon’s novel is a thrilling imagining of the life of the woman who maintained for sixty years that she was the real Anastasia.
At first glance, this book seems an odd choice for a list about uncelebrated women. But in Castellani’s novel about the relationship between playwright Tennessee Williams and his lover, Frank Merlo, lies another story. Here, the two men meet an actress named Anja Blomgren (reputed to be based on actress Liv Ullmann). In those days that they spend together, events will be set in motion that Merlo will be desperate to remember on his death bed. The role that Blomgren will play in what we know of Tennessee Williams will keep readers turning pages.
Stephanie Marie Thornton
In a magazine article that I remember reading about Alice Roosevelt shortly before her death, the reporter noted that the pillow on her sofa bore the cross-stitch, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about anyone, sit next to me.” Alice Roosevelt was President Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, and in her day was regarded as a hellion who refused to accept a woman’s role as demure and passive. In this rollicking novel by Thornton, readers ride along as the irrepressible Roosevelt roils Washington DC society.
That Churchill Woman
Often reduced to footnotes about Winston Churchill, his mother, Jennie Jerome was, in fact, a powerhouse who startled the British nobility with her refusal to follow their staid ways. Jerome was only nineteen when she married Lord Randolph Churchill after a three-day courtship. After giving birth to young Winston, she played a much larger role in his upbringing than was common among those who ceded care of their children to nannies and nurses. And she was an artist. All of these elements made Jennie Jerome Churchill an object of both fascination and condemnation in Victorian England.
Most of us have seen The Wizard of Oz during its annual showings on television. But most of us have no idea of the stories behind its making, especially the role played by Maud Baum. Baum was the seventy-seven year old widow of Frank L. Baum, the book’s author, and when she found out that the book would finally become a film, she inserted herself into its production. On set, Maud Baum discovered that Judy Garland—the film’s sixteen-year old star—resembled the real Dorothy, a girl that the Baums had known. How Maud Baum nurtured Judy Garland is a story that readers need to know.
Martha Hall Kelly
In 1914, all of Europe stood on the brink of a coming war that would change everything. But Eliza Ferriday is thrilled to be traveling to St. Petersburg with Sofya Streshnayva, regardless of outside circumstances. Streshnayva is a member of the royal Romanov family, and the two women are in St. Petersburg when World War I begins. Ferriday returns home to the United States, but as the war progresses, she worries that Streshnayva will be harmed and does all she can to rescue her friend. One of the untold stories of the war, Kelly provides readers with a book that testifies to the power of female friendship and shows just how much the “outside world” can interfere with private lives.
The Red Daughter
John Burnham Schwartz
Imagine yourself the daughter of Josef Stalin. Stalin’s iron-fisted rule of the U.S.S.R. for over twenty-five years resulted in the deaths of millions. He died in 1953, and among the children he left behind was daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva. In 1967, Alliluyeva defected to the United States, an event that rocked the world. In this telling of her life, readers meet a woman who was charismatic and charming, but who found that America was not the country she had dreamed. The real-life characters who moved through her American life have their own fascinating tales. This new novel shows just how complex Alliluyeva’s decision turned out to be.
Margot: a Novel
The story of Anne Frank is well-known. In a footnote at the end of the book, Frank’s father reports that both Anne and her older sister, Margot, died in concentration camps. But in this re-imagining of history, Cantor presents a story in which Margot survived, and has taken an Americanized name while living in the U.S. Margot Frank has hidden her identity for many years, but when her sister’s story is turned into a film, and everyone on the street is reading her sister’s diary, Margot finds that her anonymity — and safety — are threatened. Cantor has crafted a sensitive and thrilling account of the devoted sister.
Franklin D. Roosevelt died in the company of his mistress while away from the White House. His affairs were open secrets. What remained secret, however, was that Eleanor Roosevelt was also in love with someone else—Lorena Hickok—a prominent political reporter. Bloom provides readers with a novel that conveys the passion and abiding love that the women shared. But she also details the relationship between Hickok and the president, who worked together on issues but who were also fierce rivals for Eleanor’s affections.
The Girls in the Picture
Frances Marion and Mary Pickford were just two of the young women who journeyed to Los Angeles in pursuit of art. Marion found it as a writer of the silent movies that were all the new rage, and Mary Pickford the golden-haired “America’s Sweetheart” who starred in many of the films. But both women faced issues because of their gender. Marion found it more and more difficult to get writing jobs in an industry that favored men, and Pickford’s private life bore little resemblance to those she portrayed on the screen. Through it all, however, the two women were close friends, and in this novel of their friendship, readers will witness how the strength of friendship can provide needed strength.
Fourteen-hundred years before Cleopatra, there was Nefertiti. And while you may not know her story, chances are, you’ve seen the famous bust of her that was discovered in 1913. In Moran’s novel, Nefertiti relies on her relationship with her sister, Mutnodjmet, as she faces the difficult task before her. Her new husband, Amunhotep, is pharaoh, but the radical changes that he proposes in the religion followed by Egyptians threatens to destabilize the kingdom. The lengths to which the two sisters are driven make for fascinating reading.
For a long time, “recorded” history were the stories written about the victors, the conquerors, the heroes. Or they were written about those wealthy enough or powerful enough to merit inclusion in the category we call history. But the consequence of such notions of what is important enough to record is that the lives of most of us have been left out of history books.
That’s why so many of us have not heard of the women featured in these books. Whether that person is now known as Saint Josephine Bakhita, a girl sold into slavery at the age of 7, or Ada Lovelace, the woman generally now acknowledged as the “mother” of computing, most women’s stories have been lost or forgotten.
But in this list of historical fiction about important women are the stories of women who you may not know now, but who you will want to read more about. Whether you’re looking for a story about an ancient Egyptian queen like Nefertiti, or a rebellious Iranian poet like Forugh Farrokhzad, Read It Forward has you covered. Each of these novels introduces readers to remarkable women whose stories will deepen our understanding of the roles that women have played in human history, even if no one seemed to be paying attention.