Why I Read Historical Fiction

I’ve been busy as a bee, or perhaps a bookworm, recently, stuffing as much reading time into my summer as possible while I can still control what I want to read. While I haven’t consciously focused on any type of book in particular, I have noticed that one genre has been taking up much of my time recently, one that I haven’t really enjoyed in a while; historical fiction.

When I was young, I loved to read books that took place in different times. In particular, I read the My America and Dear America series. These books were all written as diaries of kids, usually girls, that were thrown into the thick of the action during events as early as the settling of the United States and the revolutionary war and go all the way through to World War II and the Vietnam War. I loved feeling like I was right in the middle of those historic moments. I probably learned more about the Civil War from all those escaped slaves and soldiers’ daughters diaries than I ever did from a textbook at school, at least until I hit AP US History.

Sadly, I read so many of those books and that I read myself flat out of that series and historical fiction in general by middle school. I didn’t read a whole lot of history books after that, especially American history, with exceptions for must reads and big hits like Devil in the White City.

Recently, though, I got into a ridiculous trend of reading five or more historical, (fiction and non-fiction) books at a time, without quite realizing what I was doing at first.  I started with interesting looking reads and books I got recommended to me, like the books of Geraldine Brooks, who wrote some fantastic historical books like Caleb’s Crossing and Year of Wonders. Some of the other odds and end I can recommend are The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and some other such sundries. I’ve read some bad ones too, books, I cannot recommend or name in good company, but reading those too made me realize just what I once found so compelling in historical fiction, and what I’m probably ready to fall in love with again.

With a well-researched historical book, one that doesn’t just throw on some petticoats for aesthetics, you can be transported to a wholly other world something kind of parallel to a fully fleshed out sci-fi or fantasy world.  Like good sci-fi or fantasy, historical fiction put the reader in a unfamiliar place, or at least one that differs greatly enough from their everyday life, but leaves enough recognizable hints and shades from the reader’s world that they can feel this setting’s connection to what’s there when they put the book down.

The themes and messages carried from a foreign place stick that much harder in my head, maybe because I could never see them quite so clearly in everyday life. The cycle of life and loss in A Year of Wonders, the strange bonds of the Western nuclear family in the Poisonwood Bible, the sometimes painful but always unbreakable connection between mother and daughter in the Joy Luck Club, that stuff sticks with me, along with each writer’s brilliantly rendered image of this or that time and place.

Even in the less inspiring reads, though, historical fiction brings forth an extra advantage unique to this borderline non-fiction genre. If nothing else, you can learn something new from them. It’s kind of odd, really, but I’ve noticed that, whereas a shoddy sci-fi or fantasy story will have a shoddy, unformed setting, plenty of historical fiction authors put such ridiculous effort into researching their books that, I find myself presented with a pretty complete picture of, say, Regency era England, no matter how bad some Jane Austen wannabe mucks it up with a sadly predictable romance. Whether it’s a labor of love, or these writers feel more accountable when writing about a time and place that actually happened, this attention to detail has pulled me through a number of more poorly written storylines in a way a bad sci-fi book just could not. Maybe that’s just my inner nerd showing through there, but I enjoy learning something new, if it doesn’t feel too much like learning. (My inner nerd is a bit lazy.)

I urge you too to check out the historical fiction genre. If you find the recommendations I just made above too much like stuff your grandma reads in her book club, fear not because I have a father that won’t read much of anything if it hasn’t got WWII or some guys in chainmail and armor in it. Conn Iggulden’s Genghis Khan series or anything by Bernard Cornwall should be plenty edgy and violent for you, my more masculine. I have those on my to-read list.

Did I miss anything? Let me know if you’ve got a historical series I should sink my teeth into, now that I’ve finally got the taste for them once again.

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One thought on “Why I Read Historical Fiction

  1. You list some great authors for historical fiction but you might also want to try Ken Follett’s the
    “Century” trilogy or anything else by Follett for that matter. Robert Harris’ books will take you to from ancient Rome to Nazi Germany. Some authors do a good job of bringing to life a figure from history or legend such as Mary Doria Russell’s “Doc” or Isabelle Allende’s “Zorro”. Paula McLain bought Hemingway and his first wife to life in Paris in the 1920s in her book “The Paris Wife”. Her new book “Circling the Sun” takes readers to colonial Africa in the 1920s into the life of record-setting aviator and author Beryl Markham. I’m in the middle of this one now and can’t put it down, so I’ll “talk” to you later!

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