If you’re in the United States, chances are you’re recovering from Independence Day – whether from celebrating yourself or from keeping your pets/kids/self from getting stressed by others’ shenanigans. We thought it’d be fun to cover a few American Historical Fiction novels for the holiday, but we didn’t want this to become a Senior English Lit Syllabus. Here are 6 Historical American Fiction novels that aren’t part of “the canon” and take a different look at historical events than you might be used to.
Bethany: Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
I read Fever 1793 in high school and it was the first YA historical fiction book I read that I was consciously aware was historical fiction. It’s pretty much the whole reason I started reading this genre. The book follows fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook in Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever outbreak of 1793. I will mention that this book is a good way for preteens to learn about the history of the outbreak (because the language is very simple), but it isn’t accurate regarding race and gender (etc.) disparities of the time.
Jeriann: Kindred by Octavia Butler
As I’ve mentioned before, Kindred was my introduction to Octavia Butler. The story follows Dana, a woman in the 1970s who is transported through time to a plantation where a distant relative of hers was enslaved. Dana is taken back and forth between time periods several times, being called when a young white boy named Rupert is in danger and returning when her own life is endangered. We see a close look at parts of plantation life, as well as an exploration of interracial relationships in the ’70s.
Bethany: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
I’m a huge fan of comic book stories and movies and I can’t wait to get my hands on this one! Czech magician and escape artist Joe Kavalier has just arrived on the doorstep of his American cousin in 1939, while Europe is embroiled in WWII. Kavalier’s cousin, Brooklyn-born writer Sammy Clay, is looking for a way to cash in on the American comic book craze. Lucky for Clay, Kavalier is a talented artist. The two embark on an adventure “into the heart of old-fashioned American ambition,” spinning tales of the fascist-fighting Escapist and the beautiful, mysterious Luna Moth.
Jeriann: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
I reviewed Sing, Unburied, Sing earlier this year, but here I want to focus on its historical aspects. Parchman, the plantation-turned-prison where Pop served time as a child, is a real place. The events that unfold at Parchman in the book look a lot like slavery even though slavery had long been illegal at the time, because the 13th ammendment allows for slavery/involuntary servitude to be forced on someone who has been duly convicted of a crime. This rule continues to be weaponized today, mainly against already-disenfranchised individuals. I mentioned in my review that this book reminded me of Grapes of Wrath (though I enjoyed it a lot more), and I think it would be interesting to read the two side-by-side, comparing the explorations of a moment in American history through the lens of a single family.
Earth Bound by Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner
I reviewed Earth Bound in May of this year. The book follows Dr. Charlotte (Charlie) Eason, an accomplished mathematician and coder working on the programming and equipment that will help America send a man into orbit. I called this book science-lite as it is more heavily focused on the struggles faced by women looking for employment in the 1960s and on the romance plot between Eason and one of her coworkers.
Jeriann: The Financial Lives of Poets by Jess Walter
Okay, I’m kind of cheating on this one; it’s not really “historical fiction.” HOWEVER, it speaks to a very specific moment in American History – the housing market crash of 2008. It is very representative of the time it depicts, and I feel like in 40 years, it will qualify as historical fiction. Anyway, if you’re interested in a book that follows a financially stressed poet who decides to sell weed to solve his money problems, this is the book for you.
What’s your favorite book in an American Historical setting? Share in the comments!