Top 5 Historical Fiction Novels

History! It happens

  1. A Town like AliceNevil Shute

I was introduced to this story by my mother when we watched the 1981 Australian TV mini-series adaptation. Ever since, the book has remained one my absolute favorites. A Town like Alice is a novel exploring the economic development of post-World War II Australia. The narrative is framed around the romance between Jean Paget and Sergeant Joe Harman. They are both prisoners of war and meet while being marched around Malaya by the Japanese. After liberation, Jean travels to Australia to track down Joe and then uses her financial inheritance to jumpstart economic prosperity in a small outback community. The title of the novel comes from Jean’s determination to model the community after Alice Springs. The novel explores the themes of female emancipation, racial tensions, colonialism, entrepreneurship, and crucifixion / resurrection of Christ. Jean Paget is a fantastic heroine, she does not let anything or anyone stand in her way. Shute’s writing depicts Jean in an understanding and respectful light. Jean and the other captured women only survived because of Jean’s respect for the customs of the Japanese soldiers and the Malay tribespeople. And Shute does not depict Jean as a desperately romantic woman, when she finds Joe again, their relationship is based upon mutual respect. I think this is a fantastic read and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for a more grounded/realistic romantic tale.

A Town like Alice, House of Stratus, 1950, 9781842323007

  1. Drums along the MohawkWalter D. Edmonds

Somewhere around ninth grade, I told my mother that American History was incredibly boring. So I was given this book to read, I enjoyed it infinitely more than I did The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. Published in 1936, Drums along the Mohawk tells the story of Gil and Lana Martin as they attempt to build a life in the Mohawk Valley of the New York Frontier. The events of this novel occur before, during, and after the American Revolution. Several historical figures show up in the narrative: General Nicholas Herkimer, Adam Helmer, and William Caldwell. Edmonds also describes the Battle of Oriskany and the Attack on German Flatts in 1778. Drums along the Mohawk is considered to be one of the finest examples of historical fictions ever published. The characters are incredibly real and face actual struggles and events of the time period. Edmonds’ narrative comes alive through vivid characterizations and descriptions of the American Frontier. He does not whitewash history, most of the hardships depicted actually occurred to numerous settlers. This book manages to bring history alive in away school history books never can, I really connected with the main characters. While this book has fallen out of popularity, I still think it is an amazing read.

Drums along the Mohawk, Syracuse University Press, 1936, 9780815604570

  1. Quo VadisHenryk Sienkiewicz

My introduction to this story came via the 1951 film adaption starring Peter Ustinov. Both the book and the movie are excellent, I recommend both mediums. Quo vadis Domine, the title, is Latin for “where are you going, Lord?” This is an allusion to when the apostle Peter flees Rome and meets Jesus on the way. This novel takes place in Rome during the rule of the mad Emperor Nero, so circa AD 64. The main narrative arc explores the relationship between Ligia, a young Christian woman, and Marcus Vinicius, a Roman patrician. While the beginning of the book is rather stilted, the writing improves drastically. All the main characters are expertly developed and jump off the page. Nero, one of the most insane Roman Emperors, is painted as a figure to be pitied as well as feared/hated. Ligia, the heroine, is the least charismatic character, some of her characterization is rather dull. But Vinicius is fantastic and his internal struggles and reaction to Christianity is wonderfully depicted.  Rome during the reign of Nero was a place of excess and pageantry. All the pretentious splendor is brought to life through Sienkiewicz’s narrative. Before writing Quo Vadis, Sienkiewicz extensively studied the history of the Roman Empire in order to accurately portray the time period. And the result is one of the most impressive historical fiction narratives, this novel contributed to Sienkiewicz winning of the 1905 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Quo Vadis, Hippocrene Books, 1896, 9780781805506

  1. Gone with the WindMargaret Mitchell

This book has been forever engrained in American culture due to the phenomenal 1939 movie adaption starring Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh. However, the epic movie had to trim some of the characterization due to time. In the book, Scarlett is a significantly more vindictive and selfish character. Think she is unlikable in the movie, go read the book. Published in 1936, this is Margaret Mitchell’s one and only book. The narrative occurs in Clayton County and Atlanta, Georgia during the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era. Scarlett O’Hara is the spoiled daughter of a wealthy plantation owner and her way of life is forever changed. After General Sherman’s March to the Sea, Scarlett uses every resources available to pull herself out of the poverty she finds herself in after the war. This is a historical novel but it also a type of coming-of-age epic. Now this book is a highly stylized depiction of Southern Plantation life, Mitchell’s depiction of slavery has met with a lot of criticism. However, this book was never meant to be a treatise on the pitfalls of slavery and interpreting it as such misrepresents the narrative. This is the coming-of-age story of Scarlett O’Hara and it should be interpreted as such.  Gone with the Wind remains one of the bestselling books ever published in America. More than 30 million copies have been printed and distributed worldwide.  I recommend both the book and the movie.

Gone with the Wind, Grand Central Publishing, 1936, 9780446675536

  1. The Silver ChaliceThomas B. Costain

For some reason this book has received a lot of negative criticism over the years. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, I think the book has received an undue amount of criticism. Published in 1952, The Silver Chalice tells the story of the making of a silver chalice to hold the Holy Grail. The chalice also puts in relief several historical and biblical characters: Simon Magus, his companion Helena, Luke, Joseph of Arimathea, and the apostle Peter. Costain was inspired by the archeological discovery of a 1st century silver chalice found in Antioch. The book can be viewed as a sort of prequel to the Arthurian Legend where the Holy Grail plays an important role. Basil, the main character, is commissioned by the apostle Luke to fashion a case for the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. While attempting to fulfill this commission, Basil experiences a religious awakening. Most movie fans will recognize this title as being the inspiration for Paul Newman’s debut feature film. The movie version is hilariously bad and does not adequately represent the nuance of the book’s narrative. Personally, I prefer The Silver Chalice to Ben Hur when it comes to depicting life in the early A.D.s. The plot moves quickly and the main characters are extremely well-developed. I would suggest reading the book and avoiding the movie.

The Silver Chalice, Loyola Classics, 1952, 9780829423501