Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Top Ten Books That Would Be On Your Syllabus If You Taught X 101 (examples: YA fantasy 101, feminist literature 101, magic in YA 101, classic YA lit 101, world-building 101).
After changing my mind a few times, I’ve settled on historical fiction as the subject of my imaginary course. I love historical fiction — the idea that we can learn about a particular time and place in history, experience something of what life might have been like, meet real historical figures, and appreciate all the ups and downs and dramatic tensions of really great fiction.
Of course, even within historical fiction, there are a wide variety of approaches and types. There are the novels that are super faithful to historical detail, and are fiction only in that the dialogue and interactions, based on historical records, are dramatized or imagined in some way. There are those that center on purely fictional characters, but place them in a specific era or at the scene of a well-known conflict or historical turning point. There are some that take a real or imagined supporting character (for example, a jester to the king) and retell history through this observer’s eyes. And there are some (near and dear to my heart) that take a historical setting and add a mystical, mysterious, magical twist to make them something unique.
(Actually, there are tons more examples of types of historical fiction than just these, but hey, it’s my Historical Fiction 101 class, and this is what I’m covering!)
Without further ado, here are the 10 (or so) historical fiction books that belong on my syllabus:
Starting with some 20th century classics of the genre:
1) I’d start my class with a trio of blockbuster novels from the 1970s, all of which created a huge pop culture impact at the time, and absolutely epitomize the idea of grand, sweeping historical fiction: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, Shogun by James Clavell, and Roots by Alex Haley. (Yes, three books — I’m cheating a bit.)
2) How can we talk about historical fiction without including James Michener? Talk about blockbusters! Michener’s works tend to be huge, multi-generational works tracing the history of a particular place by visiting multiple eras and connecting the dots from one decade or century to another. Two that I particularly love are Alaska and Hawaii, each of which literally covers millions of years, from the earliest geological origins of the area up through the 20th century.
Moving on to examples of historical fiction that are a bit more concentrated in scope — first, a few that capture an era through the experiences of a fictional character:
3) The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd, about a Scotswoman’s journey through love and scandal in the Far East in the first half of the 20th century.
4) People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, moving backward through time to trace the origins of a valuable Haggadah, with each time period brought to life through the people in whose hands the book rested.
5) I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe, a heartbreaking love story set during the Civil War.
Next, a few that take the eyewitness to history approach — in one case, a fictional character meeting up with some of the most influential political forces of the time:
6) Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell, making a riveting story out of a political conference in Cairo, with a spinsterish woman from Ohio witnessing history in the making at the side of Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, and more.
And two others that portray unforgettable events or people through the eyes of real people from the time, imagining their narration or point of view, and shifting the narrative from the center of attention to a person normally in a supporting role:
7) Snow Mountain Passage by James D. Houston, telling the story of the Donner Party through the eyes of one of its younger members, Peggy Reed.
8) Wolf Hall (and Bringing Up the Bodies) by Hillary Mantel, a brilliant visit to the Tudor court, observing Henry VIII and his wives from the vantage point of Thomas Cromwell.
Finally, two books (or series) that excel at introducing the inexplicable into a historical tale:
9) The Winter Sea (and sequel The Firebird) by Susanna Kearsley, in which time slips and visions of the past bring contemporary and historical figures together. In fact, almost any of Susanna Kearsley’s books would make great examples of fiction that illustrates a particular historical period by adding in a mysterious or supernatural element.
10) Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Surely you didn’t expect me to write about historical fiction without a big shout-out to the Outlander series? Take a time traveling voyager from the 20th century, introduce her to a practically perfect Highlander, and we get not just steamy romance, but an amazing history lesson that brings to life all the sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of the 18th century.
What do you think — would you want to take my Historical Fiction 101 course?
What’s on your “101” list this week? Share your links, please, and I’ll come check out your top 10!
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