Well-researched historical fiction has the power to retell the past in a way that impacts the future. Untold stories neatly wrapped within the pages of powerful books can linger in the mind long after the final page has been read. Take a journey through time with these highly acclaimed novels.
Civil Townsend, a privileged Black nurse, wants to make a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate. She feels as if she’s doing honest, righteous work until she uncovers the possibility that the Depo-Provera shot that she has been assigned to administer to pre-teen girls may be potentially harmful to their bodies. In Take My Hand, Perkins-Valdez takes readers on a deep dive into the oftentimes hidden forms of systemic racism and generational oppression that rests within the foundations of America’s medical field. This novel provides a gentle, yet raw glimpse into a time in America’s history when experimenting on poor, Black bodies was the norm.
Atakora masterfully takes readers on a journey through the antebellum South before, during, and after the Civil War. Conjure Women centers on Rue, the town’s reluctant healer and midwife, who has inherited the generational, matrilineal gift of healing and releasing curses. When a presumably cursed “pale-skinned” baby is born and a mysterious disease begins to spread through the town, superstition and fear begin to rear their ugly heads, as the realms of faith and conjuring begin to clash and ricochet. The intricately woven lives of Rue, Miss May Belle, and Varina linger on long after the pages of this book have been completed.
The Personal Librarian provides a nuanced and fictional take on the real-life accomplishments of J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, a brilliant Black woman who chooses to pass as white. This novel explores the peculiar lived experience of passing during the 19th and 20th centuries and the psychological implications, privileges, and burdens that stem from this choice. Belle has access, influence, and the wit to curate one of the most unique collections of books, art, and manuscripts for the Pierpont Morgan Library. Not only is Belle tasked with creating one of the world’s rarest library collections, but she must also protect the white identity that she has worked so hard to create.
In her masterful debut novel, Shearer masterfully shows the trauma that many enslaved mothers experienced – having their children stripped away from them and sold off as property. River Sing Me Home explores the journey of a loving and determined mother across the Caribbean in hopes of finding the children that she birthed during slavery. After the Emancipation Act of 1834, and when Rachel’s master of Providence plantation in Barbados insists that the enslaved on his plantation must continue to work for free, she runs away from the plantation and beings her journey to find her five children.
Nella Larsen’s stories showcase the lives of middle-class Black Americans during a time when race and the complexion of one’s skin determined the quality of life and the opportunities available. In Quicksand Helga Crane, a biracial woman, can’t escape the feeling of being the “other.” The comforts of marriage and cleverly navigating race offer her no true refuge. In Passing, the lives of two biracial childhood friends intersect. One has chosen to pass and has married a rich, racist white man. The other has chosen to embrace her Black identity. Yet, both seem to be unfulfilled. Passing beautifully explores the privileges, burdens, and complexities of race and class in America, all while showcasing the cultural richness of Harlem.
The Book of Night Women centers on Lilith, a mysterious woman born into slavery on a sugar cane plantation who is believed to have great spiritual power. Set in the 18th century, this novel examines the plight of enslaved women caught between revolting and acquiescing to institutions and social norms that did not serve them. With laser-sharp precision, James masterfully explores the trope of the oversexualized African or enslaved woman as well as the horrific realities that enslaved people endured. Through Lilith, readers are gifted with the privilege to examine how harsh living conditions and realities force others to compromise in order to attain a status of privilege in a white world.
James Weldon Johnson is considered one of the most prolific writers of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a novelist, editor, and lawyer, and also co-author of the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” With The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Johnson, who originally ghostwrote and published the book in 1912, candidly gives a glimpse into the complex reality of what life was like for a Black man who passes as white, while further examining the duality that many Black people were forced to embrace as a result of being born during a time when institutionalized racism created finite delineations.
During the prohibition era, Lou, a Black woman with no memory of her past, wakes up in an alley in Los Angeles and must put her mysterious origins behind her. She later becomes the first Black female journalist at the Los Angeles Times, but Lou’s extraordinary life is about to take an even more remarkable turn. This novel transcends space and time and is a stunning examination of love and justice.
Zoe Sivak’s Mademoiselle Revolution delves into the histories of the Haitian and French revolutions. Sylvie, a biracial heiress born free during a time of rebellion, revolt, and unrest, works to dismantle those in positions of privilege in order to stay vigilant in fighting for the marginalized. Despite being well-educated and having access to some forms of security, Sylvie finds herself in Paris intertwined with Maximilien Robespierre in a new fight for equality.
The Davenports explores the lives of wealthy Black people at the beginning of the 20th century. The Davenport family employs their own servants, throws lavish parties, and falls in love, during a time when being Black, rich, and happy was seen as an anomaly. Inspired by the true life story of the Patterson family, Krystal Marquis shares an oft-untold part of American history.