10 Historical Fiction Books To Learn From the Past
by Sonya Matejko
As Karl Marx famously said, “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Yet, the truth of the present is that many have already forgotten the past. A shocking survey released in 2020 revealed that 63% of millennials and Generation Z surveyed did not know that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. With the rise in misinformation and the banning of books, it is more important now than ever to learn about our collective history and ensure that the worst moments don’t happen again. From slavery to the witch trials and Japanese internment to the Vietnam War, the list below covers various historical moments that, while the books themselves are historical fiction, can help remind us of the history we all carry and empower us to educate ourselves, speak up, and prevent repetition.
This #1 New York Times bestseller chronicles Cora, a young enslaved woman on a cotton plantation in Georgia, on her adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom. Based in the antebellum South, the book re-creates the terrors of the antebellum era as Whitehead brilliantly weaves our nation’s history — from the brutal abduction of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. This book is a must-read and a powerful meditation on the history we all share. And on top of the powerful novel, The Underground Railroad is also the foundation for the acclaimed original Amazon Prime Video series directed by Barry Jenkins.
Based on historical people and real events, the book explores the history of the witch-hunts and trials in seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts, while painting a searing portrait of a community engulfed by hysteria. In the introduction to the classic play, Miller writes, “I believe that the reader will discover here the essential nature of one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history.” And while the book itself was written in 1953 as a reflection of the anti-communist hysteria inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “witch-hunts” in the United States, the book is also a haunting examination of groupthink that very much still plagues our society today.
Bestselling author of The Boy In The Striped Pajamas (another powerful book about the Holocaust that sold millions of copies around the world), Miller returns with a devastating, beautiful story about a woman who must confront the terrible sins of her past and show it is never too late for bravery. In the gripping book, you follow Gretel Fernsby, who lives a quiet life in London, despite her deeply disturbing and dark past. Gretel doesn’t discuss her escape from Nazi Germany or her grim post-war years in France. But most of all, she doesn’t talk about her father, who was the commandant of one of the Reich’s most notorious extermination camps. An exploration of guilt, grief, and remorse, you won’t forget this emotionally layered novel.
Otsuka’s debut novel paints a portrait of the Japanese American incarceration camps, both a haunting evocation of a family in wartime and a resonant lesson for our times. When The Emperor Was Divine is a commanding story, set in 1942, that depicts what it was like for the thousands of Japanese Americans who were reclassified, virtually overnight, as enemy aliens and uprooted from their homes to be sent to a dusty incarceration camp in the Utah desert. This evocative tale of injustice is one that USA Today called “a gem of a book and one of the most vivid history lessons you’ll ever learn.”
Born in Rwanda in 1956, Scholastique Mukasonga experienced from childhood the violence and humiliation of the ethnic conflicts that shook her country. In her historical fiction book, Our Lady of The Nile, Mukasonga drops us into an elite Catholic boarding school for young women on the edge of the Nile. The poignant novel is set fifteen years before the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Our Lady of The Nile depicts young schoolgirls as they try on their parents’ preconceptions and attitudes, transforming the lycée into a microcosm of the country’s mounting racial tensions and violence. With masterful prose, Mukasonga captures a society hurling toward horror.
Four decades after the war, Vietnam’s flavors of clove and cinnamon have been re-created by a close-knit refugee community in a Virginia suburb. But the lives of Minh and Mai, father and daughter, are haunted by ghosts, secrets, and the loss of their country. During the disastrous last days in Saigon, in a whirl of military signals and helicopter evacuations, Mai never had a chance to say goodbye to so many people who meant so much to her. What happened to them? How will Mai cope with the trauma of war — and will the thay phap, a Vietnamese spirit exorcist, be able to heal her?
Widely acclaimed as the most extraordinary war novel of all time, All Quiet On The Western Front is the tale of a young German soldier’s harrowing experiences in the trenches. Remarque’s classic novel vividly portrays the combatants’ physical and mental trauma and dramatizes the tragic detachment from civilian life that was felt by many upon returning home. The story also pulls from Remarque’s own experience as he was drafted into the German army during World War I. Now, more than a century after the conflict’s end, the story remains as powerful — and essential — as ever. (And it is now a Netflix film.)
Black Rain centers on the story of a young woman caught in the radioactive “black rain” that fell after the bombing of Hiroshima. The basis of the book comes from real-life diaries and interviews, and the result is a book that reveals the vast and true magnitude of the human suffering caused by the atomic bomb. Ibuse tempers the horror of this moment in history with the gentle humor he is famous for. It is, in part, thanks to his sensitivity to the complexity of this historical event that has made Black Rain one of the most acclaimed renditions of the story of Hiroshima. As John Hersey, author of Hiroshima, puts it, “this painful and very beautiful book gives two powerful messages — of drastic warning, yet also of affirmation of life.”
Emergency is a pastoral novel about the interconnectedness of all life on earth. In the book, our narrator is at home during the lockdown, pondering both past and present. While not based centuries — or even decades — back, this important book explores the dissolution of boundaries between the self and our earth as we approach ecological catastrophe. Emergency asks us to look at what’s essential and consider what the slow disappearance of Hildyard’s (and our own) native environment might mean for humanity. As Clare Pettitt of Times Literary Supplement puts it, “Hildyard has confronted our new nature and, bravely, compellingly, makes our shared emergency visible.”
To end this list with a dose of hope, we have Caleb’s Crossing, which brilliantly captures the triumphs and turmoil of two brave, openhearted spirits who risk it all in a search for knowledge at a time of superstition and ignorance. Inspired by a true story, Caleb’s Crossing follows Bethia Mayfield, a curious young woman whose father is a Calvinist minister, and Caleb, the young son of a chieftain. Set in Martha’s Vineyard in the 1660s, the two forge a secret bond that draws each into the alien world of the other as Bethia’s father seeks to convert the native Wampanoag. The real Caleb, on which the book is based, eventually becomes the first Native American graduate of Harvard College.