Book Recs: Invisible Narratives in Historical Fiction

Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, friends! I hope you are all reading some awesome books. And if you aren’t, well, I hope that I can recommend you some great books in today’s Book Recommendations post!

On the third Monday of every month, I share some Book Recommendations that pertain to a theme! I’ll tell you all a little bit about the book, what I liked about them (because I always only recommend books I have read and liked!), and give you all the links so you can add them to your list of books to read.

Just a quick reminder: I’m currently on hiatus from Twitter and don’t have access to my account (just so I don’t procrastinate)! If you need to contact me, contact me via email or my Instagram.

In my last recap post, I mentioned how I was going to share with you ‘books for your discoursing heart’ and ‘books that will make you laugh’. And whilst I’ll be posting them in September and October respectively, I really wanted to share some historical fiction books that I really liked, but, with a twist.

I was never a fan of historical fiction, until I read the Author’s Note for Salt to the Sea. It was Sepetys’s words and plea in her Author’s Note that made me realize how much I don’t know about history and how much I take it for granted. History as we know it isn’t necessarily a sum of everything that has ever happened; history as we know it is dictated by its writers, its tellers, and our nations. It’s not just the dominant narratives that I don’t know much about, but it’s the invisible narratives that are lost in the dominant ones and thus lost to human knowledge. When I think about how some stories can be lost, simply because they are not taught in school or ever shared and thus passed on, it makes me sad. (So, shoutout to all your history majors and historians! Your work is important.)

And so, today, I wanted to share books that aren’t just historical fiction, but are stories that, I think, need to be told and listened to. If you think about it, as readers, we are the bearers of history, of ourselves and others. We carry stories with us, and as book reviewers, we have the power to ensure that these invisible stories are heard and passed to others.


THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO BY TAYLOR JENKINS REID

I’ve loved all of Reid’s books, but this was probably her most affecting and the most powerful. She moves away from her contemporary stories, and instead tells a story that blends historical with contemporary. And it is outstanding.

  • A famous Cuban classical actress tells her story, set in the time of Old Hollywood and her rise to fame, to a biracial rookie journalist.
  • It examines her life, and how how she had to adhere to white standards of beauty, in a time where domestic violence was legal, in a time where being anything but heterosexual was a crime, in a time when female sexuality was both exploited and condemned.
  • I asked myself: who was the love of her life? The answer was someone I did not expect.
  • This book is incredibly emotional, powerful, political, and I loved it deeply.

Trigger/content warnings (highlight to read): [biphobia, homophobia, physical abuse, death]

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo in Goodreads


UNDER A PAINTED SKY BY STACEY LEE

I really love Lee’s writing, but this one is my favourite of hers so far. Best of all, after reading this, you’ll feel like you’ve been on a grand adventure, or at least, I certainly did.

  • Set in the era of the California Gold Rush, this book follows Samantha, a Chinese-American girl, and Annamae, a Black runaway slave, and their perilous journey across the Oregon Trail.
  • This book explores plenty of themes relevant to its time period: racism, sexism, slavery, and anti-blackness, all of which are unpacked with sensitivity and a critical eye.
  • Integrates Chinese culture and superstition into the narrative without being shoehorned, which is refreshing and lovely.
  • It’s also about friendship, love, and determination. You will love this.

Trigger/content warnings (highlight to read): [death, death of parent, slavery, anti-blackness, racism]

Under a Painted Sky in Goodreads, or read my review


SALT TO THE SEA BY RUTA SEPETYS

This is probably the book that ignited my appreciation for historical fiction. It’s such a tragic, sad, but important narrative.

  • This book centers its story on the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the biggest maritime disaster in history. 9400 people lost their lives.
  • It follows four teenagers; a Polish girl, a Prussian man, a Lithuanian girl, and a Nazi (note: the Nazi is not a good guy and that is clear in the story), and how their lives converge together at the Wilhelm Gustloff.
  • Portrays the horrors and terrors of war, the loss of lives, the refugees and displacement, and the unspeakable wrongs in wartime.
  • If you decide to pick this up, I highly recommend the audiobook. Also, be sure to read Sepetys’s Author’s Note – it is heartbreaking but so important and sobering.

Trigger/content warnings (highlight to read): [war, rape, Nazis, death]

Salt To The Sea in Goodreads


FREEDOM SWIMMER BY WAI CHIM

This book has less than 100 ratings and less than 30 reviews. INJUSTICE. If there’s any book I’d like you to pick up after this post, it is this one. Important, brilliant, emotional, and a very needed story. I loved Freedom Swimmer so much.

  • Set in the Cultural Revolution of China, and follows two boys: a former Red Guard and an orphan boy from a poor village.
  • Explores a plethora of ideas and themes, such as famine and poverty, freedom, the power of ideology, bravery, and friendship.
  • The story is actually based on the author’s father’s life – let that sink in, read the story, and be amazed by how powerful the story is.
  • I didn’t know much about the Cultural Revolution, beyond what I learned in Asian Studies, but this book captures a time period and narrative that we don’t often hear about. It was sobering.

Trigger/content warnings (highlight to read): [death of parent, torture, physical violence]

Freedom Swimmer in Goodreads


I hope that you have discovered a new book that you’d love to read from this post! In pursuit of reading more diverse books, I think it’s also really important to understand the histories that shape the identities, politics, and social contexts of today. I also love how historical fiction, if it’s well-researched, is a reflection of a piece of time and history that actually happened. The amazing things we read about in these books happened to real people – which can be sad, inspiring, or just really eye-opening –  and it’s just such a powerful realization. I’m really glad I started reading historical fiction; it’s not a genre I read often, but I really love it.

However, I do recognize that this list that I’ve presented lacks the diversity that I often aim for. Looking at my list, I’ve mostly read historical fiction by or about East-Asian individuals or by white authors. And though there’s nothing wrong or bad about the two, I really would love to read more historical fiction about that explore a variety of histories from different parts of the world or about different identities.

Let’s discuss!

  • Do you like to read historical fiction? What is your favourite historical fiction book?
  • Do you have any book recommendations about histories not covered in this post?
  • Why do you read historical fiction? What sort of feelings do the stories give you, or why do you like to read them?
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29 thoughts on “Book Recs: Invisible Narratives in Historical Fiction

  1. I love historical fiction ! Probably because I love history in itself, also because what’s better than learning while doing what I love most, reading ? It makes history soooo much more interesting to learn. Some of my favorite historical fiction books are Private Peaceful, All the Light we Cannot See, Outlander and Prisoner of Night and Fog ( Although I DNFed its sequel. I found the first book more interesting. The second one was a bit of a disappointment.)

  2. Ahahaha this post was basically made for me! XD I obviously love Stacey Lee and Wai Chim, and have read and enjoyed Salt to the Sea, but will have to check out Seven Husbands! Your review from a while back also put Kindred on my TBR ^_^ Definitely check out Little Paradise by Gabrielle Wang (story based on how her parents, a Chinese-Australian girl and a Chinese soldier, fell in love in WWII) and Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (which also has an interesting line on the blurb: “how can one woman endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?”)

  3. I have to admit I’ve always been one to err away from historical fiction and I’m not even sure why because I LOVE history and find it so fascinating. The only historical book I’ve read is The Book Thief. ALL of these are on my TBR though and you’ve made me really excited to get them!! I’m especially interested in Seven Husbands!

  4. I do like historical fiction but it’s usually boring and romance-focused.

    My favourite historical fiction book is Saree. I don’t know how unknown the history is though. I knew some facts about the Sri Lankans Civil War and the conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils, but we didn’t talk about it much, since my family is also diaspora. It’s such a well-written book. It follows the story of sex different people in different tones and how the conflict affected them. The central theme of the story is the saree and the art of saree-making.

  5. First of all, I LOVE the idea behind this series and this post in particular. I’ve always had a soft spot for historical fiction – it’s a great way to get a dose of history without reading a textbook. I think an understanding of history, especially the untold stories, is so important to be a good citizen. After all, if we don’t know our history, we’re bound to repeat it. My favorite historical fiction that I read recently is Tipping the Velvet, which is set in the Victorian Era and about a non-binary lesbian (although she doesn’t term herself as such, since that wasn’t really A Thing at the time). So thank you so much for sharing these recs with us! I’d heard of almost none of these books which is a SHAME but I’m so glad to add these to my list.

  6. I’ve only read a handful of historical fiction titles but the ones I have done have been amazing. I’ve always been interested in history, hence my history degree, but I’m amazed by how some crucial events are brushed aside. Take Salt to the Sea. I spent a good portion of my education looking at the world wars but not once was the Wilhelm Gustloff mentioned. It baffled me, especially since it’s one of the greatest maritime tragedies in terms of the death toll. It’s books like these that made me realise that there’s so much more to learn from history and I love how fiction can provide a spotlight on these overlooked events.

  7. I’m not the biggest fan of historical fiction, but I have read a few that I’ve enjoyed. I’ve heard of Under the Painted Sky, so I’m excited to pick it up. Great recommendations!

  8. The history nerd in me really appreciates this post CW! :D I don’t read enough historical fiction, which is a real shame because I love history so much? I never really thought about it until I read this post. These all sound so interesting, thank you for the recommendations!

    • Hi Michelle!
      Haha, I’m glad you like the post! 💛 I totally hear you. I should probably read more discursive books but here I am, reading fluffy YA – not that I have any complaints!
      Aw, you are so welcome. And thank you SO much for featuring me in your Weekly Hufflepuff post. 💛

  9. This is an absolutely fantastic post. I love reading historical fiction for the exact reason you mentioned – it introduces me to stories and events that I never would’ve known about if it weren’t for historical fiction. The only one on this list that I’ve read is Salt to the Sea, but I’m definitely adding the others to my TBR. You might’ve already read it, but another historical fiction book that I loved that really opened my eyes was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. It’s absolutely phenomenal and taught me so much about how the slave trade impacted Ghana.

    • Hi Kourtni!
      Oh, thank you so much! And I know right? Always a very sobering and humbling feeling.
      I actually haven’t read Homegoing! I know it’s absolutely fantastic because I’ve heard nothing but praise, but I definitely need to read it. I know absolutely nothing about the slave trade in Ghana, so I’ll definitely need to read this. Thank you. 💛

  10. Wonderful list as per usual CW! I adore historical fiction. I love being transported to another time & place. I love learning about little known historical events… the ones that are not included in the U.S. textbooks.

    A few diverse historical fiction books that I’ve read this year and enjoyed would be: A Long Walk to Water (alternating timeline between war torn Sudan in the 1980’s and a girl in Sudan in 2008 – this is a quick read that will make you appreciate your easy access to clean water), Loving vs. Virginia (Loving Vs. Virginia is the Supreme Court case that legalized marriage between races in the U.S.  It is about Richard & Mildred Loving, the couple behind this infamous case.), Sachiko (We are given a personal account at what it was really like to survive the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945), Paper Wishes (a younger MG read about the relocation and incarceration of Japanese-Americans in the U.S. during WWII), Inside Out & Back again (MG book told in verse about a Vietnamese family fleeing Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975 & immigrate to the U.S)…. I could actually go on and on, but I’ll stop and not take up any more comment space on your post lol

    • Hi Amanda!
      Thank you so much! I’m glad that you enjoyed the list. 💛
      Oh my, this is such a fantastic list. Thank you so much Amanda! I don’t know too much about US history myself (for obvious reasons, haha), but I’m really interested in reading Loving Vs. Virginia (since I’m in an interracial relationship myself – woah), and definitely Paper Wishes — in fact, I think I read your review, or I remember you mentioning it awhile ago. Thanks so much, Amanda. 💛

  11. YES! I love this post :D I’m a history major myself and I love love love to see people talking about history. You’re so right about history sometimes getting put aside because people don’t know that they don’t know something! It’s mind-boggling to realise how much has happened that’s important that you could pass your whole life without knowing.

    One of the best historical fiction books I’ve read recently (I binge on historical fiction, I swear) is The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. Have you read that one? It’s set during WWII in occupied France and follows the story of two French women trying to survive in a world now run by Nazis for them.

    Another great historical fiction (aside from The Book Thief because oh my lord that BOOK) is Orphan Train by Christina Baker Cline. It’s about the trains that used to take orphans across America and basically auction them off as farm hands (or whatever the bidder wanted to use the child for) and how horrific an experience that was for the kids who were frequently mistreated.

    I could go on and on about history all day! I actually have a monthly feature on my blog (that hasn’t been running the last couple of months unfortunately due to lack of time) where I talk about a particular period in history or an event that isn’t so commonly known about. I love helping others discover history :D

    • Hi Kirstie!
      Thank you SO much for your lovely and thoughtful comment. I love long comments! 💛
      I completely agree with what you’ve said – and I hope I can read more historical fiction because there’s just so much that I don’t know, and I also don’t know what I don’t know as well!

      Thank you for those recommendations! They sound absolutely wonderful, and I look forward to when I can pick them up and give them a read. I was talking to a friend yesterday and they mentioned The Nightingale as well! Orphan Train sounds really intense, but it sounds like an important read.

      That is SO SO cool! That’s such an awesome feature. Do you have any recommendations for books about Asian history, by any chance? I’d love to read more of it but I don’t really know what’s great or historically accurate!

      • Aw you’re welcome!! And absolutely – I haven’t read as many books on Asian history but I’d say for a taste of peasantry in China, Mao’s Last Dancer is both an excellent book and really well known. Memoirs of a Geisha is a good classic, too, for Japan.

        Conn Iggulden is a good choice in author for historical fiction – I believe he’s written one for asia, about Genghis I think? Chinese Cinderella is a book my sister has read and she’s given that one high praise.

        I’m planning on reading a book called The Glass Palace soon (Amitav Ghosh) which is set in Burma – a nice change for once! Although Burma is now called Myanmar. I think Ghosh has some other books set in Asia too.

        For something a little lighter & set in Russia there is a 2017 release called Egg & Spook set in Tsarist Russia (the Tsars were like Russian kings, if you will). That one sounds promising!! Hope that helps 😁😁

  12. […] CW at Read, Think, Ponder did a historical fiction recommendation post. I’m sure many of you know how much I love historical fiction and CW highlights exactly why in this post: there are so many stories and events that I would never know about if it weren’t for reading historical fiction. This post recommends a few books to read that are about lesser-known historical events and includes one of my favorites, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. […]

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