The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah had been on my TBR for the the longest time. Spurred by the news of the book being adapted into a movie, I finally got around to reading it. I tore through the book, even though I found the language a little repetitive and the narrative lacking emotional depth. I was invested in the stories of the two protagonists, Vianne and her sister Isabelle, as they struggled to survive in occupied France. For I, like many other readers, am a stickler for stories of women’s courage and resilience during war — stories that are largely ignored by mainstream history. It got me thinking about other books like The Nightingale, with the same themes and styles, which offer a more nuanced take on war.
Here I have collected a list of some of these books like The Nightingale, including nonfiction books about the lives of unlikely World War II heroines — resistance fighters and spies who stand in contrast to The Nightingale’s obsession with the blond beauty of its protagonist Isabelle. I have also included other riveting historical fiction that provide unique perspectives on devastating military and political conflicts.
The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos by Judy Batalion
This is a chronicle of the extraordinary courage of the Jewish women resistance fighters who were hitherto absent from historical narratives despite the proliferation of writing about the Holocaust and World War II. These young women transported supplies, pamphlets, and weapons to ghettos, igniting and nurturing Jewish resistance, despite the great danger this posed to their own lives.
Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu
Noor Inayat Khan belonged to an Indian Royal family and was raised in England and France. Despite being raised in the non-violent Sufi tradition, she joined the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War. She was sent to occupied France as a wireless operator to help the French Resistance. This is a biography of this unlikely and unsung World War II heroine.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
This book is about two young women, a pilot and a spy, who meet and become friends during the first World War. This is a tale of friendship amidst horrible adversities, and it does not shy away from the grit and grime of war — or the immensity of the sacrifices that it demands. This popular YA novel is nuanced, and heartbreaking, and every bit as unputdownable as The Nightingale.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, like The Nightingale, is set in France during the German occupation. It follows a blind Parisian girl and a German boy who is recruited by the Nazis. Come to this book for its striking setting setting and its compelling plot, but stay for the beautiful prose in short chapters that take place across different time periods and different points of view.
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
This book, like The Nightingale, is set during World War II in Europe. The perspective it offers is fresh — that of the members of a Jazz band. Musician Hieronymus Falk, a Black German citizen, disappears after being arrested in a cafe. Fifty years later, his former bandmate, Sid, gets his hands on a mysterious letter that unearths long buried secrets about his disappearance.
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of Virginia Hall, WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy by Sonia Purnell
After Virginia Hall was rejected for the American foreign service because of her gender and her prosthetic leg, she became an Allied spy in occupied France. Her daring and her skill soon led the Gestapo to dub her “the most dangerous of Allied spies.” Sonia Purnell’s biography is a well-researched, and well-written account of the life of this extraordinary women.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Isabelle’s perilous journeys across the Pyrenes is a major part of The Nightingale. Colson Whitehead’s novel, set in antebellum America, is about an enslaved person, Cora, who escapes using the underground railroad, reimagined as an actual railroad in the novel, and it offers a similar celebration of hope and resilience. Only, because of her race, Cora’s ordeal does not end with making a successful escape to south California. She is hunted by a ruthless slave catcher, and has to undertake a dangerous journey across different states in the relentless pursuit of freedom.
The Time in Between by María Dueñas, translated by Daniel Hahn
This book, written originally in Spanish, is about a talented Spanish seamstress named Sira, who is recruited by the British to spy for them during the Second World War. The narrative is incredibly detailed, yet engaging, and the backdrop of World War II Morocco and Spain comes to life within the pages of the book.
Code Talker: A Novel About The Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac
Navajo code talkers were recruited during WWII to aid the American war effort by carrying messages back and forth in an unbreakable code in their language. This book follows a 16-year-old Navajo boy who becomes a code talker, and highlights an important, but little known, part of World War II history.
Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery
The Nightingale is also about the women who were left behind to take care of families in the middle of wartime uncertainties. The last book in the Anne of Green Gables series, and one of my favorite books of all time, is a beautiful depiction of domesticity during war. Set in Canada during the First World War, it follows Anne’s youngest daughter, Rilla. As her siblings leave home to participate in the war effort as soldiers and nurses, Rilla finds herself having to grow up overnight, faced with constant anxiety, and new responsibilities.
Want more books about the Second World War? Check out our World War II archives. If you want more book recommendations to go with the last book that has left a hole in your heart, or your favorite TV show, then TBR, our personalized book recommendation service, will be perfect for you. Sign up here!