Our Reading Lives

How I Finally Got Myself Into Historical Fiction

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Jeffrey Davies


Jeffrey Davies is a professional introvert and writer with imposter syndrome whose work spans the worlds of pop culture, books, music, feminism, and mental health. In addition to Book Riot, his writing has appeared on HuffPost, Collider, PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and other places. Find him on his website and follow him on Twitter @teeveejeff and Instagram @jeffreyreads. He is also the co-host of a Gilmore Girls podcast, Coffee With a Shot of Cynicism.

I like to think of myself as someone who will read anything and everything, as long as it interests me. Contemporary fiction? Sure. A good YA kick in the heart? Bring it on. Memoirs, essay collections, tell-alls, and cultural analysis? Start spilling all the tea. But one genre that I’ve always struggled with, pretty much for as long as I’ve been a reader (so, since birth), is historical fiction.

I can pretty much peg my dislike for the genre at large back to 6th grade English class. We were divided into groups, and each group got to pick a different middle grade historical fiction novel to read, analyze, and present to the class after finishing it. I can’t remember all of the titles, but I do know that Lois Lowry’s classic Number the Stars was among them. But that’s not what our group picked. We picked a book called From Anna, and I remember that all of us were enthusiastic over the choice. This didn’t last long.

As far as 6th grade English class went, historical fiction was defined for us as being about World War II because I’m guessing that’s what the unit was about that term. I can’t even say. All I know is that all of the books we had to choose from were about WWII, and we didn’t like From Anna because most of the story took place in the years leading up to the war rather than in the war itself. I’m sure our report was subpar. One thing I did take away from it was that I did not like historical fiction. Later that year, we read and watched The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which also did not strike my fancy whatsoever and left most people in the class traumatized.

I’d like to say that I immediately learned there was more to historical fiction than WWII narratives, but this was not the case. In high school, The Book Thief was a common recommendation among bookish classmates, with many proclaiming it as their favorite book of all-time. Given that the story set off historical fiction red flags of mine, I didn’t read it. But I did commit a bookworm mortal sin by seeing the film adaptation in the theatre when it came out, and I loved it. But this still didn’t compel me to pick up the book. Watching a movie about WWII is one thing, reading a lengthy book about it is another.

This recommendation followed me well into college, where fellow literature students told me that I must read The Book Thief. “This is the book that made me a reader,” many of them tried to convince me. So I bought it, and on the TBR pile it sat for a good year before I picked it up solely out of curiosity. I’d known the book was noted for its use of Death as the narrator, and while I did enjoy the story as told through the screen adaptation, I just could not get into the book. Nope, sorry, pass, put in the donate pile.

My aversion for historical fiction intact, I still thought all historical fiction books were about WWII. What if I’m just not interested in reading fictional stories about the Second World War? While I did recently come to the realization that historical fiction novels exist outside of that period, it’s worth noting that titles dedicated to WWII still dominate the genre. All the Light We Cannot See, The Nightingale, The Lilac Girls, Salt to the Sea, The Alice Network, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. All beloved books commonly recommended among readers, all historical fiction, all about WWII. What if I don’t want to read about World War II?!

Then, this winter, something magical happened. A publicist reached out to me offering an advanced copy of Julia Bryan Thomas’s upcoming novel The Radcliffe Ladies’ Reading Club. Set at Radcliffe College in 1950s Massachusetts, this classifies the novel in the historical fiction genre. But for once I got through reading the entire premise before mentally discarding it as, “Ugh, great, more World War II.”

This book was actually set in a time period and against a backdrop I was actually interested in. I read The Radcliffe Ladies’ Reading Club in just a few sittings, compelled by its easygoing but poignant storytelling about a period in history that was particularly crippling for young women. And it hit me — is there historical fiction not set in WWII? Are there real, live historical fiction books about other time periods that might actually interest me? Blasphemy!

Of course, had I been more willing to open myself up to historical fiction earlier, I would have discovered that there are books in the genre that are not set during the Second World War. But life is short and reading time is precious, so if I’d had myself turned off from the genre enough times, I wasn’t going to start now.

But since reading slumps are inevitable for any and all who consume more books than water, it’s good to have something in your back pocket that you aren’t all that familiar with that might broaden your horizons and open an entire new avenue of books you didn’t know existed. Because that’s what’s so miraculous about reading. I’ve since added a few more historical fiction titles to my TBR and will be on the lookout for more.

I’ve also learned of the abundance of historical fiction titles available by authors of color, another aspect of the genre that is starkly underrepresented. There are classics, of course, like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Toni Morrison’s Beloved or The Bluest Eye, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, or Zora Neale Hurston’s There Eyes Were Watching God. But there are also more recent options like The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, which takes place between the 1950s and 1990s, something I had previously overlooked. I’m also eager to check out The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict & Victoria Christopher Murray and Mademoiselle Revolution by Zoe Sivak.

If you’ve ever found yourself in the same boat, know that change is possible and please do send me your reading recs!