8 books based on history


8 Novels Based on Little-Known Moments in History

By Angela Erickson•Updated: November 5, 2020•5 min read

Historical fiction serves as a window into other times and places and can illuminate little-known moments of history by spotlighting stories of specific people, events, and trends not retained in public consciousness. Showcased here are novels based on such little-known historical events. From a book about a woman who joined Eleanor Roosevelt in delivering books on horseback to the tale of young union workers fighting for social justice in Spokane, Washington, there’s plenty to spark your interest!

Book cover for Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah

Out of Darkness, Shining LightPetina Gappah

Many may know Dr. Livingstone as the Scottish missionary who explored Central Africa and advocated for an end to the slave trade, yet the story of the events following his death are lesser known and endlessly interesting. This book is based on the true story of how supporters carried Dr. David Livingstone’s body 15 hundred miles across Africa to return him to England for his burial, along with his important papers and maps. One fan of the book was Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See, who says: “Mixing painstaking research with a formidable imagination, Petina Gappah resurrects the brave, misguided, heroic, and ill-starred party who hauled the dried-up corpse of Dr. David Livingstone across 1,000 miles of African interior to the Indian Ocean… This is a beautiful novel.”

Book cover for The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

The Cold MillionsJess Walter

This buzzy new release is based on the events that took place in the early days of the labor movement in the author’s hometown of Spokane, Washington. Two brothers just trying to make a living find themselves swept up into turbulent class warfare. Navigating union strikes, which resulted in over 500 arrests, and a greedy mining magnate, the boys meet real-life activist 19-year-old Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who is leading the fight for fairness and social justice. In an interview with NPR, Jess Walters said of Elizabeth, “She struck me as such an incredibly modern figure. And I had worked at the newspaper in my hometown, and you’ll just be in the morgue some days looking through old things, and to come across these free speech riots of 1909 and just think, how have I never heard of this?”

Book cover for Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

Celestial BodiesJokha Alharthi

Spanning the years of the second half of the 20th century in the ever-changing country of Oman, three sisters experience joys and challenges, their own lives shifting as drastically as their nation. It is impactful and memorable to view this era, the people, and Oman itself from the perspectives of various social and economic statuses. Celestial Bodies won the prestigious International Booker Prize, the first book originally written in Arabic to win the honor. 

Book cover for Arroyo by Chip Jacobs

ArroyoChip Jacobs

This is the story of Pasadena, California, in 1913 and the building and refurbishing of the landmark Colorado Street Bridge. Having once boasted the title of the longest and highest roadway, the bridge is also dubbed Suicide Bridge by locals for all of the infamous instances of people taking their own lives by jumping from the bridge. Entwined within the story of the bridge, Nick Chance, a fledgling inventor, and his dog, Arroyo, interact with some of the era’s most famous historical figures, including Teddy Roosevelt and Upton Sinclair. A beautiful ode to the fascinating city of Pasadena and to Southern California as a whole.

Book cover for The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

The Giver of StarsJojo Moyes

It’s the 1930s in Appalachian Kentucky, where Alice has relocated from England to marry an American. To bring excitement to her new confining rural life, Alice joins Eleanor Roosevelt’s new program delivering books on horseback, joining other women as part of the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky. The women brave both the conventional stigmas of the time, as well as the sometimes daunting elements and landscape, yet they will not be deterred from their goal of bringing books and learning to those who desperately suffer from the lack of these things. The Associated Press raves, “Inspired by the history of the actual Packhorse Librarians, Moyes depicts the courage and resourcefulness of these women in loving detail. The Giver of Stars is a tribute not just to the brave women who brought the light of knowledge in dark times, but also to the rejuvenating bond of women’s friendship.”

Book cover for The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

The Shadow KingMaaza Mengiste

The nation of Ethiopia is in upheaval in 1935, threatened by the imminent approach of Mussolini’s army, when Hirut is orphaned. She finds work as a maid in the home of an officer in the Ethiopian army and is gradually pulled into the conflict herself. She dauntlessly plays her own part, helping to disguise a peasant as the Emperor when the real Emperor goes into exile, as well as motivating other women to join the war effort. While history can often be silent on the achievements of women, especially during wartime, this book shares an amazing story of the strength of women during large-scale conflict and the many ways power can be shown.

Book cover for The Huntress by Kate Quinn

The HuntressKate Quinn

After first barring Soviet women from all combat, Joseph Stalin brought about the creation of all-female air force units in 1941. These troops were later to be known as Night Witches, a feared and decorated part of the Soviet air forces. These brigades of women pilots bombed invading Nazi soldiers in old planes during nighttime missions. When Night Witch pilot Nina crashed behind enemy lines, she was the only person to escape alive from an infamous and brutal Nazi called The Huntress. In this story by the author of The Alice Network, set mostly in the far-reaching aftermath of the war, Nina is asked for her help in finding The Huntress, who has not yet been brought to justice.

Book cover for The Revisioners: A Novel by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

The Revisioners: A NovelMargaret Wilkerson Sexton

Two stories converge in this new release by the author of A Kind of Freedom. In 1925 in the American South, freed slave Josephine befriends a white woman named Charlotte with connections to the Ku Klux Klan. One hundred years later, single-mother Ava moves in with her white grandmother, whose actions toward Ava may be just as dangerous as what her ancestor Josephine had to face. All the women face questions of loyalty, trauma, and what legacies we leave behind — intentional or otherwise. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton has written another stunning tale of relationships between different kinds and different generations of women, along with a dash of the supernatural.

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