Books are passports to other worlds, no matter how cheesy that sounds. With that in mind, there’s something particularly fascinating about works of fiction that take encompass times and events that really occurred. That isn’t to say that novels taking place outside the realm of real life aren’t wonderful—they are, but to be able to pick up a book and see what it was truly like to live as an average person during, say, the reign of King Henry VIII and the break with the Catholic Church? Well, that is something the average person would never be able to do without the help of author-historians.
(Not to be biased, but this legitimately may be my favorite book of all time.)
Anyone familiar with the history of King Henry VIII knows that this man had a lot of wives (six, to be exact). The most notorious of these wives was without a doubt the vixen named Anne Boleyn. Sure, the King married four women after her, but she’s the one who forced him to exile his wife of many years (Queen Katherine) by breaking with the Catholic Church of Rome and forming his own (which became known as the Anglican Church). It’s safe to say that Anne was a powerful and ambitious lady.
The Other Boleyn Girl is narrated by Anne’s sister Mary, a much kinder Boleyn daughter (and mother to a couple of the King’s children—that’s in the novel too). Readers follow the story of the Boleyn family in their search for power and nobility to their eventual downfall—most people know that Anne’s story ended with a beheading. This novel is an absolutely fabulous melding of historical facts and beautiful storytelling.
Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
The life of renowned Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is not well-known in spite of the admiration his work continues to command, even in the modern world. What we know for sure is that this 17th-century artist rendered enchanting images of domestic life in still lifes and portraits of everyday people in the world that surrounded him.
Our narrator is a young woman with the name of Griet, who is taken in by the painter’s house, doing menial housework in exchange for a basic living. Over time, Griet and her master, Vermeer, become increasingly close. Vermeer goes so far as to take the girl on as an apprentice, and later as a model—a model perhaps adorned with pearl earrings. The story is full of rich detail and carefully follows the tumultuous experiences and emotions of its narrator, leading to an enrapturing tale.
Many people are familiar with the nature of what a geisha is: essentially (and I mean essentially—there’s much more to being a geisha than this) a geisha is an extremely beautiful and well-learned escort. (If you want to know more specifics, this book is a good place to start.)
Including many accounts from one of Japan’s most premier geishas, Memoirs of a Geisha gives its readers a look into what it was like to live in a world of shadowed glamour, where looks and etiquette meant everything, and where one’s virginity was sold for top dollar.
The year is 1911. It is coronation day for King George V of Britain and, across the pond, Woodrow Wilson is up for election and aided by a fleet of ambitious men.
Meanwhile, in Russia, two families are divided (Romeo and Juliet-style) by enmity and class differences, but united by controversial romance; the Williams family lives off their small salary as coal miners while the Fitzherberts own the very mine in which the Williamses work.
Fall of Giants manages to seamlessly blend the lives of the rich and the poor, the young and the old, and the life of the East (i.e., Russia), and the West (i.e., the United States and Great Britain).
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
This is a novel that takes some liberties by including a little bit of time travel (and it’s done very well and much to the story’s benefit).
It’s 1945, and WWII has come to a close. Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, has returned home to her husband, and the two trundle off to celebrate their reunion with a second honeymoon. Really, all of this sounds quite peachy—the war is over, lovers are reunited, and the future looks bright. That is, until Claire takes a weird turn through one of the Standing Stones of the British Isles and finds herself an “outlander,” in other words, an “enemy” of sorts to the warring clans of Scotland—back in 1743.
Understandably bamboozled, our narrator finds herself trying to survive amidst war, spies, and treachery. As if that isn’t enough, she also meets a man who shows her more intense love than she’s ever known in her life. Claire is now torn not only between two time periods, but between two great loves.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
By being narrated by Death, already The Book Thief has a bit of a hook. The novel is set during the Nazi party’s rise to power and the onset of WWII.
Our protagonist is a young girl living outside of Munich with a foster family. After learning to read under the tutelage of her adoptive father, our heroine realizes her love of books and reads everything she can get her hands on, even if that means a little thievery. When her family decides to take in and hide a young Jewish boy in their basement, she beings to read to him too—that is, up until they begin the march to Dachau…
In 1934, it is safe to say that there were different ideas of what went into a “courtship” and, eventually, an appropriate relationship. It is also safe to say that the average thirteen-year-old girl (particularly during this time period) would not be entirely privy to the nature of romantic inclination.
When thirteen-year-old Briony spots her older sister and the son of their servant getting a little flirtatious, the young girl misconstrues his intentions to be of a more aggressive nature than they perhaps are. This little misunderstanding leads to a hefty amount of trouble for all parties involved.
Atonement takes place during WWII (as so many of the books on this list seem to) and follows our characters to the conclusion of the twentieth century. We are given a glimpse into the lives of people during this time period, for better or for worse.