Let’s talk a bit about non-medieval historical novels, because there are, after all, a lot of other periods in history, right?
Elizabeth George Speare’s The Bronze Bow is set in Roman-occupied Palestine about two thousand years ago. David, our protagonist, has abandoned his grandmother and younger sister to join freedom fighters in the hills. David’s goal: to drive every last Roman out of Israel, and to avenge his parents’ death. When his grandmother dies, David reluctantly leaves his fellow rebels and the hills to return to the village and his sister, Leah, who has been possessed by demons (PTSD) since she witnessed their parents’ deaths.
Why you may want to read this book: You like tales of transformation: at the story’s beginning, David is full of anger, bent on violent vengeance, and impatient with his fellow Jews who are not as ardent for Rome’s overthrow as he is; slowly he learns to care for Leah, to reconsider violence, and even, possibly, to forgive. You like male friendships, sibling relationships, and (little-seen but there) female friendships. You’re interested in reading critiques of power structures and “freedom fighters” who exploit and harm the people they claim to act for. You’re open to an interesting portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. You’re curious about political currents among the people, not the elite, and you’re interested in the sacrifices and adjustments that conquered peoples make, and how those differ between those of high rank and those of low.
Why you may not want to read this book: You’re an absolute stickler for historical accuracy (I don’t know how accurate The Bronze Bow is as a portrayal of occupied Israel (called Palestine by the Romans); some groups have complained that it isn’t; they’re probably right but I think the focus of this story is more on the emotional experience of being an insignificant nobody, part of the oppressed majority). There is only one black character (there would probably be more in Roman Palestine, although not in peasant villages, which is where most of the tale is set), and he is sacrificed for David’s development.
Janet Lunn’s Shadow in Hawthorne Bay, The Hollow Tree, and The Root Cellar. These are three Canadian/American historical novels which cover the struggles of different generations. In The Hollow Tree, Phoebe is an American school-teacher’s shy daughter. When the American revolution breaks out and her own family is divided – her father joining the Rebels, her cousin enlisting with the Loyalists – Phoebe is torn in two. When her father is killed far away and her cousin hung by his fellow townspeople, Phoebe takes the coded message her cousin was supposed to deliver and sets out for the Loyalist camps and Canada. Shadow in Hawthorne Bay is set about a generation later and follows a young Scottish woman with the second sight. Mary’s cousin, aunt, and uncle have emigrated, and when her cousin calls to her, she leaves her parents, home, and all the known world behind her to join him in Upper Canada, risking the long and dangerous journey across sea and land. The Root Cellar (written first, but chronologically last) jumps between Ontario in the 1980s and the 1960s, as the unhappy Rose enters her relatives’ root cellar and emerges in the past. Rose meets two siblings: Will, who joins the Union army during the American civil war; and Susan, who with Rose sets out to find Will, reported missing in action.
Why you may like these books: There’s a lot of emphasis on the length and arduous nature of travel, which is historically accurate and wonderfully transports the reader into how very different life was then. A young woman travelling alone was shocking and uncommon, but it did happen. You like stories about things that happened in concrete places, especially places you might visit. You like tales of young women who grow more independent without losing their family (often, they become closer, just with a different relationship).
Why you may not like these books: The dialogue is sometimes stilted, as is the romance.
Chains and Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson. Set just before and during the American Revolution, these first two books of the Seeds of America Trilogy tell the story of two household slaves set on being free. Isabel and her sister, Ruth, are freed when their mistress dies, then unlawfully sold into slavery – and separated. Isabel wants her freedom and her sister back. Enter Curzon, the slave boy next door. Curzon is convinced that serving as a spy will be rewarded with freedom.
Why you may like this series: Our heroes are portrayed not only victims (make no mistake, they are treated horribly) but as agents who take an active role in shaping their own destinies and the outcome of the war and world around them. Struggles are internal as well as external, and characters clash spectacularly. Isabel and Curzon offer glimpses into the world of the (white) American elite and the swirl of politics and self-interest, as well as into the world of common the kitchen aid and soldiers’ wives, without belonging to either.
Why you may not like this series: The injustice will make your blood boil.
What other historical, non-medieval novels have you read? What about locally-set historical novels? Janet McNaughton has written a few set in Newfoundland around the Second World War – who has written about your area?