Historical fiction tells a modern tale
You'll see yourself in these three women
The strength of a woman lies within her heart. I don’t know if anyone ever “said” that but it’s what I know to be true. History has painted many a portrait of a strong woman who trusted in the convictions of her own heart to face challenges with courage and determination. The setting of these stories may be unfamiliar to today’s woman but the emotions felt are timeless and are bound to resonate with any contemporary female.
Novels allow us to shade the black-and-white facts of the original events with experiences and emotions that women of all eras share: the struggle to raise moral children in an unfair world, the desire to be respected for our own achievements, the conflict between passion and duty. Whether our heroine wears rough, homespun linen or doesn’t yet have the right to vote, her life is a mirror in which we see ourselves.
Historical fiction is to history what a coloring book is to a medieval tapestry. And did I mention historical fiction is fascinating entertainment? These three novels show us past worlds and passionate women in plots filled with suspense, romance, and tragedy.
"A woman’s desire and ambition come together in this enthralling love story."
My favorite historical novel of the last couple of years is Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank (available in trade paperback; Ballantine; April 8, 2008). Frank Lloyd Wright comes to mind for many of us as the stern subject of a black-and-white photograph, a stooped, white-haired old man in a wide-brimmed hat. This novel of his love affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney gives him back his machismo and his red-hot rage against the small minds of the day. It’s really more Mamah’s story: how she fell in love with Frank and survived the scathing press and her own beloved sister’s fury when she struck out on her own for Europe and later helped Frank as he built Taliesin in Wisconsin. You will put this novel down educated, drained, and determined to forge your own authentic, independent life.
"Persecuted by society, a woman teaches her family about courage and strength."
The historical documents of the Salem witch trials have plenty of their own shock value, but Kathleen Kent’s The Heretic’s Daughter (Little, Brown; September 3, 2008) drills down to the day-to-day terror from the perspective of Martha Carrier’s nine-year-old daughter, Sarah, and her siblings, from whom Kathleen is directly descended. Life in colonial America was harsh and the colonists hardened to its hardships and sorrows. Martha’s relationship with Sarah is distant, though that’s not something any of us who grew up with a strict parent wouldn’t recognize. Martha is cool and hard with her neighbors, too, which makes her the perfect target for jealousy and suspicion. What had been a tough life becomes appalling when she is arrested and brought before her accusers in the court in Salem. She refuses to admit any guilt and her children and husband suffer mightily for it. Her heroism and the courage her children have to learn when they’re also thrown in jail make this an unforgettable and deeply moving family portrait.
"Historical insight and one unforgettable woman’s fight against unchallenged beliefs."
Mormonism and particularly its renegade offshoots are perennially fascinating subjects for history buffs, true-crime aficionados, and fiction fans. David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife (Random House, August 5, 2008) mixes the fact-based story of Brigham Young’s wife Ann Eliza’s brave renouncing of her husband and their faith with a fictional modern murder investigation. If you watched the recent news stories of the battle between the state of Texas and the polygamous cult accused of child abuse, The 19th Wife will bring you inside the walls of a historic and contemporary community intentionally shrouded in mystery.
Historians can’t put down in the record books what Sarah Carrier felt in her heart as she watched her mother walk to the gallows or what Mamah Cheney dreamed for her children from an ocean away, but novelists can imagine and fill in the blanks. By embellishing historical accounts with matters of the heart, novelists use the common bond of human emotion to connect us with our distant ancestors. And whether dressed in homespun linen or Donna Karan, we would’ve recognized a lot of ourselves in each other.
A note from Beth Goehring: "I am so excited to write about books for CESLIE-The Women's Network™. Reading is not only a lifelong passion, but it's my job. As the editor-in-chief for a group of book clubs that includes Book-of-the-Month Club®, The Literary Guild®, Doubleday Book Club®, Mystery Guild®, and The Good Cook®, I hear the early buzz about what will soon be hot in everything from autobiography to zoology. In any week, my colleagues and I review hundreds of upcoming books to choose those that really deliver, whether it's with fascinating characters, an unforgettable story, a vicarious thrill, a wealth of useful information or compelling inspiration. Hands-down, the best thing about my job is finding that hidden gem, a novel that wasn't lavished with a huge marketing budget, not for lack of charm or quality, but because of a publisher's limited resources. When I can make a match between one of these unsung heroes and a grateful reader, then I've done my job well!"