The Past is Having a Moment

Historical novels have been popular for many years, but for the most part, they only sporadically appear on the bestseller lists. That changed this year when three or four novels set in the past made the lists for several weeks. Also interesting is that most of these novels were written by authors not known for writing historical fiction, although their names are familiar to readers of literary fiction, mystery and women’s fiction.

Another change was that most of the historical novels were set in the 20th century, rather than in the distant past. For example, the book that topped the bestseller lists for much of 2019 was Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. The novel begins in 1952 and continues through the 1960s, with the pivotal plot event taking place in 1965. Although structured as a classic coming-of-age story, the novel, with its beautiful descriptions of the natural world, also includes elements of the romance, mystery and thriller genres.

Other enormously popular books with crucial links to the late ‘60s include The Summer of ’69 by Elin Hildebrand and Chances Are by Richard Russo. Both stories bounce back and forth in time from that era to the present day. Hildebrand normally writes women’s fiction, while Russo is a celebrated literary author whose 2001 novel Empire Falls won the Pulitzer Prize. A mystery in the past is at the core of both these novels, and they also contain romance and thriller elements.

The tumultuous ‘60s era is important to the plots of both Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner and Fleischman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Both bestselling books explore how social mores and ideas about sexual orientation and women’s roles changed during the ‘60s.

Offering a different take on the ‘60s is The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. The plot focuses on two young African American youths who are incarcerated in a brutal reform school. The book is based on an actual school in Florida that was shut down in 2011. Whitehead is an acclaimed literary author whose novel The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017.

Another bestselling title with ties to the ‘60s is the literary novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Told from the perspective of a young, gay Vietnamese-American man in the present day, the novel tracks back through the life stories of his family, including that of his Vietnamese grandmother, who was forced into prostitution during the Vietnam war and marries an American GI.

Another recent bestseller set not so far in the past is Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane. This book follows two families living in New York City in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The complex family drama touches on several important social issues that are much in the news today, like mental illness.

Next to the era of the ‘60s, the most popular time period for recent popular historical novels is World War II. Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris is a follow-up book to Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz, a huge bestseller three years ago. Cilka’s Journey tells the story of a woman who survives the Auschwitz death camp, only to find herself locked up again, this time in a Siberian death camp. Both Cilka’s Journey and the prequel are based on true stories.

One Good Deed by David Baldacci is set just after World War II, in 1949. One Good Deed explores the fraught circumstances of Archer, a former soldier fresh out of prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Now he is entangled in a situation that could easily see him sent back to prison, this time for murder. Baldacci usually writes thrillers set in the present day.

The City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert takes place in the New York City theater world in the WWII era. The story is told from the perspective of an eighty-nine-year old woman looking back at the experiences and decisions that shaped her life. Author Gilbert is most well-known for her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love.

The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly follows the lives of three women during World War II. It was a huge hit three years ago. Kelly follows up this year with Lost Roses, set in 1914. Moving from St. Petersburg to Paris and New York City, the novel follows three different young women caught in dangerous circumstances as World War I looms.

There are many theories about why historical novels are so currently so popular. One is that readers desire to escape our complex and turbulent era and visit a time when questions of good and evil seemed more clear-cut. Or perhaps it is that baby boomers, who buy a huge number of books, are nostalgic for the world of their youth or that one of their parents, who came of age during World War II. It could also be that by exploring the past, we hope to better understand the present. Or perhaps it is simply coincidence that so many gifted contemporary writers are drawn to stories that echo across the decades.

~Mary G.