I didn’t realize the 20th century had become such a popular setting for historical fiction, until I looked back and saw that six of the last seven I’ve read fit that description, all of which I’ve read this year. Honestly, this gives me a boost of confidence, considering my finished novel and the one I’m editing are set in the 1910s and 1974, respectively.
Writing about the 20th century isn’t something I ever saw myself doing. When I first became interested in history, my obsession was the U.S. Civil War; hardly anything after 1865 held any appeal to me, except for a slight spark about the Great Depression and World War II. But then my preferred time period crept further and further back, until I settled quite comfortably in the colonial and Revolutionary eras.
And yet, here I am with two much more “modern” novels than I ever thought I’d write. I don’t have any particular affinity for these time periods; instead, it was events that drew me in, and in the process, I fell a little more in love with the way the world was when they took place. And the same is (mostly) true for these six books.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. This story about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic was interesting and timely, told from the perspective of three women working in a Dublin hospital over the course of just a few days. It was a quick read, and the three stories didn’t converge as much as I had hoped, but the novel was an honest and haunting celebration of the triumph of life and love in all their forms.
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah. If the goal was to convey the frustration and despair of the Great Depression, particularly of the Dust Bowl, the author did an amazing job. The imagery was stark and memorable, but without giving any spoilers, it was just a bit too sad for me, and perhaps also a bit too cliché.
Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson. Here’s another Depression story, but this one took place on a divorce ranch outside Reno, a wholly fresh story. This novel had so many fun characters and escapades (yes, escapades….maybe even shenanigans!), and the POV was a special treat that led to a lovely surprise ending.
Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I know I’ve gushed about this one already on every social media account I have, but here I go again. This story of a band rising to world popularity in the 1970s, told in a “rockumentary” interview style, was one of the best books I’ve ever read. It immersed me in the decade, set my heart racing, brought tears to my eyes, and broke my heart. I might have bought giant hoop earrings for myself after reading it.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Another 1970s drama, this one was much more character-driven. And I had a hard time liking almost any of the characters, though this could very well have been intentional on the author’s part. But the omniscient POV was a nice change, and the northwest Ohio setting, though fairly vague, appealed to me. It was also an interesting study in using flashbacks that were seamlessly integrated into the main action.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. I can’t say enough about this book, yet another one set during the Depression. But here we are deep in Appalachia learning about Pack Horse Librarians and the actual blue-skinned people of eastern Kentucky. Anything that celebrates literacy and connecting people with books is dear to my heart, and for a completely immersive experience, I recommend listening to the audiobook narrated by Katie Schorr. Listening to her voice was like being wrapped in a warm, Appalachian embrace.
Early American history still has my heart, and I’ve got at least one story waiting in the wings of my mind to be put on paper. But journeying into the 20th century, even as recently as the 1970s, has been a fun shift for me in terms of reading – and writing – historical fiction.
Have you read any good 20th century HistFic lately?