Historical fiction has the special ability to tug at our heartstrings by telling stories of difficult times in history and breathing life into figures and events that might otherwise be forgotten. From 19th-century Ireland to 1960s Israel, we’ve rounded up some of the most heartbreaking historical fiction books published this summer. Publishers’ descriptions included below.
The Diplomat’s Daughter by Karin Tanabe
For fans of All the Light We Cannot See and Orphan Train, the author of the “thought-provoking” (Library Journal, starred review) and “must-read” (PopSugar) novel The Gilded Years crafts a captivating tale of three young people divided by the horrors of World War II and their journey back to one another.
During the turbulent months following the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, 21-year-old Emi Kato, the daughter of a Japanese diplomat, is locked behind barbed wire in a Texas internment camp. She feels hopeless until she meets handsome young Christian Lange, whose German-born parents were wrongfully arrested for un-American activities. Together, they live as prisoners with thousands of other German and Japanese families, but discover that love can bloom in even the bleakest circumstances.
When Emi and her mother are abruptly sent back to Japan, Christian enlists in the United States Army, with his sights set on the Pacific front — and, he hopes, a reunion with Emi — unaware that her first love, Leo Hartmann, the son of wealthy of Austrian parents and now a Jewish refugee in Shanghai, may still have her heart.
Fearful of bombings in Tokyo, Emi’s parents send her to a remote resort town in the mountains, where many in the foreign community have fled. Cut off from her family, struggling with growing depression and hunger, Emi repeatedly risks her life to help keep her community safe — all while wondering if the two men she loves are still alive.
As Christian Lange struggles to adapt to life as a soldier, his unit pushes its way from the South Pacific to Okinawa, where one of the bloodiest battles of World War II awaits them. Meanwhile, in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, as Leo fights to survive the squalor of the Jewish ghetto, a surprise confrontation with a Nazi officer threatens his life. For each man, Emi Kato is never far from their minds.
Flung together by war, passion, and extraordinary acts of selflessness, the paths of these three remarkable young people will collide as the fighting on the Pacific front crescendos. With her “elegant and extremely gratifying” (USA TODAY) storytelling, Karin Tanabe paints a stunning portrait of a turning point in history.
The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve
From the New York Times best-selling author of The Weight of Water and The Pilot’s Wife (an Oprah’s Book Club selection): an exquisitely suspenseful new novel about an extraordinary young woman tested by a catastrophic event and its devastating aftermath — based on the true story of the largest fire in Maine’s history
In October 1947, after a summer long drought, fires break out all along the Maine coast from Bar Harbor to Kittery and are soon racing out of control from town to village. Five months pregnant, Grace Holland is left alone to protect her two toddlers when her husband, Gene, joins the volunteer firefighters. Along with her best friend, Rosie, and Rosie’s two young children, Grace watches helplessly as their houses burn to the ground, the flames finally forcing them all into the ocean as a last resort. The women spend the night frantically protecting their children, and in the morning find their lives forever changed: homeless, penniless, awaiting news of their husbands’ fate, and left to face an uncertain future in a town that no longer exists. In the midst of this devastating loss, Grace discovers glorious new freedoms–joys and triumphs she could never have expected her narrow life with Gene could contain–and her spirit soars. And then the unthinkable happens–and Grace’s bravery is tested as never before.
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women — a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947 — are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.
1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.
1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the “Queen of Spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.
Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth… no matter where it leads.
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
On the eve of her daughter Alia’s wedding, Salma reads the girl’s future in a cup of coffee dregs. She sees an unsettled life for Alia and her children; she also sees travel, and luck. While she chooses to keep her predictions to herself that day, they will all soon come to pass when the family is uprooted in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967.
Salma is forced to leave her home in Nablus; Alia’s brother gets pulled into a politically militarized world he can’t escape; and Alia and her gentle-spirited husband move to Kuwait City, where they reluctantly build a life with their three children. When Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in 1990, Alia and her family once again lose their home, their land, and their story as they know it, scattering to Beirut, Paris, Boston, and beyond. Soon Alia’s children begin families of their own, once again navigating the burdens (and blessings) of assimilation in foreign cities.
Lyrical and heartbreaking, Salt Houses is a remarkable debut novel that challenges and humanizes an age-old conflict we might think we understand — one that asks us to confront that most devastating of all truths: you can’t go home again.
Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton
A young woman finds the most powerful love of her life when she gives birth at an institution for unwed mothers in 1883 Philadelphia. She is told she must give up her daughter to avoid lifelong poverty and shame. But she chooses to keep her.
Pregnant, left behind by her lover, and banished from her Quaker home and teaching position, Lilli de Jong enters a home for wronged women to deliver her child. She is stunned at how much her infant needs her and at how quickly their bond overtakes her heart. Mothers in her position face disabling prejudice, which is why most give up their newborns. But Lilli can’t accept such an outcome. Instead, she braves moral condemnation and financial ruin in a quest to keep herself and her baby alive.
Confiding their story to her diary as it unfolds, Lilli takes readers from an impoverished charity to a wealthy family’s home to the streets of a burgeoning American city. Drawing on rich history, Lilli de Jong is both an intimate portrait of loves lost and found and a testament to the work of mothers. “So little is permissible for a woman,” writes Lilli, “yet on her back every human climbs to adulthood.”
Isadora by Amelia Gray
In 1913, the restless world sat on the brink of unimaginable suffering. But for one woman, the darkness of a new era had already made itself at home. Isadora Duncan would come to be known as the mother of modern dance, but in the spring of 1913 she was a grieving mother, after a freak accident in Paris resulted in the drowning death of her two young children.
The accident cracked Isadora’s life in two: on one side, the brilliant young talent who captivated audiences the world over; on the other, a heartbroken mother spinning dangerously on the edge of sanity.
Isadora is a shocking and visceral portrait of an artist and woman drawn to the brink of destruction by the cruelty of life. In her breakout novel, Amelia Gray offers a relentless portrayal of a legendary artist churning through prewar Europe. Isadora seeks to obliterate the mannered portrait of a dancer and to introduce the reader to a woman who lived and loved without limits, even in the darkest days of her life.
The Lost History of Stars by Dave Boling
In turn-of-the-century South Africa, 14-year-old Lettie, her younger brother, and her mother are Dutch Afrikaner settlers who have been taken from their farm by British soldiers and are being held in a concentration camp. It is early in the Boer War, and Lettie’s father, grandfather, and brother are off fighting the British as thousands of Afrikaner women and children are detained. The camps are cramped and disease ridden; the threat of illness and starvation are ever present. Determined to dictate their own fate, Lettie and her family give each other strength and hope as they fight to survive amid increasingly dire conditions.
Brave and defiant, Lettie finds comfort in memories of stargazing with her grandfather, in her plan to be a writer, and in surprising new friendships that will both nourish and challenge her. A beautiful testament to love, family, and sheer force of will, The Lost History of Stars was inspired by Dave Boling’s grandfather’s own experience as a soldier during the Boer War. Lettie is a figure of abiding grace, and her story is richly drawn and impossible to forget.
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge — until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents — but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty.
Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or to redemption.
Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals — in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country — Lisa Wingate’s riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong.
The Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E. Pendziwol
With the haunting atmosphere and emotional power of The Language of Flowers, Orphan Train, and The Light Between Oceans, critically acclaimed children’s author Jean E. Pendziwol’s adult debut is an affecting story of family, identity, and art that involves a decades-old mystery.
Though her mind is still sharp, Elizabeth’s eyes have failed. No longer able to linger over her beloved books or gaze at the paintings that move her spirit, she fills the void with music and memories of her family, especially her beloved twin sister, Emily. When her late father’s journals are discovered after an accident, the past suddenly becomes all too present.
With the help of Morgan, a delinquent teenager performing community service at her senior home, Elizabeth goes through the diaries, a journey through time that brings the two women closer together. Entry by entry, these unlikely friends are drawn deep into a world far removed from their own, to Porphyry Island on Lake Superior, where Elizabeth’s father manned the lighthouse and raised his young family 70 years before.
As the words on these musty pages come alive, Elizabeth and Morgan begin to realize that their fates are connected to the isolated island in ways they never dreamed. While the discovery of Morgan’s connection sheds light onto her own family mysteries, the faded pages of the journals will shake the foundation of everything Elizabeth thinks she knows and bring the secrets of the past into the light.
Grace by Paul Lynch
A sweeping, Dickensian story of a young girl on a life-changing journey across 19th-century Ireland on the eve of the Great Famine.
Early one October morning, Grace’s mother snatches her from sleep and brutally cuts off her hair, declaring, “You are the strong one now.” With winter close at hand and Ireland already suffering, Grace is no longer safe at home. And so her mother outfits her in men’s clothing and casts her out. When her younger brother Colly follows after her, the two set off on a remarkable odyssey in the looming shadow of their country’s darkest hour.
The broken land they pass through reveals untold suffering as well as unexpected beauty. To survive, Grace must become a boy, a bandit, a penitent and, finally, a woman-all the while afflicted by inner voices that arise out of what she has seen and what she has lost.
Told in bold and lyrical language by an author who has already been called “one of his generation’s very finest novelists” (Ron Rash, author of The Risen), Grace is an epic coming-of-age novel and a poetic evocation of the Irish famine as it has never been written.
The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman
On a summer evening in 1931, Lilly Blackwood glimpses circus lights from the grimy window of her attic bedroom. Lilly isn’t allowed to explore the meadows around Blackwood Manor. She’s never even ventured beyond her narrow room. Momma insists it’s for Lilly’s own protection, that people would be afraid if they saw her. But on this unforgettable night, Lilly is taken outside for the first time — and sold to the circus sideshow.
More than two decades later, 19-year-old Julia Blackwood has inherited her parents’ estate and horse farm. For Julia, home was an unhappy place full of strict rules and forbidden rooms, and she hopes that returning might erase those painful memories. Instead, she becomes immersed in a mystery involving a hidden attic room and photos of circus scenes featuring a striking young girl.
At first, The Barlow Brothers’ Circus is just another prison for Lilly. But in this rag-tag, sometimes brutal world, Lilly discovers strength, friendship, and a rare affinity for animals. Soon, thanks to elephants Pepper and JoJo and their handler, Cole, Lilly is no longer a sideshow spectacle but the circus’s biggest attraction… until tragedy and cruelty collide. It will fall to Julia to learn the truth about Lilly’s fate and her family’s shocking betrayal, and find a way to make Blackwood Manor into a place of healing at last.
Moving between Julia and Lilly’s stories, Ellen Marie Wiseman portrays two extraordinary, very different women in a novel that, while tender and heartbreaking, offers moments of joy and indomitable hope.
A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert
Early on a grey November morning in 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. This new novel from the award-winning author of the Booker Prize short-listed The Dark Room tells of the three days that follow and the lives that are overturned in the process.
Penned in with his fellow Jews, under threat of deportation, Ephraim anxiously awaits word of his two sons, missing since daybreak.
Come in search of her lover, to fetch him home again, away from the invaders, Yasia must confront new and harsh truths about those closest to her.
Here to avoid a war he considers criminal, German engineer Otto Pohl is faced with an even greater crime unfolding behind the lines, and no one but himself to turn to.
And in the midst of it all is Yankel, a boy determined to survive this. But to do so, he must throw in his lot with strangers.
As their stories mesh, each of Rachel Seiffert’s characters comes to know the compromises demanded by survival, the oppressive power of fear, and the possibility of courage in the face of terror.
Rich with a rare compassion and emotional depth, A Boy in Winter is a story of hope when all is lost and of mercy when the times have none.
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
Evelyn is a Creole woman who comes of age in New Orleans at the height of World War Two. Her family inhabits the upper echelon of Black society and when she falls for a no-name Negro, she is forced to choose between her life of privilege and the man she loves.
In 1982, Evelyn’s daughter, Jackie, is a frazzled single mother grappling with her absent husband’s drug addiction. Just as she comes to terms with his abandoning the family, he returns, ready to resume their old life. Jackie must decide if the promise of her husband is worth the near certainty he’ll leave again.
Jackie’s son, T.C., loves the creative process of growing marijuana more than the weed itself. He finds something hypnotic about training the seedlings, testing the levels, trimming the leaves, drying the buds. He was a square before Hurricane Katrina, but the New Orleans he knew didn’t survive the storm, and in its wake he was changed too. Now, fresh out of a four-month stint for possession with the intent to distribute, he decides to start over — until an old friend convinces him to stake his new beginning on one last deal.
Wilkerson Sexton has written an urgent novel spanning three generations: a grandmother’s lush and teeming early life; her adult daughter’s fight for her broken family; and her grandson’s fraught and all-too-familiar entanglement with the law. For the grandmother, Jim Crow is an ongoing reality, and in its wake new threats spring up to haunt her descendants. A Kind of Freedom explores this legacy of racial disparity in the South in a moving and redemptive family history.
Which of these books do you plan to read? Let us know in the comments!