What a year it’s been for debut historical fiction novels! We’ve gathered some of the buzziest and best history books 2017 had to offer, from multi-generational family sagas to World War II dramas. Take a look at our list below, complete with publishers’ descriptions.
We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
An extraordinary, propulsive novel based on the true story of a family of Polish Jews who are separated at the start of the Second World War, determined to survive — and to reunite.
It is the spring of 1939 and three generations of the Kurc family are doing their best to live normal lives, even as the shadow of war grows closer. The talk around the family Seder table is of new babies and budding romance, not of the increasing hardships threatening Jews in their hometown of Radom, Poland. But soon the horrors overtaking Europe will become inescapable and the Kurcs will be flung to the far corners of the world, each desperately trying to navigate his or her own path to safety.
As one sibling is forced into exile, another attempts to flee the continent, while others struggle to escape certain death, either by working grueling hours on empty stomachs in the factories of the ghetto or by hiding as gentiles in plain sight. Driven by an unwavering will to survive and by the fear that they may never see one another again, the Kurcs must rely on hope, ingenuity, and inner strength to persevere.
A novel of breathtaking sweep and scope that spans five continents and six years and transports readers from the jazz clubs of Paris to Kraków’s most brutal prison to the ports of Northern Africa and the farthest reaches of the Siberian gulag, We Were the Lucky Ones demonstrates how in the face of the twentieth century’s darkest moment, the human spirit can find a way to survive, and even triumph.
The Boat Runner by Devin Murphy
In the tradition of All The Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale, comes an incandescent debut novel about a young Dutch man who comes of age during the perilousness of World War II.
Beginning in the summer of 1939, 14-year-old Jacob Koopman and his older brother, Edwin, enjoy lives of prosperity and quiet contentment. Many of the residents in their small Dutch town have some connection to the Koopman lightbulb factory, and the locals hold the family in high esteem.
On days when they aren’t playing with friends, Jacob and Edwin help their Uncle Martin on his fishing boat in the North Sea, where German ships have become a common sight. But conflict still seems unthinkable, even as the boys’ father naively sends his sons to a Hitler Youth Camp in an effort to secure German business for the factory.
When war breaks out, Jacob’s world is thrown into chaos. The Boat Runner follows Jacob over the course of four years, through the forests of France, the stormy beaches of England, and deep within the secret missions of the German Navy, where he is confronted with the moral dilemma that will change his life — and his life’s mission — forever.
Epic in scope and featuring a thrilling narrative with precise, elegant language, The Boat Runner tells the little-known story of the young Dutch boys who were thrown into the Nazi campaign, as well as the brave boatmen who risked everything to give Jewish refugees safe passage to land abroad. Through one boy’s harrowing tale of personal redemption, here is a novel about the power of people’s stories and voices to shine light through our darkest days, until only love prevails.
Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton
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.”
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.
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.
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother 40 whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father 41.
Or did she?
In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most spellbinding murder cases of all time into a sensitive and humane portrait of two sisters caught inside a volatile household — and what it means to be free and truly loved.
On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid Bridget: Someone’s killed father. The discovery of the brutal axe-murders of Andrew and Abby Borden under their own roof in Fall River, Massachusetts paralyzes the small community. No one can understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens. But secret witnesses to the crime have a different tale to tell — of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful step-mother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.
As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? Before or after she last spoke to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Through the overlapping perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, we return to what happened on that fateful day.
The Fortunate Ones by Ellen Umansky
One very special work of art — a Chaim Soutine painting — will connect the lives and fates of two different women, generations apart, in this enthralling and transporting debut novel that moves from World War II Vienna to contemporary Los Angeles.
It is 1939 in Vienna, and as the specter of war darkens Europe, Rose Zimmer’s parents are desperate. Unable to get out of Austria, they manage to secure passage for their young daughter on a kindertransport, and send her to live with strangers in England.
Six years later, the war finally over, a grief-stricken Rose attempts to build a life for herself. Alone in London, devastated, she cannot help but try to search out one piece of her childhood: the Chaim Soutine painting her mother had cherished.
Many years later, the painting finds its way to America. In modern-day Los Angeles, Lizzie Goldstein has returned home for her father’s funeral. Newly single and unsure of her path, she also carries a burden of guilt that cannot be displaced. Years ago, as a teenager, Lizzie threw a party at her father’s house with unexpected but far-reaching consequences. The Soutine painting that she loved and had provided lasting comfort to her after her own mother had died was stolen, and has never been recovered.
This painting will bring Lizzie and Rose together and ignite an unexpected friendship, eventually revealing long-held secrets that hold painful truths. Spanning decades and unfolding in crystalline, atmospheric prose, The Fortunate Ones is a haunting story of longing, devastation, and forgiveness, and a deep examination of the bonds and desires that map our private histories.
The Patriots by Sana Krasikov
When the Great Depression hits, Florence Fein leaves Brooklyn College for what appears to be a plum job in Moscow — and the promise of love and independence. But once in Russia, she quickly becomes entangled in a country she can’t escape. Many years later, Florence’s son, Julian, will make the opposite journey, immigrating back to the United States. His work in the oil industry takes him on frequent visits to Moscow, and when he learns that Florence’s KGB file has been opened, he arranges a business trip to uncover the truth about his mother, and to convince his son, Lenny, who is trying to make his fortune in the new Russia, to return home. What he discovers is both chilling and heartbreaking: an untold story of what happened to a generation of Americans abandoned by their country.
The Patriots is a riveting evocation of the Cold War years, told with brilliant insight and extraordinary skill. Alternating between Florence’s and Julian’s perspectives, it is at once a mother-son story and a tale of two countries bound in a dialectic dance; a love story and a spy story; both a grand, old-fashioned epic and a contemporary novel of ideas. Through the history of one family moving back and forth between continents over three generations, The Patriots is a poignant tale of the power of love, the rewards and risks of friendship, and the secrets parents and children keep from one another.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved 11-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.
From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state — called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo — a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.
Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?
Becoming Bonnie by Jenni L. Walsh
From debut historical novelist Jenni L. Walsh — and just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Oscar award-winning film, Bonnie and Clyde — Becoming Bonnie is the untold story of how wholesome Bonnelyn Parker became half of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde duo!
The summer of 1927 might be the height of the Roaring Twenties, but Bonnelyn Parker is more likely to belt out a church hymn than sling drinks at an illicit juice joint. She’s a sharp girl with plans to overcome her family’s poverty, provide for herself, and maybe someday marry her boyfriend, Roy Thornton. But when Roy springs a proposal on her, and financial woes jeopardize her ambitions, Bonnelyn finds salvation in an unlikely place: Dallas’s newest speakeasy, Doc’s.
Living the life of a moll at night, Bonnie remains a wholesome girl by day, engaged to Roy, attending school, and working toward a steady future. When Roy discovers her secret life, he embraces it — perhaps too much, especially when it comes to booze and gambling — she tries to make the pieces fit. Maybe she can have it all: the American Dream, the husband, and the intoxicating allure of jazz music. But her life — like her country — is headed for a crash.
Bonnie Parker is about to meet Clyde Barrow.
Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker
“Reader, she married me.”
For one hundred seventy years, Edward Fairfax Rochester has stood as one of literature’s most romantic, most complex, and most mysterious heroes. Sometimes haughty, sometimes tender-professing his love for Jane Eyre in one breath and denying it in the next-Mr. Rochester has for generations mesmerized, beguiled, and, yes, baffled fans of Charlotte Bront?’s masterpiece. But his own story has never been told.
Now, out of Sarah Shoemaker’s rich and vibrant imagination, springs Edward: a vulnerable, brilliant, complicated man whom we first meet as a motherless, lonely little boy roaming the corridors and stable yards of Thornfield Hall. On the morning of Edward’s eighth birthday, his father issues a decree: He is to be sent away to get an education, exiled from Thornfield and all he ever loved. As the determined young Edward begins his journey across England, making friends and enemies along the way, a series of eccentric mentors teach him more than he might have wished about the ways of the men-and women-who will someday be his peers.
But much as he longs to be accepted-and to return to the home where he was born-his father has made clear that Thornfield is reserved for his older brother, Rowland, and that Edward’s inheritance lies instead on the warm, languid shores of faraway Jamaica. That island, however, holds secrets of its own, and not long after his arrival, Edward finds himself entangled in morally dubious business dealings and a passionate, whirlwind love affair with the town’s ravishing heiress, Antoinetta Bertha Mason.
Eventually, after a devastating betrayal, Edward must return to England with his increasingly unstable wife to take over as master of Thornfield. And it is there, on a twilight ride, that he meets the stubborn, plain, young governess who will teach him how to love again.
It is impossible not to watch enthralled as this tender-hearted child grows into the tormented hero Bronte immortalized-and as Jane surprises them both by stealing his heart. Mr. Rochester is a great, sweeping, classic coming-of-age story, and a stirring tale of adventure, romance, and deceit. Faithful in every particular to Bronte’s original yet full of unexpected twists and riveting behind-the-scenes drama, this novel will completely, deliciously, and forever change how we read and remember Jane Eyre.
The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker
An exhilarating saga of the Vikings that conjures a brutal, superstitious, and thrilling ninth-century world and the birth of a kingdom — the debut installment in a historical literary trilogy that combines the bold imagination and sweeping narrative power of Game of Thrones, Vikings, and Outlander.
Centuries ago, in a blood-soaked land ruled by legendary gods and warring men, a prophecy foretold of a high king who would come to reign over all of the north. . . .
Ragnvald Eysteinsson, the son and grandson of kings, grew up believing that he would one day take his dead father’s place as chief of his family’s lands. But, sailing home from a raiding trip to Ireland, the young warrior is betrayed and left for dead by men in the pay of his greedy stepfather, Olaf. Rescued by a fisherman, Ragnvald is determined to have revenge for his stepfather’s betrayal, claim his birthright and the woman he loves, and rescue his beloved sister Svanhild. Opportunity may lie with Harald of Vestfold, the strong young Norse warrior rumored to be the prophesied king. Ragnvald pledges his sword to King Harald, a choice that will hold enormous consequence in the years to come.
While Ragnvald’s duty is to fight — and even die — for his honor, Svanhild must make an advantageous marriage, though her adventurous spirit yearns to see the world. Her stepfather, Olaf, has arranged a husband for her–a hard old man she neither loves nor desires. When the chance to escape Olaf’s cruelty comes at the hands of her brother’s arch rival, the shrewd young woman is forced to make a heartbreaking choice: family or freedom.
Set in a mystical and violent world defined by honor, loyalty, deceit, passion, and courage, The Half-Drowned King is an electrifying adventure that breathtakingly illuminates the Viking world and the birth of Scandinavia.
Kings of Broken Things by Theodore Wheeler
With characters depicted in precise detail and wide panorama—a kept-woman’s parlor, a contentious interracial baseball game on the Fourth of July, and the tragic true events of the Omaha Race Riot of 1919—Kings of Broken Things reveals the folly of human nature in an era of astonishing ambition.
During the waning days of World War I, three lost souls find themselves adrift in Omaha, Nebraska, at a time of unprecedented nationalism, xenophobia, and political corruption. Adolescent European refugee Karel Miihlstein’s life is transformed after neighborhood boys discover his prodigious natural talent for baseball. Jake Strauss, a young man with a violent past and desperate for a second chance, is drawn into a criminal underworld. Evie Chambers, a kept woman, is trying to make ends meet and looking every which way to escape her cheerless existence.
As wounded soldiers return from the front and black migrant workers move north in search of economic opportunity, the immigrant wards of Omaha become a tinderbox of racial resentment stoked by unscrupulous politicians. Punctuated by an unspeakable act of mob violence, the fates of Karel, Jake, and Evie will become inexorably entangled with the schemes of a ruthless political boss whose will to power knows no bounds.
Written in the tradition of Don DeLillo and Colum McCann, with a great debt to Ralph Ellison, Theodore Wheeler’s debut novel Kings of Broken Things is a panoramic view of a city on the brink of implosion during the course of this summer of strife.
The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers
“All I had known for certain when I came around the hen house that first evening in July and saw my husband trudging into the yard after lifetimes spent away from us, a borrowed bag in his hand and the shadow of grief on his face, was that he had to be protected at all costs from knowing what had happened in his absence. I did not believe he could survive it.”
When Major Gryffth Hockaday is called to the front lines of the Civil War, his new bride is left to care for her husband’s 300-acre farm and infant son. Placidia, a mere teenager herself living far from her family and completely unprepared to run a farm or raise a child, must endure the darkest days of the war on her own. By the time Major Hockaday returns two years later, Placidia is bound for jail, accused of having borne a child in his absence and murdering it. What really transpired in the two years he was away?
Inspired by a true incident, this saga conjures the era with uncanny immediacy. Amid the desperation of wartime, Placidia sees the social order of her Southern homeland unravel as her views on race and family are transformed. A love story, a story of racial divide, and a story of the South as it fell in the war, The Second Mrs. Hockaday reveals how that generation — and the next — began to see their world anew.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan
For readers of Lilac Girls and The Nightingale, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir unfolds the struggles, affairs, deceptions, and triumphs of a village choir during World War II.
As England becomes enmeshed in the early days of World War II and the men are away fighting, the women of Chilbury village forge an uncommon bond. They defy the Vicar’s stuffy edict to close the choir and instead “carry on singing,” resurrecting themselves as the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. We come to know the home-front struggles of five unforgettable choir members: a timid widow devastated when her only son goes to fight; the older daughter of a local scion drawn to a mysterious artist; her younger sister pining over an impossible crush; a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia hiding a family secret; and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past.
An enchanting ensemble story that shuttles from village intrigue to romance to the heartbreaking matters of life and death, Jennifer Ryan’s debut novel thrillingly illuminates the true strength of the women on the home front in a village of indomitable spirit.
The Hidden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang
Rooted in the history of the only secessionist town north of the Mason Dixon Line, Daren Wang’s The Hidden Light of Northern Fires tells a story of redemption amidst a war that tore families and the country apart.
Mary Willis has always been an outcast, an abolitionist in a town of bounty hunters and anti-Union farmers. After college, she dreams of exploring the country, but is obligated to take over the household duties and management of her family’s farm, while her brother Leander avoids his own responsibilities. Helping runaways is the only thing that makes her life in Town Line bearable.
When escaped slave Joe Bell collapses in her father’s barn, Mary is determined to help him cross to freedom in nearby Canada. But the wounded fugitive is haunted by his vengeful owner, who relentlessly hunts him up and down the country, and his sister, still trapped as a slave in the South.
As the countryside is riled by the drumbeat of civil war, rebels and soldiers from both sides bring intrigue and violence of the brutal war to the town and the farm, and threaten to destroy all that Mary loves.
Which of these books have you read? Share in the comments!