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Favorite Novels of the 19th Century

By Guest Author
September 12, 2023

Favorite Novels Set in the 19th Century

I was asked to write about my favorite novels set in “my” time period – I tend to write about nineteenth-century America, often having to do with either the American Civil War, Indian Wars, or the westward movement.

Here’s a sample of my favorites, in no particular order:

1.       North and South series, by John Jakes.

Jakes follows two friends, one from the North and one from the South, through the Mexican War, which was the training ground for most of the Civil War officers, and into the carnage, misery, blood, and pain of the American Civil War. It is a supreme test of their friendship. Both are of the aristocratic class, one an industrialist, and one a plantation owner. Through the course of the three novels, Jakes explores the pitfalls of both lifestyles and the compromises of character each man must make to remain in that lifestyle.

2.       Killer Angels  by Michael Shaara

Here again, the book explores two friends, this time historical real people, on opposite sides of the Civil War. The story inexorably leads them to the fateful battle of Gettysburg. The famous names of Lee, Longstreet, Stuart, Meade, Halleck, Hancock, and Chamberlain are all present as Shaara shows the impact of personalities and egos on the outcome of battles. While Killer Angels won the Pulitzer Prize, it did not sell well initially, until mogul Ted Turner turned it into the movie Gettysburg. Then it catapulted to the NY Times bestseller list. Unfortunately, Michael Shaara died before the movie was made – his son Jeff Shaara then wrote the other two books in the series, The Last Full Measure and Gods and Generals.

3.       The Heroic Slave by Frederick Douglass

The Heroic Slave published in 1853,  is historical fiction, but very close to the truth. Douglass’s only fictional work, written for an anthology, is a retelling of an actual rebellion led by Madison Washington on the slave ship Creole. Douglass shows how the rebellion is part of a revolution and therefore fundamentally American.

4.       Iola Leroy by Francis Harper

Harper was finally successful in publishing Iola in 1892, during a time of black disenfranchisement, lynching, and Jim Crow laws. It is the story of a “refined mulatto” raised to believe she’s white until she and her mother are sold into slavery. Iola becomes an outspoken advocate for her people and a critic of race-mixing. Her story offers an important portrait of black life during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Born in 1828 in Baltimore to free parents, Francis is an important voice for Black women. She worked tirelessly for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. Harper’s short story, The Two Offers was the first ever published by an African American in a magazine.

5.       Yours Truly Thomas by Rachel Fordham is a fun tale of a young woman, Penny, who dreams of love but has never experienced it. She works in the dead letter office, trying to match letters to addresses when they’ve gone astray. Through a series of letters to the same address and person, she learns of Thomas, a young man who has gone West. He keeps writing to his sweetheart, Clara, but the letters are returned unopened. Penny makes it her mission to reunite the two lovers but finds love herself.

6.       The Lady’s Mine by Francine Rivers is the story of a young woman, Kathryn Walsh, beaten down by her family, who comes into an inheritance from her uncle – The catch is that she’s never met the uncle, and the inheritance is a newspaper out west, in a frontier town where there are few women who aren’t prostitutes. After a long journey by train and stagecoach, to Calvada near Lake Tahoe, she arrives and meets an annoying saloon owner, Mattias Beck, and a tyrant mine owner, Morgan Sanders. To Kathryn’s initial annoyance, Beck elects himself her protector. Kathryn has just traveled west to escape the “protection” of her family that wants her married with children. To everyone’s consternation, she decides to run the newspaper rather than sell it. But there’s a mystery around her uncle’s death – was he murdered? He stepped on toes with his paper more than once. And there’s his mining claim. Kathryn defies convention at every turn, discovering danger and romance as she tries to solve her uncle’s death and establish herself as a businesswoman.

7.       You Belong Here Now by Diana Rostad is an Orphan Train book. A group of children, thrown together from New York City’s slums, find themselves in Montana on the Orphan Train. No one has chosen them, and there’s only one stop left. From Charles, the oldest, to Opal, the smallest, the children form an impromptu family of surprising strength. Charles believes the world is against him, and is always ready for a fight. Patrick is a gentle Irish boy who charms animals. Opal is a blonde waif that steals everyone’s heart – but there’s more to her than cute. Charles leads the children to jump off the train, steal a horse, and attempt to make it on their own – but they are caught by Nara, a young rancher woman who sees no reason that she can’t run a ranch.  Nara thinks getting married and having children would end her dream of running the ranch. Her father doesn’t want to give it to her, “because she sits down to pee”, and vainly tries to persuade her bookish brother to take over, with poor results. Their foreman, a Native American, is never considered because of his race, but when sparks fly with Nara, there are interesting developments. Nara’s mother misses having little children around, so when Nara catches the orphan kids and brings them home, her mother is determined to keep them. Will the street-wise children adapt to the wilds of Montana, and a conventional family? Will Nara become traditional – “Women out here can’t be seen as pretty girls, or they’ll get stuck inside washing other people’s underpants.” Rostad, Dianna. You Belong Here Now (p. 58). HarperCollins.

8.       Knife in the Fog by Brad Harper features Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle as a sleuth trying to crack the White Chapel murders, to identify Jack The Ripper. An Edgar award finalist, this Sherlockian tale teams the author of the Sherlock Holmes novels with real-life Margaret Harkness, whose knowledge of the London streets matches Doyle’s knowledge of science and human nature. Together they tackle the mystery of the Ripper and the mystery of romance.

9.       Horse by Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks is a dual timeline adventure into slavery and the Civil War, through the lens of horse racing. A magnificent horse, Lexington will answer only to an enslaved boy. “Every character is carefully and believably explored, including Lexington, the horse, an excellent racehorse and one of the best sires, ever, whose closest relationship is with his enslaved caretaker and exercise rider, whose insights into Lexington are spectacular. There is plenty of drama, given the era (the 1850s), but Brooks handles it perfectly. She also reveals a lot about racing art and biological science. Best horse book I’ve ever read, including all of my own.”
Jane Smiley, The New York Times Book Review

Don’t pick it up when you’re busy – you won’t put it down!

10.   The Face of A Stranger by Anne Perry is the first in a long series of detective novels featuring William Monk. What if you woke up one day, and didn’t know who you were? You have some friends, and more enemies, and don’t know who any of them are. You’ve forgotten your skills as a detective, but have to solve a murder – while discovering yourself. William Monk suffers a carriage accident and remembers next to nothing of himself. Anne Perry is a master at twists and turns in mystery and knowledge of Victorian England. Monk’s discoveries about himself led to much soul searching and change, and a socialite, Hester Latterly. Hester helps Monk with access to a social level he could otherwise not reach, and engages in distinctly unladylike pursuits to solve the mysteries. In later books, Monk and Hester marry, resolving a long-running love triangle, and adopt a Thames mudlark, Scuff.

Other favorites include Girl With A Knife by our own Alina Rubin and Blind Tribute by Mari Anne Christie.

What are you anticipating for fall reading?

Guest Author

Written by Guest Author

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1 Comment

  1. Anne M Beggs

    Great list! I also loved Blind Tribute and Girl withi a Knife. I am looking forward to The Map Colorist and the Red-Hot Blue Chanteuse!!!


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