Historical fiction reader and reviewer extraordinaire Erin Davies recently embarked upon a fictional journey of novels from around the world by reading one book set in every country (that she can find).
I thought I’d suggest a similar historical fiction journey, but one that travels through the United States. I spread my net wide and caught some great books, including some oldies-but-goodies, sparkling indies, literary prize-winners, and even some novels written by PLW authors and SHINE members.
I can’t claim to have found each state’s best historical fiction, and I’d be glad to get your comments on what I missed; you’re entirely welcome to share books that you’ve written. Finally, all italicized descriptions are from Wikipedia or the book’s Amazon page.
Alabama – Jubilee, by Margaret Walker – Jubilee is the semi-fictional story of Vyry Brown, based on the life of author Margaret Walker’s great-grandmother, Margaret Duggans Ware Brown. Vyry Brown is a mixed-race slave—the unacknowledged daughter of her master—who is born on the Dutton plantation in Georgia. The novel follows her experiences from early childhood to adult life… It is set in Georgia and later in various parts of Alabama in the mid-19th century before, during, and after the Civil War.
Alaska – Eliza Waite: A Novel by Ashley E. Sweeney – After the tragic death of her husband and son on a remote island in Washington’s San Juan Islands, Eliza Waite joins the throng of miners, fortune hunters, business owners, con men, and prostitutes traveling north to the Klondike in the spring of 1898.
Arizona – Blood and Silver by Vali Benson – What is a twelve year old girl to do when she finds herself in the silver boom town of Tombstone, Arizona, in 1880, and her only home is a brothel and her only parent is a drug-addicted mother?
Arkansas – True Grit by Charles Portis – The novel is narrated by Mattie Ross, churchgoing elderly spinster distinguished by intelligence, independence, and strength of mind. She recounts the story of her adventures fifty years earlier, in 1878, when she undertook a quest to avenge her father’s murder by a drifter named Tom Chaney. She is joined on her quest by Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn and a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf.
California – City of Dragons by Kelli Stanley – February, 1940. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, fireworks explode as the city celebrates Chinese New Year with a Rice Bowl Party, a three day-and-night carnival designed to raise money and support for China war relief. Miranda Corbie is a 33-year-old private investigator who stumbles upon the fatally shot body of Eddie Takahashi. The Chamber of Commerce wants it covered up. The cops acquiesce. All Miranda wants is justice–whatever it costs.
Colorado – Silver Lies by Ann Parker – As 1879 draws to a close, silver fever burns hot in the Rocky Mountain boomtown of Leadville, Colorado. Unfortunately for Joe Rose, an assayer of precious metals, death stakes its own claim. Joe’s body is found trampled into the muck behind Inez Stannert’s saloon.
Connecticut – The Ice Storm: A Novel by Rick Moody – The novel takes place over Thanksgiving weekend 1973, during a dangerous ice storm, and centers on two neighboring families, the Hoods and the Williamses, and their difficulties in dealing with the tumultuous political and social climate of the day. The setting is an affluent Connecticut suburb during the height of the sexual revolution.
Delaware – The Saint of Lost Things by Christopher Castellani – It is 1953 in the tight-knit Italian neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware. Maddalena Grasso has lost her country, her family, and the man she loved by coming to America; her mercurial husband, Antonio, has lost his opportunity to realize the American Dream; their new friend, Guilio Fabbri, a shy accordion player, has lost his beloved parents.
Florida – The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead – When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood’s only salvation is his friendship with fellow “delinquent” Turner, which deepens despite Turner’s conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.
Georgia – The Color Purple, by Alice Walker – …depicts the lives of African American women in early twentieth-century rural Georgia. Separated as girls, sisters Celie and Nettie sustain their loyalty to and hope in each other across time, distance and silence. Through a series of letters spanning nearly thirty years, first from Celie to God, then the sisters to each other despite the unknown, the novel draws readers into its rich and memorable portrayals of Celie, Nettie, Shug Avery and Sofia and their experience.
Hawaii – Bound in Flame by Katherine Kayne – Banished to boarding school to tame her wild temper, Leticia Lili‘uokalani Lang sails home to Hawaii, bringing her devotion to animals with her. She’ll be among the first female veterinarians in history—most remarkable in 1909 when women still cannot vote.
Idaho – Daredevils: A Novel by Shawn Vestal – …set in Arizona and Idaho in the mid-1970s, fifteen-year-old Loretta, slips out of her bedroom every evening to meet her so-called gentile boyfriend. Her strict Mormon parents catch her returning one night, and promptly marry her off to Dean Harder, a devout yet materialistic fundamentalist who already has a wife and a brood of kids.
Illinois – The Lives of Diamond Bessie: A Novel by Jody Hadlock – Pregnant out of wedlock, sixteen-year-old Annie Moore is sent to live at a convent for fallen women. When the nuns take her baby, Annie escapes, determined to find a way to be reunited with her daughter. But few rights or opportunities are available to a woman in the 1860s, and after failing to find a respectable job, Annie resorts to prostitution in order to survive.
Indiana – The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington – …traces the growth of the United States through the declining fortunes of three generations of the aristocratic Amberson family in an upper-scale Indianapolis neighborhood between the end of the Civil War and the early 20th century.
Iowa – Spirit Lake by MacKinlay Kantor – Within these pages swarm the men, women, and children who, in the 1850s, plunged from New England, the Ohio Valley, or the central crowded East to wide Iowa country, led in passion by their dream.
Kansas – Across the Great Divide: The Founding by Michael L. Ross – ...tells the little-known story of the Exodusters and Nicodemus, the black town on the plains of Kansas, and the parallel story of Will’s founding of Lubbock, Texas, against the background of railroad expansion in America. A family reunited, new love discovered, the quest for freedom, the rise of two towns. In the end, can they reach Across the Great Divide?
Kentucky – Caintuck Lies Within My Soul: The Jemima Boone Story by C.M. Huddleston – relates the story of Jemima Boone, Daniel Boone’s fourth child and second daughter. Jemima’s thrilling tale, especially her dream of moving west of the Appalachian Mountains to live on America’s first frontier, begins with her childhood in North Carolina. All comes to fruition when during America’s Revolutionary War, the Boone family’s arduous and dangerous journey into Kentucky sees them settle at Fort Boonesborough. Jemima, her sister Suzy, and her mother, Rebecca, arrive to find themselves the first three white women in Caintuck.
Louisiana – Fanny Newcomb & the Irish Channel Ripper by Ana Brazil – A Jack the Ripper copycat is terrorizing the women of Gilded Age New Orleans. Can amateur detective Fanny Newcomb stop the Irish Channel Ripper before he murders again?
Maine – The Blackout Book Club by Amy Lynn Green – In 1942, an impulsive promise to her brother before he goes off to the European front puts Avis Montgomery in the unlikely position of head librarian in small-town Maine. Though she has never been much of a reader, when wartime needs threaten to close the library, she invents a book club to keep its doors open.
Maryland – Booth by Karen Joy Fowler – In 1822, a secret family moves into a secret cabin some thirty miles northeast of Baltimore, to farm, to hide, and to bear ten children over the course of the next sixteen years. Junius Booth—breadwinner, celebrated Shakespearean actor, and master of the house in more ways than one—is at once a mesmerizing talent and a man of terrifying instability. One by one the children arrive, as year by year, the country draws frighteningly closer to the boiling point of secession and civil war.
Massachusetts The Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant – Addie Baum is “The Boston Girl”, born in 1900 to immigrant parents who were unprepared for and suspicious of America and its effect on their three daughters. Growing up in the North End, then a teeming multicultural neighborhood, Addie’s intelligence and curiosity take her to a world her parents can’t imagine – a world of short skirts, movies, celebrity culture, and new opportunities for women.
Michigan – The River Remembers by Linda Ulleseit – Samantha Lockwood, Day Sets, and Harriet Robinson come to Fort Snelling from very different backgrounds. It’s 1835 and the world is changing, fast, and they are all struggling to keep up.
Minnesota – Never Let Go by Pamela Nowak – Sacrificing dreams and risking family, five women follow their husbands to an isolated Minnesota settlement. Struggling to survive, they develop resilience but none are prepared for the challenges they face when starving bands of Santee Sioux (Dakota) take up arms against the whites during the 1862 Dakota Conflict.
Mississippi – The Help by Kathryn Stockett – Aibileen is a black maid in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, who’s always taken orders quietly, but lately she’s unable to hold her bitterness back. Her friend Minny has never held her tongue but now must somehow keep secrets about her employer that leave her speechless. White socialite Skeeter just graduated college. She’s full of ambition, but without a husband, she’s considered a failure. Together, these seemingly different women join together to write a tell-all book about work as a black maid in the South, that could forever alter their destinies and the life of a small town…
Missouri – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen – …weaves a third-person narrative of actual events with fictionalized imaginings of the lives of Jesse, his brother Frank, and their followers, including their guerrilla activities during the American Civil War and their insurgency afterward as notorious bank and train robbers.
Montana – Courting Anna: Women of Destiny by Cate Simon – Beautiful Anna Harrison has carved out her life as a small-town lawyer. Brilliantly intelligent and fiercely independent, a female attorney of her caliber is quite the oddity in 1880s Montana Territory!
Nebraska – The Meaning of Names by Karen Gettert Shoemaker – Stuart, Nebraska is a long way from the battlefields of Western Europe, but it is not immune to the horrors of the first Great War for Peace. Like all communities, it has lost sons and daughters to the fighting, with many more giving themselves over to the hatred only war can engender.
Nevada – Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson – It’s 1938 and women seeking a quick, no-questions split from their husbands head to the “divorce capital of the world,” Reno, Nevada. There’s one catch: they have to wait six-weeks to become “residents.” Many of these wealthy, soon-to-be divorcees flock to the Flying Leap, a dude ranch that caters to their every need.
New Hampshire – A Separate Peace by John Knowles – Set against the backdrop of World War II, A Separate Peace explores morality, patriotism, and loss of innocence through its narrator, Gene Forrester, in his relationship with classmate and friend Phineas.
New Jersey – In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume – …weaves together a vivid portrait of three generations of families, friends, and strangers, whose lives are profoundly changed during one winter. At the center of an extraordinary cast of characters are fifteen-year-old Miri Ammerman and her spirited single mother, Rusty.
New Mexico – Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather – Set in the mid-19th century. At the center of the novel are two French Jesuits – Bishop Jean Marie Latour and his friend Father Joseph Vaillant – two celibate men who devote their lives to bring religious faith and comfort to Mexican-Americans in the newly acquired U.S. territory of New Mexico.
New York – Blood In The Valley: A Story of the American Revolution by Jean M. Roberts – In 1753, Catherine Wasson and her extended family depart placid New Hampshire to settle in the raucous Mohawk Valley of New York, in search of fertile land and a better life. It doesn’t come easy.
North Carolina – Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier – Sorely wounded and fatally disillusioned in the fighting at Petersburg, a Confederate soldier named Inman decides to walk back to his home in the Blue Ridge mountains to Ada, the woman he loves. His trek across the disintegrating South brings him into intimate and sometimes lethal converse with slaves and marauders, bounty hunters and witches, both helpful and malign.
North Dakota – The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich – It is 1953. Thomas Wazhushk is the night watchman at the first factory to open near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. He is also a prominent Chippewa Council member, trying to understand a new bill that is soon to be put before Congress. The US Government calls it an ’emancipation’ bill; but it isn’t about freedom – it threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land, their very identity. How can he fight this betrayal?
Ohio – Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez – Situated in Ohio, a free territory before the Civil War, Tawawa House is an idyllic retreat for Southern white men who vacation there every summer with their enslaved black mistresses. It’s their open secret. Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet are regulars at the resort, building strong friendships over the years.
Oklahoma – Blackberry Road by Jodi Lea Stewart – Biddy Woodson, one of twelve siblings in a sharecropper family living in 1934 Oklahoma, has learned how to sass and vinegar her way through life, even when it takes a bit of cussing to get through those hellish stacks of after-meal dishes.
Oregon – The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western by Richard Brautigan – In the early days of the 20th Century, two gunslingers prowl the badlands of the American wild-west – guns for hire, professional killers whose only allegiance is to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, in the remote Dead Hills of Eastern Oregon, a mysterious Victorian mansion stands isolated from civilization. It is home to Professor Hawkline, his beautiful daughters, and the secret laboratory that lies hidden within the ice caves deep beneath the house.
Pennsylvania – Tumbling by Diane McKinney-Whetstone – Noon and Herbie are deeply in love and living in a tightly knit African American neighborhood in South Philadelphia during the 1940s. But their marriage remains unconsummated because of a horrible incident in Noon’s past, so each seeks comfort elsewhere: Noon in the warm acceptance of the neighborhood church; Herbie in the arms of Ethel, a jazz singer.
Rhode Island – Murder at the Breakers by Alyssa Maxwell – As the nineteenth century comes to a close, the illustrious Vanderbilt family dominates Newport, Rhode Island, high society. But when murder darkens a glittering affair at their summer home, reporter Emma Cross learns that sometimes the cream of the crop can curdle one’s blood . . .
South Carolina – Blind Tribute: A Riveting Novel of the Civil War by Mari Anne Christie – Harry Wentworth, gentleman of distinction and journalist of renown, spends a lifetime of social and financial capital, exploiting his position as Executive Editor of the Philadelphia Daily Standard to try to arrest the momentum of both Union and Confederacy. To his sorrow and disgust, his calls for a peaceful resolution are worth no more than the ink he buys to print them.
South Dakota – The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber – It is 1917 in the South Dakota Badlands, and summer has been hard. Fourteen years have passed since Rachel and Isaac DuPree left Chicago to stake a claim in this unforgiving land. Isaac, a former Buffalo Soldier, is fiercely proud: black families are rare in the West, and black ranchers even rarer.
Tennessee – Christy by Catherine Marshall – The train taking nineteen-year-old teacher Christy Huddleston from her home in Asheville, North Carolina, might as well be transporting her to another world. The Smoky Mountain community of Cutter Gap feels suspended in time, trapped by poverty, superstitions, and century-old traditions.
Texas – Texas by James Michener – Spanning four and a half centuries, James A. Michener’s monumental saga chronicles the epic history of Texas, from its Spanish roots in the age of the conquistadors to its current reputation as one of America’s most affluent, diverse, and provocative states.
Utah – The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff – It is 1875, and Ann Eliza Young has recently separated from her powerful husband, Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon Church. Expelled and an outcast, Ann Eliza embarks on a crusade to end polygamy in the United States.
Vermont – Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris – It is the summer of 1960 in Atkinson, Vermont. With no help from her alcoholic ex-husband, Marie Fermoyle is raising three children on the edge of poverty.
Virginia – Testimony by Paula Martinac – In rural Virginia in 1960, history professor Gen Rider has secured tenure at Baines College, a private school for white women. A woman in a man’s field, she teaches “Negro” history, which has made her suspect with a powerful male colleague. Even while she’s celebrating her triumph, she’s also mourning the break-up of a long-distance relationship with another woman—a romance she has tightly guarded, even from her straight female mentor.
Washington – Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson – San Piedro Island, north of Puget Sound, is a place so isolated that no one who lives there can afford to make enemies. But in 1954 a local fisherman is found suspiciously drowned, and a Japanese American named Kabuo Miyamoto is charged with his murder.
West Virginia – The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart by Glenn Taylor – Meet Trenchmouth Taggart, a man born and orphaned in 1903, a man nicknamed for his lifelong oral affliction. Trenchmouth sips moonshine, handles snakes, pleases women, and masters the rifle—a skill that lands him in the middle of the West Virginia coal wars.
Wisconsin – A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan – Set in Friendship, Wisconsin, just after the Civil War, A Prayer for the Dying tells of a horrible epidemic that is suddenly and gruesomely killing the town’s residents and setting off a terrifying paranoia. Jacob Hansen, Friendship’s sheriff, undertaker, and pastor, is soon overwhelmed by the fear and anguish around him, and his sanity begins to fray.
Wyoming – Ridgeline by Michael Punke – In 1866, with the country barely recovered from the Civil War, new war breaks out on the western frontier – a clash of cultures between a young, ambitious nation and the Native tribes who have lived on the land for centuries. Colonel Henry Carrington arrives in Wyoming’s Powder River Valley to lead the US Army in defending the opening of a new road for gold miners and settlers.
Ana Brazil writes historical crime fiction celebrating bodacious American heroines. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Historical Novel Society, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers.
Ana’s award-winning historical mystery FANNY NEWCOMB & THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER is set in Gilded Age New Orleans. Her upcoming October 17 2023 release is THE RED-HOT BLUES CHANTEUSE, a Viola Vermillion Vaudeville mystery set in 1919 San Francisco.