“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
Nowhere is this famous quote (often misattributed to Joseph Stalin, though no one knows its author) better personified than in the world of historical fiction. We often forget the human element when reading history; especially reading about the horrors. Reading about millions of deaths, the tragedy can often be lost on people; but reading about just one death, just one experience, can bring people to tears, even if it’s fictional. That’s precisely the reason historical fiction can be so important; it allows us to see historical events and tragedies through the eyes of those that experienced them. In doing so, it not only gives us a better perspective on the statistics that are printed in history textbooks, but also increases our empathy for those who have suffered.
So, in order to accomplish both those goals, here are ten historical fiction books you can dig into while you’re socially isolating.
Book: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Description: I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that better depicts the horror and stupidity of war than this one. Told from the perspective of a German soldier during World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front shows in graphic detail the absolute horror of war. The Nazis banned this book, burned all copies of it, and threatened the author and his family, because it dispelled their ideals of war being noble.
Book: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
Description: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Such begins what some would argue is Dickens’ best novel, a story of France in the years of the French revolution. Once again, a tragic tale of human stupidity, A Tale of Two Cities is both a tribute to the horrid conditions of pre-revolutionary France, as well as a cautionary tale for revolutionaries. Woven in between these events is the story of the Mannette family, who are tragically woven into the horror that the French Revolution leaves in its wake.
Book: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Description: One of the definitive Vietnam war stories, The Things They Carried is a collection of connected short stories about a single group of soldiers trying to survive in the harrowing conditions of Vietnam. Written in a memoir-like style (don’t be fooled, however; the book is fiction), Things is inspired by O’Brien’s real life war experiences, and the fears, problems, and ethical questions the soldiers were forced to deal with everyday.
Book: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Description: One of the more recently written books on this list, Lincoln in the Bardo tells the true story of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son during the Civil War. After the tragic death, Lincoln was reported to have visited his son’s grave and cried in the boy’s tomb. Here, the story takes a fictional turn, relying on the accounts of the various ghosts of the graveyard to narrate the President’s visits. Told in a strange form of prose that is a number of quotes strung together (some of which are true accounts of the events), this book is a great story about the personal tragedies of great men.
Book: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Description: Another more modern novel, The Underground Railroad imagines that the route that escaping slaves took North as a literal underground railroad, with enormous tunnels filled with rails running throughout the South. Despite its fictional premise, the book goes deeply into the horrors of slavery, as well as exactly how difficult it was for slaves to escape.
Book: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Description: A great tragedy of our study of history is how often we ignore the non-European based history of the world. The Kite Runner, set in Afghanistan in the 1970s, the background of the story is the turmoil in the Afghani-Soviet war, as well as the aftermath with the rise of the Taliban. The forefront of the story Amir and his father, two Afghani citizens who escape the war engulfing their country to move to the United States. Focusing on complex themes such as sexual assault, refugees, friendship, and family, the book well-deserves it’s famous reputation, and is a great chance to dive into a part of history rarely studied in the US.
Book: The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Description: Set in 1890s New York City, and featuring many historical figures of the day (including Teddy Roosevelt, who at the time was the police commissioner for NYC), The Alienist follows an a crime reporter and an alienist (an early term for a sort of psychologist) working with the police to catch a serial killer who is murdering child prostitutes. Not only a thrilling mystery story, but also a dive into the seedy underground of New York City before the 20th century, The Alienist is a great book to read whether you like history or not.
Book: I, Claudius by Robert Graves
Description: The fictionalized autobiography of the Roman Emperor Claudius, as he describes the life and times of the Roman Imperial Family in the time before his rise to power. A lot of the events in the book are based on real Roman accounts, telling the horrors that the Roman emperors committed to stay in power. Amidst murder, poisonings, war, imprisonment, treachery, and bribery, there is Claudius, a stuttering, limping man who his relatives don’t consider a threat. It’s a fascinating read if you are interested in the history of Rome, and a forgotten classic as well: Modern Library ranked it the fourteenth best book of the 20th century.
Book: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Description: The rare novel about imperialism not being written by one of the imperalizers, Things Fall Apart is the story of a Nigerian village before and after colonialism. Once again, the history of pre-colonized Africa is not one often taught in schools, and Achebe’s novel focuses on the culture and people that existed before they came into any contact with European settlers. The latter half of the novel deals with the effects of the colonization, and the horrors inflicted by imperialism. Written by a native Nigerian, and one of the most famous African novels of all time, Things Fall Apart is a tragic tale of a continent ravaged by the Western world.
Book: A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
Description: Another book about the effects of European colonization, A Passage to India describes in detail the complicated relationship between the British colonizers and the native Indians during the 1900s. Sometimes rated as one of the best books of all time, Passage tells the story of Adela Quested and her friend Mrs. Moore, who travel to India and become friends with a young Indian doctor named Aziz. After a disturbing incident in a nearby cave system, however, the relationship between not only the friends but the entire English-Indian community is thrown into chaos, reflecting the turmoil that was lurking beneath the surface entire book. Another great book to provide insight into the views of the marginalized, Passage to India is another fascinating glimpse at a piece of history not often studied in America.