Putting Women Back in the Narrative: Historical Fiction That Remembers The Ladies

It was pretty much inevitable that I would become a Hamilton addict.  As both an American history nerd and a musical theatre geek, I found Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical exploring the story of Alexander Hamilton and the founding of the United States irresistible from the moment I first listened to the opening number. However, my love of Hamilton comes not only from Miranda’s incredibly well-crafted soundtrack and book but also from his clear interest in highlighting perspectives often left out of the historical record, including the voices and experiences of women.
Obviously, I am not the first to notice this; articles like Michael Schulman’s “The Women of Hamilton and Constance Gibbs’ “How the Hero of Hamilton the Musical is a Woman”  explore the powerful ways that Miranda’s writing and the performances of Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Jasmine Cephas Jones illuminate the often unacknowledged perspectives, experiences, and contributions of women in our history.  Singing along to songs like “The Schuyler Sisters,” “Satisfied,” and “Burn,” I can’t help but feel the urge to read some great historical fiction that places women and their stories in the spotlight.

audacityAudacity – Melanie Crowder
Clara Lemlich has always wanted to learn but as the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish family in rural Russia in 1903, Clara is banned from studying Russian, reading, or writing. When the Russians’ pogroms reach their village, Clara and her family escape to join the teeming crowds of immigrants entering New York City in search of a new life. But, in America, Clara finds herself even more trapped by her lack of education and her new work in the garment industry’s sweatshops.  Soon, Clara puts aside her dreams of becoming a doctor to become an activist, leading the fight for better conditions, pay, and treatment for women garment workers.
under a painted skyUnder A Painted Sky – Stacey Lee
In 1849 the trek west along the Oregon Trail is always dangerous but for young women like Samantha, a Chinese-American musician, and Annamae, a runaway African American slave, the journey is especially perilous.  After her father’s sudden death and an violent encounter at a local boarding house, Samantha has to get out of town–fast.  Annamae has been looking for a chance to make her break for freedom.  On the run from the law and disguised as boys, Sammy & Andy work together to survive and seek their freedom in the face of racism, sexism, stampedes, and deadly disease.   
lies we tell ourselves by Robin TalleyLies We Tell Ourselves – Robin Talley 
Sarah Dunbar starts her senior year at Jefferson High School in 1959 with the knowledge that she is about to make history as one of the first black students to graduate from the previously all white school. However, making history feels far less heroic when it involves facing the daily teasing, bullying, and constant threats of violence. Meanwhile, Linda Hairston despises the turmoil caused by the school’s decision and reiterates her father’s anti-integration opinions. But when Sarah and Linda are assigned to work together on a class project, the two young women must confront harsh truths that will shake their perceptions of each other—and stir up passions both have tried to ignore.
out of darknessOut of Darkness – Ashley Hope Perez
Arriving in racially divided oil-mining town of New London, Texas with her younger biracial twin half-siblings, fifteen-year-old Mexican Naomi immediately knows that life here will be rough.  Living with the twins’ white father, Naomi must learn to keep the household running and deal with the community’s overwhelming racism and ominous hostility.  Her only friend is Wash Fullerton, a kind and brilliant African-American student.  But as Naomi and Wash’s friendship kindles into a passionate romance, horrific tragedy strikes the community.

a mad wicked follyA Mad Wicked Folly – Sharon Biggs Waller (2015 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults)     Miss Victoria Darling appears to have everything a wealthy young lady at the top of 1909 London society could want—except the one thing she craves above all else: to become an artist. After posing nude for her clandestine drawing class in Paris, Vicky gets shipped back to England in disgrace where her parent frantically work to get her engaged to a wealthy and appropriate young man. Meanwhile, Vicky refuses to give up and soon find herself very preoccupied with her forbidden application to the Royal College of Art, her inconvenient feelings for a young policeman, and her growing involvement with the women’s suffrage movement.

house of purple cedarHouse of Purple Cedar – Tim Tingle
In 1896 in the Skullyville settlement in Oklahoma territory, a horrific fire struck burned down the New Hope Academy for Girls and twenty Choctaw girls die in the blaze.  Rose Goode survives and in the aftermath, returns to her parents and beloved grandparents.  Then, while visiting the nearby town of Spiro, her grandfather is brutally attacked by the drunken town marshall Hardwicke.  As the community reacts to the attack, Rose attempts to make sense of the violence flooding her world and the continued slow destruction still facing the Choctaw people.
these shallow gravesThese Shallow Graves – Jennifer Donnelly
Jo Montfort, daughter of an old money family in 1890s New York, knows what her future should hold: an advantageous and appropriate marriage followed by children and a life attending an endless stream of tedious social events.  Yet Jo can’t help but dream about another life–a life where she could travel freely or write for the newspapers like Nellie Bly. Then her father is found dead in his study and Jo’s world tilts on its axis. But when she hears rumors that his death might not be an accident, Jo can’t resist her need to understand and investigate–even though the truth might destroy her.
paper heartsPaper Hearts – Meg Wiviott
In the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, bartering for paper or borrowing scissors could mean death.  But in the brutal winter of 1944, prisoner Zlatka risks everything to secretly craft an origami heart filled with birthday messages for her best friend Fania.  Based on a true story, this novel in verse gives voice to a group of young women who banded together to survive the horrors of Auschwitz and reclaim their humanity in seemingly impossible circumstances.
— Kelly Dickinson, currently reading Infandous by Elana Arnold

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Kelly Dickinson

I am a librarian at an independent girls' school in the DC-Metro area. I am a compulsive baker, book addict, and genre fiction fan with passion for social justice. Find me on Twitter as @onesmartcupcake.

One thought on “Putting Women Back in the Narrative: Historical Fiction That Remembers The Ladies”

  1. Thank you for introducing me to these books of courageous woman in different periods of history. I would be honored if next year you might add THE LAST CHERRY BLOSSOM, in August 2016.

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