Mixing things up a little bit this week in a way that might have you going: wait, is this the newsletter I signed up for? Yep, it sure is! But instead of talking historical fiction, this week we’re going to be talking nonfiction that reads like historical fiction. And here’s why: good narrative nonfiction can read a lot like a novel. Let me explain.
I recently finished a historical nonfiction book about two powerful Merovingian queens (see the first title below) who carved out roles for themselves in the early Medieval Ages, shortly after the fall of Rome. It was so well written that I found myself devouring it more like a novel than nonfiction. And that got me thinking about how well-written historical narrative nonfiction can read a bit like historical fiction. It makes sense if you think about it. Authors of both genres rely on research and historical documents, to varying degrees, to depict historical stories accurately. They also both rely on some speculation and imagination to fill in the gaps missing in the historical record.
So if you’re interested in pushing your literary limits a bit with me, take a chance on these narrative nonfiction books. They straddle the line between nonfiction and fiction in the way they depict these stories. And, who knows, they might just surprise you!
The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World by Shelley Puhak
In a time when women’s roles were limited in society (huh, sound familiar?), two women rose up through the ranks, marrying kings and eventually ruling in the place of their young sons, to head up a rivalry–and a Civil War–that lasted for decades. Queen Brunhild of Austrasia and Queen Fredegund of Neustria were largely erased from history, but their legacy as founding rulers of the Franks lives on in these pages as Shelley Puhak recounts their incredible story and their violent plays for power.
For a historical fiction novel with some crossover with this one, try The Rebel Nun by Marj Charlier, which follows the uprising at a monastery by one of Brunhild and Fredegund’s nieces.
Last Boat Out of Shanghai by by Helen Zia
Following Mao’s revolution, many of the thriving intellectuals and entrepreneurs of Shanghai feared what would become of their city–and themselves. What followed was a mass exodus, for those with the means to escape, at least. Through countless interviews, Zia pieces together the story of four young people facing the agonizing decision to abandon everything for an uncertain future as refugees. There’s Benny, a teenager who’s unwittingly inherited his father’s dark wartime legacy; Annuo, forced to flee with her Nationalist father; Ho, fighting deportation to finish his studies in the U.S. while his family struggles back home; and Bing, given away by her poor parents to be raised by strangers in America.
The Dragons, the Giant, the Women by Wayétu Moore
In this memoir, Wayétu Moore recounts her family’s harrowing escape on foot during the First Liberian Civil War. But a new life in America isn’t always easy either, for a girl who is both Black and an immigrant. Told through lyrical storytelling and lush prose, The Dragons, the Giant, and the Women follows Moore’s journey to find home in the midst of upheaval, from Liberia to Texas and back again.
The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
For all the true crime fans out there, this historical nonfiction book explores the birth of forensic medicine in 1920s New York. A string of accidental and deliberate poisonings in New York City force chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler to develop new and innovative means of detecting poisons in the body. Told case by case and poison by poison, The Poisoner’s Handbook is like glimpse into the lawless days of New York’s past. And I just can’t get enough.
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That’s it for now, folx! Stay subscribed for more stories of yesteryear.
Right now I’m reading The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. What about you?