Four historical fiction novels inspired by incredible true stories

Books

Barbara Chase-Riboud’s The Great Mrs. Elias is based on the life of Hannah Elias, a Black woman who made a name for herself in early 20th-century New York City real estate, accruing enormous wealth along the way. But in 1903, a murder takes place at Hannah’s opulent home, and her carefully constructed existence changes forever. The narrative flashes back to recount her difficult childhood in Philadelphia and her decision to take on a new identity—a choice that has grave repercussions. Atmospheric and richly detailed, Chase-Riboud’s novel provides a compelling portrait of a remarkable woman. 

Famed sniper Mila Pavlichenko is the heroine of Kate Quinn’s The Diamond Eye. A librarian and single mother, Mila serves as a sniper for the Soviet Union during World War II and becomes well known thanks to her exploits, including a body count of more than 300 soldiers. When she’s wounded and sent to America to bolster support for the war, Mila finds a kindred spirit in Eleanor Roosevelt and makes new connections, but she also faces danger from a former adversary. Quinn’s use of historical sources and the role of women in war are among the novel’s rich discussion topics. 

The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. by Lee Kravetz examines poet Sylvia Plath and the writing of her 1963 novel, The Bell Jar, through three narrators: Ruth Barnhouse, Plath’s real-life psychiatrist; Boston Rhodes, a jealous, competitive poet who serves as a stand-in for Anne Sexton; and the fictional Estee, a curator who comes across what might be the original manuscript of The Bell Jar in 2019. Each narrator offers a deeply personal perspective on Plath, womanhood and the creative process, with Estee’s quest to find out the truth about the manuscript serving as the suspenseful centerpiece of this mesmerizing novel. 

In Take My Hand, author Dolen Perkins-Valdez takes inspiration from an infamous 1973 lawsuit to create the fictional story of Civil Townsend, a Black nurse in Alabama in the 1970s. Civil becomes involved in the lives of India and Erica Williams, sisters who Civil discovers have been surgically sterilized by the clinic where she works. The girls, ages 11 and 13, come from an underprivileged Black family, and their circumstances haunt Civil as the years go by. This electrifying novel’s powerful exploration of racism, family and civil rights make it a rewarding choice for book groups.

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