Historical novels with a focus on American women
March is coming to a close, and with it goes another National Women's History month. Growing up, I came to love history mainly through reading historical fiction. Although the historical novels I read often focused on romance and mystery, these stories were a powerful way to encounter the variety of experiences and challenges that women have faced throughout history. To celebrate Women's History Month, I wanted to highlight a few recent historical novels that focus on American women in times of transition.
Kate Alcott's "The Daring Ladies of Lowell" is a story of friendship and romance that takes place during the turbulent years of the Industrial Revolution. The story focuses on Alice Barrow, who in the 1830's joins many young women from rural areas in moving to Lowell, Massachusetts to work in a large textile mill. At first Alice enjoys her new found freedom and independence, earning her own paycheck and living in a dormitory with other workers. Alice soon finds, though, that the life of a "mill girl" is not without hardship and peril.
The women work very long hours, safety problems are rampant, and horrifying accidents are common. Workers at the mill are beginning to join the burgeoning American labor movement to address issues of exploitation and working conditions. Alice soon finds herself speaking up about these issues herself, and ends up catching the eye of the owner's oldest son, Samuel. The two begin an unlikely and tentative romance, but their relationship is strained when tensions at the mill continue to mount between workers and management.
Alice Hoffman takes the reader into the fascinating world of early 20th century New York City in her newest novel, "The Museum of Extraordinary Things". The story is told from alternating point of view of the two central characters, Coralie and Eddie. Coralie's story takes place in the strange world of early Coney Island amusements, where she was raised to perform in her father's museum of oddities as a mermaid. Eddie Cohen immigrated to New York with his father as a child to escape religious persecution, and promptly tried to distance himself from his past by immersing himself in the teeming street life of New York City.
As an adult, Eddie is estranged from his father and their Orthodox community. He makes his living as a news photographer, living an isolated life with his photography and his loyal pit bull Mitts. Coralie struggles to find a way to get out of her father's plans for her, which grow more sinister as he gets desperate to keep an audience amid the growth of dazzling Coney Island theme parks. The convergence of the two stories centers on the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which Eddie photographs, and a missing woman he is enlisted to help find.
"Saint Monkey," the debut novel from Jacinda Townsend, focuses on the friendship of two girls growing up in rural Kentucky during the 1950s and 1960s. Audrey and Caroline live across the street from each other on the African-American side of tiny Mt. Sterling, Ky. The two girls form a strong bond as they struggle to cope with the poverty, family tragedy, and the daily indignities of life in the South under Jim Crow laws. They both have trouble fitting in at school, and cope with dreams of getting out of their claustrophobic town and going on to grander things.
As they grow older, the girls struggle to maintain their friendship as Caroline drops out of school and takes on more adult responsibilities. The true test of their friendship comes when Audrey gets the opportunity to move to Harlem and play music in the thriving jazz scene there, and Caroline is left behind. The novel alternates between the perspectives of Audrey and Caroline, and vividly portrays both the dusty rural poverty of Mt. Sterling and the bright world of Harlem and The Apollo Theater in the 1960s. The friendship and tensions between the two women are brought to life against the backdrop of the pivotal civil rights issues of the period.
While these three stories all focus on characters of literary invention, real historical events that surround the stories give readers an imaginative look at the challenges that American women faced in our not so distant past. The well-drawn historical settings add texture and interest to the authors' creations, so don't be surprised if these books send you to your computer and your local library to find out more about the fascinating eras and events they so compellingly depict.
Kasia Hopkins is an adult services librarian at the Urbana Free Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org