Historical Fiction for Hipsters

Historical Fiction for Hipsters: Stories from the past that won’t make you snore!

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In my experience, most teens won’t even look at hist. fic. unless they have to read it for a school assignment. You know, stuff like My Brother Sam is SO Dead, or Johnny TREmain (as in TREmendously booorrrriiinnggg!) Oh, trust me, my adolescent friends, I have been there, and I know your pain. That’s why I’m sending some stories your way that promise action, mystery and in some cases, some good old fashioned gore. Sure, you may not know much about history, but learning it from these juicy fictional accounts is way more fun than memorizing any old, dry textbook. And won’t you impress Mr. or Mrs. “I’ve-Been-Teaching-History-Since-Before-WWI” when you display your dazzling knowledge of Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, or pagan Iceland in the time of the Vikings. Don’t be afraid to shout out to some of those dried-up, monotonous-monotone history teachers just what kind of hist. fic. you want to read: the kind that doesn’t put you to sleep! And maybe, just maybe, between all of you and me, we can start a revolution of revised historical fiction reading lists. Viva la Hist. Fic. for Hipsters!

The Boy on the Bridge by Natalie Standiford


Since she was a little girl, Laura has been captivated by the colorful and bloody history and literature of Russia. But when she finally gets her chance to spend a college semester abroad in Soviet Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1982, she is disappointed by the dreary weather, bad food and suspicious locals. Then she meets Alyosha, a handsome young artist who adores all things American, including Laura. Soon they are caught up in a passionate love affair that is made all the more romantic by the fact that they must keep it secret because American students are discouraged from fraternizing with anyone outside the university. Alyosha gives Laura the keys to his apartment and she finds herself skipping class and lying to her chaperones in order to spend more time with him. She willfully ignores all the warnings from her friends that native Russians “fall in love” with Americans all the time in order to secure a visa to the United States. But as the semester comes to a close, and Alyosha talks more and more about how much he longs to visit San Francisco, Laura can’t help but wonder if the all the warnings are true. Is Alyosha really in love with her? Or is he just using her as a way to escape the close-minded culture of Soviet Russia? While not as offbeat and funny as the author’s smashing debut, this solidly written and deeply felt love story set in a time and place that will seem totally bizarre to those of you born in the 1990s is made even more fascinating by the fact that it is most likely based on this. This bittersweet romance is the perfect way to end your summer.

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang


There are two sides to every story, and stupendously talented author/artist Gene Luen Yang elevates that saying to a whole new level with Boxers & Saints. In this double volume, graphic novel masterpiece, two teenagers become caught up in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1898 on opposite sides, fighting to retain their identity and hold on to their hard won religious values.

Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, the youngest son in a motherless family of farmers from a poor village. When a Catholic missionary priest smashes the statue of one of his village’s gods in front of him, he is devastated, especially since the opera stories he sees during the spring fairs make him feel as though the ancient gods are his close friends and allies. As he grows into adulthood, he begins training with a kung fu master in order to join the rebellion against these foreigners who have their own army and refuse to respect the native Chinese ways. Soon he is heading up his own small army, each member fueled by the angry spirits of the old gods. But as the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist” marches closer and closer to the capital of Peking to “eradicate the foreign devils” once and for all, Little Bao begins to question his rock solid faith as the number of bodies of innocent people build in his violent wake.

Saints tells the story of Four-Girl, a lonely child who is considered a bad luck devil by her family no matter how much she tries to win their approval. The only person who shows her kindness is the village acupuncturist, who is also a Christian. He tells her Bible stories that fire up her imagination, and she begins having recurring visions of Joan of Arc. Soon she decides to become baptized and join the church. She gets a new name, Vibiana, and leaves home to work at a Catholic orphanage, followed by her visions of Joan. When Little Bao’s army comes to her village’s doorstep, Vibiana decides that God is calling on her to be His warrior maiden like Joan of Arc. The tragic, unpredictable result of Little Bao and Vibiana’s final meeting will haunt you long after you close the covers on Saints.

The earthy/monotone palate of both volumes perfectly conveys the rural landscape and hardscrabble life of the peasants, only exploding into vibrant color when Little Bao’s pantheon of Chinese gods arrive on the scene, with their rainbow robes and elaborate masks, or Four-Girl’s golden vision of Joan of Arc shimmers between the trees outside her home. While this exceptional work will no doubt help gazillions of readers understand the complexity behind religious wars and personal freedoms, it can also be appreciated as a swiftly paced adventure peopled with men, women and gods who bring this fascinating period of Chinese history to bloody life. I was blown away by both the richly illustrated package and the timeless message. Read them in the order the title suggests, (first Boxers, then Saints) and then pass them along to everyone you know.

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls


Liz and Bean are used to being on their own. When their aspiring singer mom takes off for a few days every now and then to follow her dreams, the two girls just hunker down, make chicken pot pies in the toaster oven and tell anyone who asks that she’s just visiting a friend in L.A. and will be back soon. But this time, Mom’s been gone for almost two weeks. The chicken potpies are running low and the neighbors are starting to sniff around. Liz makes the call that the sisters need to hightail it to their Uncle Tinsley’s house in Virginia before they get trundled off to foster care. Once they get to 1970’s small town Byler, they find a safe haven with Uncle Tinsley, an eccentric but kind old man who used to own the cotton mill. Mom visits, but then heads out to New York to scout singing opportunities and apartments, leaving the girls to start school in Byler. Liz and Bean love Byler, but the small town isn’t as idyllic as they first thought. The high school is being integrated for the first time, and racial tensions are high. The girls also find themselves stuck in the middle of a nasty feud between Uncle Tinsely and Mr. Maddox, the mill foreman. When Liz publically accuses Maddox of some downright dirty behavior, the incident sets off a firestorm of rumors, gossip and backstabbing in the small town that changes both girls’ lives forever. How will the sisters turn the tide of negativity that has risen up against them because of Maddox’s lies? And where is their mom when they need her the most? By turns witty, warm and provocative, this all ages read by the author of The Glass Castle is a perfect choice for your high school mother-daughter book club or to throw in your beach bag this summer.

Midwinter Blood by Marcus Sedgwick


Blessed Island is a truly stress-free place. There are no cars to pollute the air with smoke and noise, no cell phones to distract people from real connections. It’s so peaceful that reporter Eric Seven just can’t seem to motivate himself to collect the research he needs to write an article about the remote island community and it’s rumored fountain of youth. The villagers are friendly and generous, and there’s always another cup of tea to sip, another delicious meal to eat, another nap to take. Soon he’s been there for several days and it’s getting harder and harder to remember why he came. All he knows is that it had something to do with flowers, and the young woman named Merle. Eric feels certain they’ve met before, although he doesn’t know how since Merle’s never left Blessed Island and he’s never been. Or has he? In seven cleverly intertwined short stories, author Marcus Sedgwick weaves a classic yet wholly original tale of blessings and curses, love and loyalty, bitterness and revenge. Each story is like an interlocking puzzle piece that forms a fascinating picture by the immensely satisfying end.  As a reader, I was completely captivated by the storytelling and as a writer, utterly blown away with the razor sharp execution of plot, clues and character. It’s an absolute stunner of a mystery and romance and I will be madly recommending it to everyone I know.

Dark Triumph: His Fair Assassins, bk. 2 by Robin LaFevers


Lady Sybella’s life is a living nightmare. Trained as an assassin by the killer nuns of the convent of St. Mortain (God of Death) she has been assigned to spy on the house of Count d’Albret, a noble who is staging a deadly coup against the young duchess of Brittany. The count is notoriously brutal, simply murdering any and all who oppose him. Sybella’s life is constantly on the line as she gathers information to send back to her Mother Superior, who is on the side of the duchess. She knows that if she is found out, a fate worse than death awaits her. Because Sybella is not just an ordinary spy. She is also d’Albret’s abused daughter. When an order comes from the convent that she must free a highly valued prisoner from d’Albret’s dungeon, she uses the command as an excuse to escape with her wounded charge and join her assassin sister Ismae. This one decision sets her destiny spinning in a direction she could have never anticipated, a future where love and death are intertwined and at any moment she could be utterly destroyed by one or the other. Because war is coming. And d’Albret is used to winning. This smashing second volume in His Fair Assassins series (volume 1= Grave Mercy) is way more bloody and fast paced than the first but just as deliciously juicy. Sybella is a terrific heroine—damaged, self-doubting, angry as hell and ready to take her rage out on the world at large—until love comes along and turns her wrath into righteousness. Though you could read this one as a stand alone, why would you want to? I’d advise digging into Grave Mercy before taking a stab at Dark Triumph. An awfully good sequel to what is shaping up to be a spectacular series.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys


“My mother’s a prostitute. Not the filthy, street walking kind. She’s actually quite pretty, fairly well spoken, and has lovely clothes. But she sleeps with men for money or gifts, and according to the dictionary, that makes her a prostitute.” In 1950’s New Orleans, Josie couldn’t be more different from her mother, a woman who cares about herself first and her daughter only when she manages to remember she has one. Luckily for Josie, her mother’s madam Willie, a smart, sassy businesswoman, has always looked out for Josie and kept her separate from her mother’s sordid life. But now Josie has graduated from high school and wants to be more than just a bookstore clerk and Willie’s sometimes housekeeper.  She dreams of attending Smith College in Massachusetts and escaping the sleaziness of the Big Easy forever. But when a wealthy tourist is murdered in the French Quarter and Josie’s mother and mobster boyfriend are fingered for it, Josie becomes caught up in a dangerous game of cat and mouse that could bring a messy end to her college dreams. And there is also the little matter of deciding between the two boys she’s grown up with and loves for different reasons: Patrick because he shares her passion for books and reading, Jesse because shares her feeling of being an outsider always looking in. Can Josie flee her painful past in order to forge a bright new future? Or will her illicit origins dog her footsteps for the rest of her life? Ruta Sepetys, author of the achingly sad Between Shades of Gray, has penned another unusual and provocative historical fiction that goes straight to the heart. But don’t expect heart-pounding action, this is a smart, slow-boiling thriller that focuses more on identity and relationships than strip teases and gun play. If you like the character-driven mysteries of Judy Blundell and Kathryn Miller Haines, then you’ll want to snatch this one up from your nearest library, bookstore or e-reader ASAP.

Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl


“Perhaps one day women might be able to to choose their husbands with no thought of money and position, but not in this day and age in Lesser Hoo, Yorkshire, England.” In Regency-era England, seventeen year old Althea Crawley is beautiful and broke. Her widowed mother has a falling down castle to her name and that’s about it. Factor in a dependent little brother and two greedy, homely stepsisters and the situation is clear: to save her loved ones from financial ruin and escape her nasty step sibs, Althea will have to snag a wealthy husband. There are no shortage of eligible bachelors in the neighborhood, but since all Althea has to bring to the union is a pretty face, they aren’t exactly knocking down the castle door. Enter handsome Lord Boring (how much do I love that character name?!) a new arrival to Lesser Hoo. LB has the looks and the money that Althea is sure will make her and her family very, very happy. Luckily, he seems to feel the same. But if she’s so sure that Lord Boring is The One, why does his irritating, argumentative business partner Mr. Fredericks keep popping up in her thoughts? If you look under the definition of “delightful” in the dictionary, you will find a picture of this adorable tome. Full of sparkling wit, wonderfully bumbling misunderstandings and unrequited love for DAYS, this lovely homage to Regency romances will leave you giggling and swooning in equal measure.  I have a distinct feeling that Patrice Kindl had as much fun writing this frothy confection as I had reading it. A must read for all you die-hard Jane Austen & Dodie Smith fans.

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick


In 1975, Arn Chorn-Pond was a carefree and enterprising Cambodian kid who snuck into movies with his brother, listened to the Beatles and played games of chance on the street to make money for candy and coconut cake. Then the Khmer Rouge came to town. The rebel military group had won control of Cambodia, and they began ordering Arn’s family and neighbors to pack up and leave because the Americans who had been at war with Vietnam were now coming to bomb them. The rebels would protect them and bring them back to their homes in three days. Frightened, but also a little excited, Arn joins the mass exodus out of the city of Battambang. But what he doesn’t know is that the Khmer Rouge are lying. There are no attacking Americans. What waits for him and thousands of other children in the country and fields outside of town isn’t salvation but fear, starvation and death at the hands of the brutal Khmer Rouge who believe that in order to build a new Communist society, they must first destroy the old one. So begins Arn’s horrific odyssey through a Khmer Rouge work camp, training as a child soldier and eventual escape to the United States. He quickly learns that showing emotion can be deadly: “I make my eye blank. You show you care, you die. You show fear, you die. You show nothing, maybe you live.” But while he finds physical safety, will he ever be able to forget the friends and family he was forced to leave behind? “…after all the thing I been through, now being rescue is something I also have to survive.” This true story of heroism and fortitude was related by Arn himself to the award-winning author Patricia McCormick, who wove his words into a fictionalized account of real events. The result is a harrowing but ultimately uplifting narrative that demonstrates humanity’s enduring tendency towards hope, even in the darkest of circumstances. I was completely undone by the simplicity and power of this book, couldn’t stop thinking about it for DAYS and already anticipate that it will be wearing several shiny metals on it’s cover come YA book award season. In other words, an absolute must read! (To see an interview between Arn and McCormick and to find out more about the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Killing Fields, click here)

Bloody Chester by JT Petty & Hilary Florido


Chester Kates is a hardscrabble teenage orphan who lives on whiskey, pancakes and fistfights in a desolate corner of the Old West. It’s not much of a life, so when a shady railroad exec offers him 40 bucks to burn down a ghost town called Whale that sits in the railroad’s future path, Chester jumps at the chance. But when he gets there, he finds that Whale is not entirely deserted. It is still home to a few souls who were fortunate enough to have survived the mysterious fatal plague that laid waste to Whale’s meager population. Chester teams up with Caroline, the pretty daughter of a crazy miner named Whitley Barber who may or may not have hidden a valuable treasure somewhere in Whale. Together they try to convince Barber to uncover his loot and leave the doomed township before Chester burns it to the ground. But the old miner won’t budge, and when Chester discovers the evil reason why, he is forced to make a terrible decision between love and justice. This imaginative graphic novel is a bone-chilling blend of horror, mystery and Western that will keep you guessing until the very last page. JT Petty’s dark story has more twists and turns than a bucking bronco, while Hilary Florido’s sketchy manga-light artwork conveys the inhospitable bleakness of home on the range–which is quickly shown to be the opposite of the cozy cowboy song. If you find your appetite whetted for more menacing Old West/horror mash-ups, try The Sixth Gun or American Vampire.


Jen Hubert Swan
Librarian, Book Reviewer,
Reading Addict