Ten Excellent Novels that Take Place in the Historical United States

Before I became addicted to fiction, I was interested in history.  When I was ten years old and still living on the farm, I belonged to a History Club my older brother started.  The few members would present a report on some historical event, usually related to United States history such as the Battle  of New Orleans or the inventions of Thomas Edison.  I still enjoy historical fiction as long as it has the qualities of good fiction.  The following novels do have these qualities. 

 “Libra” by Don DeLillo (1988) – This is a novel about the John F. Kennedy assassination.  It focuses on the life of the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald following him from early youth to the Marines to Russia and back.  DeLillo’s speculations about the events are controversial.  This is my favorite DeLillo novel.   

  “Rumors of Peace” by Ella Leffland (1979) – To 10 year old Suse Hanson of rural California, the events of World War II seemed far away until Pearl Harbor.  Then the Japanese-American families living in her neighborhood disappear overnight.  Only later does she discover they have been forcibly moved into internment camps.  She grows up to be an aware teenager during these four years of World War II.  Ella Leffland is not much heard of today, but I’ve read several of her novels and they have been excellent.

  “Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara (1974) –  A novel that attempts to tell the full story of the 4-day battle of Gettysburg in the United States Civil War from the perspective of various protagonists from both sides, North and South.  The novel was later made into the movie “Gettysburg”. 

“The Road to Wellville” by T. Coraghessan Boyle (1993) – the fall-down hilarious story that takes place in the health resort in Battle Creek, Michigan run by John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of corn flakes.  Here you want to read the book, not watch the movie.  The movie is supposed to be terrible.      

“Caleb’s Crossing” by Geraldine Brooks (2011) – The inspiring story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665.

“The March” by E. L. Doctorow (2005) – a fictionalized account of the ‘scorched earth’ march of William Tecumseh Sherman and his troops through  Georgia and South Carolina. 

“I Should be Extremely Happy in Your Company” by Brian Hall (2003) – This is a fictionalized account of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06 based on Meriwether Lewis’ extensive meticulous notes.  Thomas Jefferson had completed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and needed someone to explore this huge new territory the United States now owned.  The expedition was very successful making it all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back.  They were accompanied by a fifteen year old Shoshone Indian woman Sacagawea, wife of a French fur trader, who translated conversations between the expedition and the various Indian tribes.  This is a captivating story told well.    

  “Death Comes to the Archbishop” by Willa Cather (1927) – This western novel is about the attempts of a Catholic bishop and a priest to establish a diocese in the then New Mexico territory among the Hopi and Navajo Indians in the 1860s.  As always with Cather, this is a great story.

 “Burr” by Gore Vidal (1973) – An imaginary memoir of the United States anti-hero Aaron Burr, ex US Senator and Vice-President who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and was later tried for treason

“Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck (1939) – A tremendously moving novel of the Great Depression.  The novel is about the Joad family who are driven from their rural Oklahoma home by economic hardship and drought.   They pack up all their belongings and head to California where things aren’t very good either.

13 responses to this post.

  1. I always enjoy your lists and this time I have read three of the books and five of the authors. The books I have read (The March, The Killer Angels, and Libra) all are worthy of a list like this. The other authors I have read (Cather and Steinbeck) are some of the best, in my opinion. I am working my way through Cather’s works and have not gotten to Death Comes for the Archbishop yet. As for Steinbeck, I was a bit soured on Grapes by my high school experience. I’m much better now, so should revisit it.

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  2. Hi Kerry,
    I thought I had pretty much covered all of Willa Cather’s novels, but just found out about one that I’ve missed. ‘Shadows on the Rock’ is a historical novel about French colonists in Quebec in 1697, It’s a reasonable length, 280 pages, so I might add it to my TBR list.

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  3. Well I have two of these on my TBR, The March and Caleb’s Crossing, and I read The Grapes of Wrath ages ago. But some of the other authors are unknown to me, more to add to the wishlist!

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  4. Hi Lisa,
    Doctorow has his novel ‘The March’, and your fellow Australian Geraldine Brooks has a novel called ‘March’. It’s a bit confusing. ‘March’ would also have been a good entry for this list, but I wanted to avoid the confusion. Both of these novels take place during the US Civil War, but have very little else in common.

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  5. Interesting list, so I’ll play the game.

    I’ve read the Brooks, Cather and Steinbeck. I’ve read two other, but more contemporary books, by Coraghessan Boyle and would like to read Wellville.

    Other historical fiction based in the US that I’ve liked include Brooks’ March, Roth’s The plot against America. Another one that I loved is Wallace Stegner’s Angle of repose.

    I’ve never heard of Shaara or Brian Hall.

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    • Hi WhisperingGums,
      Michael Shaara was a historical novelist who specialized almost exclusively on the US Civil War. He usually wasn’t considered a literary novelist, but ‘The Killer Angels’ transcended his category. He died about 20 years ago, and his son Jeff is carrying on the family tradition writing historical novels, and is quite popular. I haven’t read Jeff’s work yet.
      Brian Hall is not too well-known, but ‘I Should be Extremely Happy in your Company’ is a favorite of mine.
      Have you done a column on Australian Historical Fiction yet? Of the Australian novels I know, I would guess ‘Gould’s Book of Fish’ would qualify as historical fiction.

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  6. This is a great list. I’ve got some of them on my TBR pile but shame on me, haven’t ready any so far. The Killer Angels was originally the November choice for my Literature and War Readalong but since it collided with German Literature month it had to go.
    In December we will read Cold Mountain. Did you read it?
    I’m interested in Brian Hall, after seeing your comment. Will see if I can find it.
    The Grapes of Wrath is at present the highest on my pile.

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  7. Hi Caroline,
    I definitely did read ‘Cold Mountain’, and it is an excellent novel. I just didn’t want to over-weight the list with Civil War novels as I already had two. I believe Charles Frazier has a new novel called ‘Nightwood’ that seems interesting too.
    As you can tell by the amount of space I allot it, Brian Hall’s ‘I Should be Extremely Happy in Your Cimpany’ is a personal favorite.

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  8. A great list – with some interesting comments above.

    I think Richard Ford would be on my list – any of his books in fact from The Sports Writer, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land – there’s a combined volume now http://goo.gl/C4nAv

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    • Hi Tom,
      Good to hear from you. Somehow I never considered the Richard Ford trilogy as historical fiction. I did read ‘The Sportswriter’ and ‘Independence Day’ and thought they were more in the minimalist realism genre of Raymond Carver and others. I suppose enough time has past now they could be described as history today.

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