Why wait until Women’s History Month to celebrate strong women? There are too many stories to read and find inspiration in to confine them to one month a year. Because their stories weren’t always considered important, the documentation of women’s accomplishments and what their lives were really like at key points in history is woefully deficient.
Historical fiction offers a venue to explore the details of the lives of women otherwise unknown to us. We can be transported into their joys and sorrows as the author guides us through an imagined life taking place in pivotal points in the past. Let’s dive into the lives of historical women as they find a path forward in their own unique circumstances that often transcend time and land to make them universally relatable.
These books fulfill a prompt in our Fall 2022 Reading Challenge!
The Lost Girls of Willowbrook
Women have often been locked away in a proverbial castle in stories and reality. But what about literally being locked away without grounds in a mental institution, only to be forgotten? Sage suspects this is the fate of her twin, Rosemary, after overhearing her father discuss a place called Willowbrook.
Desperate to find out if Willowbrook is actually a school as advertised, the grounds for the urban myth about a serial killer or a facility mistreating the mentally challenged, Sage goes looking for Rosemary. The problem is that Sage gets mistaken for her twin and is locked away in Willowbrook. Will she or Rosemary ever be heard from again? (Be aware that Willowbrook really existed and some of the scenes of the book could be triggering.)
The Second Mrs. Astor
The title of this novel can be taken two ways. Our protagonist is the real-life Mrs. Astor, Madeleine Force. She becomes the second wife of John Astor as well as the daughter-in-law of the formidable New York high society matriarch, the first Mrs. Astor.
Aside from the huge age difference (twenty-nine years to be precise) between she and her husband, Madeleine’s only other troubles seem to be dealing with the paparazzi and gossip mongers. A secluded honeymoon in Egypt is a fine antidote to this. As they look to traveling home and getting back in the public eye, Madeleine finds solace in one last romantic boat ride with her hubby.
But it’s not just any boat. It’s the Titanic. And Madeleine will return home a young widow.
The Nurse's Secret
In the 1880s, America’s first nursing school named Bellevue is established as an institution that recognizes and values the healing arts of nurses. But that doesn’t mean the women at this school have it easy. There is a strict set of criteria to enter and the demands of physicians and patients to fulfill.
Despite lacking social standing, Una somehow manages to make her way into the school with her cleverness and starts to grow into a life she didn’t think possible for herself. Cue the mysterious death of a patient. Now instead of her studies, Una worries about when the murderer will strike next and if she will be able to keep up the elaborate facade she’s so intricately put into place.
The Saints of Swallow Hill
Life hasn’t been the kindest to Rae Lynn but she is grateful to have made it out of an orphanage and into a home of her own with her husband. Her marriage is far from a fairy tale and the work on their turpentine farm isn’t easy but it has given Rae Lynn purpose and kept her busy.
All that will change in the blink of an eye. Rae Lynn will have to masquerade as a man named Ray and travel across state lines to avoid being arrested for a crime she didn’t commit. She manages to find a turpentine camp called Swallow Hill doing work all too familiar to her but under much worse conditions than she could have ever imagined. Rae Lynn knows she can’t stay but can she help the few people that have shown her kindness before she’s out of time?
The Spanish Daughter
As noted in The Saints of Swallow Hill, hiding one’s identity and specifically, pretending to be a man, was one of the ways that women sought safety in a very unfair world and is also a theme in this next pick. The first World War is over and Puri is on the way to a whole new life after learning she has inherited a cocoa estate far from her home country of Spain. She heads to Ecuador with her husband and has high hopes for a fresh start when she finds herself in danger.
Cristobal is murdered and Puri decides to assume his identity for her own safety. But this charade must continue until she has all the answers to why she may have been the intended target on her voyage, what her father was up to all the way across an ocean and whether her future lies in Ecuador or not. Puri does know that she won’t be able to reveal her true identity and make a new path for herself until she solves the mystery in the town known as Paris Chiquito.
The War Girls
Women helping women is a powerful act on any given day, but when it comes to surviving the atrocities of war, it is that much more beautiful and poignant. Hanna has left her Jewish family in Poland to live life on her terms in London but the timing couldn’t be worse. While her city is getting bombed, her family is being cordoned off into the Warsaw Ghetto including her younger sister, Stefa. Hanna finds her way back to Poland in the capacity of a spy while Stefa herself has joined the Jewish Resistance.
This story would be intriguing enough with tales of the bravery of these two sisters but Alexander gifts us with another war girl. Janka is Catholic and married to a Nazi sympathizer. She cannot stand by while her fellow Polish citizens are suffering. While there are unthinkable crimes against humanity and heartbreak taking place all around them, these war girls do what they can to remind those they help that there is still goodness in the world.
The Seamstress of New Orleans
Alice and Constance may be very different but they do share the fact that they are not in control of their own destinies. Set in 1900, their husbands’ behaviors have left them to fend for themselves in a world that does not recognize the agency of women.
Alice is pregnant and abandoned. Constance is widowed and frightened by the consequences of her late husband’s choices. Fate brings them together to take advantage of a loophole in the Mardi Gras tradition. Only in leap years, women are granted freedoms they never know the rest of the year during Mardis Gras and can fully participate in the revelry. The two women will collaborate on a dress for the first all-female krewe called Les Mysterieuses but there is a darkness lurking behind all the festivities. And after Mardis Gras is over, these two women’s lives will never be the same.