The best historical novels about badass 19th century American women

Who am I?

I don’t write about well-behaved women. I prefer rebels and outcasts, women who, by choice or circumstance, live outside of social norms. 19th-century American history is full of such women—if you know where to look. Hint: not in most public-school textbooks. They’re found, instead, in archives and libraries, in old newspapers and journals, in family letters and autobiographies. The characters in my most recent novel, Reliance, Illinois, were inspired by badass 19th-century women, such as Victoria Woodhull, Mary Livermore, and Olympia Brown. Each of the novels in the list below were inspired by or based on audacious women. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have!  

I wrote...

Reliance, Illinois

By Mary Volmer,

Book cover of Reliance, Illinois

What is my book about?

Illinois, 1874: With a birthmark covering half her face, thirteen-year-old Madelyn Branch is accustomed to cold and awkward greetings and expects no less in the struggling town of Reliance. Her mother, Rebecca, was careful not to mention a daughter in the Matrimonial Times ad that brought them there.

When Rebecca weds, Madelyn poses as her mother’s younger sister and earns a grudging berth in her new house. Madelyn soon leaves to enter the service of Miss Rose Werner, prodigal daughter of the town’s founder. Miss Rose is a suffragist and purveyor of black market birth control who sees in Madelyn a project and potential acolyte. At first, Madelyn simply wants to feel beautiful and loved. But, when a series of troubling events threaten the small town, Madelyn must make a life-changing choice. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Jump-Off Creek

Mary Volmer Why did I love this book?

An immersive and atmospheric novel, The Jump-Off Creek follows a taciturn widow named Lydia into the Oregon wilderness where she hopes to homestead. Resourceful, fiercely independent (and determined to stay that way) she nonetheless finds herself drawn into a bedraggled community of homesteaders and frontiersmen. Yes, there’s a love interest, but that is a subplot, not the story. The story is one of survival and grit set in a landscape as beautiful and unforgiving as the weather.

Molly Gloss is a master storyteller. I find each of her books quite different but equally compelling. The Jump-Off Creek might be my favorite only because it was my first taste of her work. And, of course, I remain in awe of the indomitable Lydia.

By Molly Gloss,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Jump-Off Creek as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A reading group favorite, The Jump-Off Creek is the unforgettable story of widowed homesteader Lydia Sanderson and her struggles to settle in the mountains of Oregon in the 1890s. “Every gritty line of the story rings true” (Seattle Times) as Molly Gloss delivers an authentic and moving portrait of the American West. “A powerful novel of struggle and loss” (Dallas Morning News), The Jump-Off Creek gives readers an intimate look at the hardships of frontier life and a courageous woman determined to survive.

Book cover of I Shall Be Near to You

Mary Volmer Why did I love this book?

You’ve just been married when civil war breaks out and your husband goes off to fight. What do you do? Remain at home, waiting? Rosette cuts her hair, dons men’s clothing, and goes off to fight alongside her husband. If this sounds far-fetched, you’ll be intrigued to discover that the novel is based on a firsthand account, which the author discovered on the shelves of a university library while in search of something else entirely.

I’d come across a handful of true accounts of women dressed as men while researching my own gold rush novel. I didn’t know, until I read McCabe’s novel, that hundreds of women had fought as men during the American Civil War. If that’s not badass, then I don’t know what is.

By Erin Lindsay McCabe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked I Shall Be Near to You as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An extraordinary novel about a strong-willed woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight beside her husband in the Civil War.

Rosetta doesn't want her new husband, Jeremiah, to enlist, but he joins up, hoping to make enough money that they'll be able to afford their own farm someday. When Jeremiah leaves, Rosetta decides her true place is by his side, no matter what that means, and follows him into war.

Rich with historical details and inspired by the many women who fought in the Civil War while disguised as men, I Shall Be Near To You…

Book cover of Sister Noon

Mary Volmer Why did I love this book?

This crazy quilt of a novel, set in San Francisco, chronicles the liberation of Lizzie, a forty-year-old spinster who is swept into the intrigues of the mysterious Mrs. Pleasant. Mrs. Pleasant, who works as a housekeeper, is rumored to be as rich as a railroad magnate, an angel of charity, a practitioner of voodoo, among other tantalizing (and some substantiated) possibilities.

As enthralled as Lizzie becomes with Mrs. Pleasant, what Lizzie discovers in this story is her own independence and authority. Several real historical figures, including Mary Ellen Pleasant, appear in the book. I love the way Fowler weaves fact with fiction, and how she places badass women at the center of the story.

By Karen Joy Fowler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sister Noon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Words were invented so lies could be told' Mary Ellen Pleasant

San Francisco in the 1890s is a town of contradictions, home to a respectable middle class, but with the Wild West lingering in the imagination, and even the behaviour, of some residents. Lizzie Hayes, a seemingly docile, middle-aged spinster, is praised for her volunteer work with the Ladies' Relief and Protection Society Home, or the Brown Ark. She doesn't know it, but she's waiting for the spark that will liberate her from convention.

When the wealthy and well-connected but ill-reputed Mary Ellen Pleasant shows up at the Brown Ark…

Book cover of Woman of Ill Fame

Mary Volmer Why did I love this book?

The forthright honesty and the audacity of Nora Simms, narrator of Erika Mailman’s Woman of Ill Fame, is stunning and nearly as compelling as the murder mystery at the center of the novel. Set in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, the novel takes us into the city’s bordellos, which, like the rest of the state, have been infected by a get rich quick at any cost ethos. The cost for many of Nora’s colleagues is high. Women of ill-fame are being killed, one by one, and only Nora is capable and willing to wade through layers of deception to discover the identity of the killer and to save her own life. 

Nora is not your typical damsel in distress and that might be why I love this book so much. She’s not a “good” woman, by society's standards, but she is one of the most surprising and endearing characters I’ve ever read.

By Erika Mailman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Woman of Ill Fame as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Looking for a better life, prostitute Nora Simms arrives in Gold Rush San Francisco with a plan for success: to strike it rich by trading on her good looks. But when a string of murders claims several of her fellow women of ill fame, Nora grows uneasy with how closely linked all of the victims are to her. She must distinguish friend from foe in a race to discover the identity of the killer.

"I LOVED Woman of Ill Fame! Nora Simms is hilarious, heartbreaking, tough, perceptive...and one of the most engaging characters I've ever met between the pages of…

Book cover of The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Mary Volmer Why did I love this book?

Lois Leveen uses a mixture of fact and well-researched speculation to bring Mary Bowser, a largely unknown Civil War hero, to the page. Free and educated in the North, Mary Bowser returned to slavery to spy on the Confederacy in the household of Jefferson Davis. This much, at least, is known about the woman. Leveen imagines Bowser’s early life, braids in national history, and leaves us breathless with wonder at the courage and audacity required to complete the assignment Bowser accepted.

I love novels that pick up where the historical record ends, especially novels that do so lovingly and with such tender respect for the real woman lost in history.

By Lois Leveen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Secrets of Mary Bowser as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based on the remarkable true story of a freed African American slave who returned to Virginia at the onset of the Civil War to spy on the Confederates.

Author Lois Leveen combines fascinating facts and ingenious speculation to craft a historical novel that will enthrall readers of women’s fiction, historical fiction, and acclaimed works like Cane River and Cold Mountain that offer intimate looks at the twin nightmares of slavery and Civil War. A powerful and unforgettable story of a woman who risked her own freedom to bring freedom to millions of others, The Secrets of Mary Bowser celebrates the…

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Book cover of The Secret Order of the Scepter & Gavel

Nicholas Ponticello Author Of The Secret Order of the Scepter & Gavel

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Vanderough University prepares its graduates for life on Mars. Herbert Hoover Palminteri enrolls at VU with the hope of joining the Martian colony in 2044 as a member of its esteemed engineer corps. But then Herbert is tapped to join a notorious secret society: the Order of the Scepter and Gavel. As a new pledge, Herbert has to prove himself in a series of dangerous initiation rites, even if it means risking his life and the lives of his friends.

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