The best British and American historical fiction covering the 1850s to the 1960s

Robert J. Begiebing Author Of The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
By Robert J. Begiebing

Who am I?

I’m the author of ten books, including fiction, memoir, collected journalism, and criticism. My novels are historical fiction, hence my decision to make my recommendations within that genre, mostly. My own historical novels comprise a tetralogy beginning with The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin and ending with The Turner Erotica, so the series takes the reader roughly from 1648 to 1900. The second book chronologically in the series, Rebecca Wentworth’s Distraction, won the 2003 Langum Prize for historical fiction. Retired now, I was the founding director of the MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction at Southern New Hampshire University.

I wrote...

The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin

By Robert J. Begiebing,

Book cover of The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin

What is my book about?

The first novel of an historical tetralogy, Mistress Coffin is based on the unsolved, brutal murder of a strong woman in 17th century New England. The novel follows actual court records from 1640s New Hampshire Province (then under Massachusetts rule) where the case was tried and dropped by the woman’s husband for mysterious reasons. The settlement’s elders call on Richard Browne, a young Englishman, to discover what happened. But the more he learns, the more puzzling the crime becomes, and the more Browne finds himself attracted to the wife of the missing suspect.

The books I picked & why

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By Pat Barker,

Book cover of Regeneration

Why this book?

This novel opens Barker’s extraordinary trilogy about World War I, based on accounts given by the soldiers themselves. Barker’s research gives the opening novel a wonderful authenticity and a look into the biographies of soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon and eminent psychiatrist W. H. Rivers. Sassoon’s protest against the excesses and horrors of war that he witnessed land him in Craiglockart War Hospital as a shell-shocked patient of Dr. Rivers, who becomes more and more conflicted about sending such shell-shocked men back onto the battlefield after his “cures.” I found the novel to be a tale of fascinating history and psychological depth. The final book in Barker’s war trilogy (The Ghost Road), incidentally, earned Barker the Booker Prize for fiction. But for full context I recommend you start where she did, with Sassoon.

The French Lieutenant's Woman

By John Fowles,

Book cover of The French Lieutenant's Woman

Why this book?

Fowles studied French Literature and knew the metafictional and postmodern French fashions before they leaked out to much of the rest of the world in the sixties and seventies. In this novel he uses, even parodies, some of the techniques of the French genre, but the wonderful thing is that reading the novel is not an experience of mere authorial cleverness, fashionableness, or hubristic/ hermetic disconnections from reality and the serious ethical concerns of those who have to function in the real world. You put the book down and know you’ve had a meaningful experience

The novel’s protagonist, Charles, is a man of Victorian England, a scientific person who struggles with his inner tension to fit into his repressive public culture of autocratic conventions, rigidity, moral blindness, and hypocrisy, on one hand, and to live a life of freedom, on the other. Sarah, the female protagonist, eventually challenges him to cast aside all the baggage of Victorianism, even though one risks social ostracism. To my mind this is Fowles’ greatest novel, which was made into a good movie well worth watching after reading the book. 

Cold Mountain

By Charles Frazier,

Book cover of Cold Mountain

Why this book?

Frazier’s book, a serious novel rather than a potboiler, set during and after the American Civil War, nevertheless leaped onto the bestseller lists, then went on to win a National Book Award. Why? Reading the book is a profound experience. You are seamlessly taken back to the middle of the 19th century and engaged with characters whose poignant stories penetrate a reader’s heart. It’s both an adventure and a love story about a soldier on a fraught journey home and his lover’s story as she lives her own life close to the earth in a time before modern conveniences and distractions. The novel is a reminder that great fiction awakens our humanity because the author not only has great gifts and technique, but because he believes in the integrity of his own characters and embeds them in a world that matters. Made into an Oscar-winning film that is well worth watching after reading the book.

Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam

By Lynda Van Devanter,

Book cover of Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam

Why this book?

I’m going to jump historical genres slightly and recommend Lynda Van Devanter’s Vietnam memoir which reads like historical fiction and is every bit as engaging as the great novels and memoirs of the Vietnam War written by such men as Robert Stone, Larry Heinemann, Michael Herr, Tim O’Brien, Philip Caputo, and Karl Marlantes. As an Army nurse, Devanter gave it her all to save others. This book is her effort to learn to live with what she witnessed in Vietnam, to get the truth down as honestly as she can by using all the narrative techniques of the novelist. Of the great books written about that horrific time in our country’s (and Vietnam’s) history, this one grabbed me from start to finish like no other. A powerful voice is telling us what we too readily forget now—that war is a criminal activity, no matter how justified or how much the product of a bright and shining lie. She stayed active in the cause of Vietnam Veterans after her return home, but she was not well, and her war-caused cancer finally killed her in 2002 at age fifty-five.

Soul Catcher

By Michael C. White,

Book cover of Soul Catcher

Why this book?

This historical novel is set just before the American Civil War. What singles it out is not the theme—the struggle of an African American slave and mother, Rosetta, for her freedom. More unusual is White’s courageous depiction of the full yet flawed humanity of her slave (“soul”) catcher, Augustus Cain, as Rosetta flees her inhumane conditions in Virginia enroute to Boston. Cain is one of the best at what he does, but the journey both characters endure also brings both toward mutual compassion and redemption. Though published in 2007, the book fits perfectly into, and helps to amplify further, our current awakening to our historical racism and the vast suffering white Americans have inflicted on their Black brothers and sisters. 

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