The best historical novels that defy stereotypes to reveal powerful themes

Ed Protzel Author Of The Lies That Bind
By Ed Protzel

Who am I?

Being a member of two historically oppressed minority groups, Jewish and Cherokee, I like to explore themes of prejudice and injustice in all my writing, even using humor, irony, or satire to tell the tale. I love guiding the reader along on a character’s journey, the joys and pains inflicted by an often unjust world. There’s nothing more satisfying than to hear a reader say: “I learned something new.” No wonder I chose to study English literature and creative writing as my undergraduate and graduate school majors. I live in St. Louis, Missouri, and am working on my fifth novel.


I wrote...

The Lies That Bind

By Ed Protzel,

Book cover of The Lies That Bind

What is my book about?

In my novel, The Lies That Bind, the first book in my DarkHorse Trilogy, I turn the tables on antebellum South stereotypes and Southern literary tradition. The story begins when a dozen runaway slaves secretly agree to partner with a hustler to form their own enterprise, a risky subterfuge. The awkward disputes between the pretend slaves and their figurehead-master cohort, attempting to thrive within a rigged social order, produce revealing tensions, irony, humor, and drama. Their greatest threat, the town's wealthy female plantation owner and her oppressed heir, must also conceal their own dark secrets. Thus, in a society built on lies, like slavery, neither the oppressed nor the powerful can be truly free. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of To Kill a Mockingbird

Why this book?

To Kill a Mockingbird has everything I like in novel: a courtroom drama with a distinctive social significance; escalating tension with the omnipresent threat of violence; great characters; and a realistically-drawn small Southern town. In a brilliant twist, you discover Jim Crow's unjust and terrifying racism through the eyes of its loveable, unforgettable narrator, innocent young Scout, just as she experiences it, instead of an adult like her lawyer-father Atticus who has learned to live within the society as it is. I've read Ms. Lee's novel several times (plus seen its derivative film and play) because it moved me, leaving me with a deeper understanding of the milieu and injustice. 

To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee,

Why should I read it?

23 authors picked To Kill a Mockingbird as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.'

Atticus Finch gives this advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of this classic novel - a black man charged with attacking a white girl. Through the eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Lee explores the issues of race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s with compassion and humour. She also creates one of the great heroes of literature in their father, whose lone struggle for justice pricks the conscience of a town steeped…


Absalom, Absalom!

By William Faulkner,

Book cover of Absalom, Absalom!

Why this book?

This is about as powerful a novel as 20th Century America produced, and hit me like a ton of bricks. The book may be tough sledding at first—I was so enamored with Faulkner's brilliant language, I had to read Chapter One twice to understand it. But when you are finished with the novel's heavy drama and profound themes, you are satisfied. In this novel, each chapter has its own distinctive first-person narrator, each with his/her own unique, often-conflicting point of view. The book's gorgeous language thrilled me, while carving out each narrator's personality and character. The story's tension built until it exploded, leaving me with deep understanding of the human condition. I've read Absalom, Absalom! many times and always gain something fresh. 

Absalom, Absalom!

By William Faulkner,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Absalom, Absalom! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This postbellum Greek tragedy is the perfect introduction to Faulkner's elaborate descriptive syntax.

Quentin Compson and Shreve, his Harvard roommate, are obsessed with the tragic rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen. As a poor white boy, Sutpen was turned away from a plantation owner's mansion by a black butler. From then on, he was determined to force his way into the upper echelons of Southern society. His relentless will ensures his ambitions are soon realised; land, marriage, children, his own troop to fight in the Civil War... but Sutpen returns from the conflict to find his estate in ruins and…


Woe to Live On

By Daniel Woodrell,

Book cover of Woe to Live On

Why this book?

This book uses the protagonist's unique perspective to reveal dramatically what a travesty war can be, no matter how noble or ignoble one feels about the cause. This Civil War novel takes place on the savage Missouri-Kansas border (the Lawrence massacre, etc.). The background of Woodrell's main character, Jake Roedel, says he should be on the Union side of the bloody guerilla war; instead, he contributes to what today we'd call war crimes, along with his rebel irregular cohorts. But the tension inherent in Jake's singular perspective pays off, as I came to the same understandings as he did.

Woe to Live On

By Daniel Woodrell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Woe to Live On as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set in the border states of Kansas and Missouri, Woe to Live On explores the nature of lawlessness and violence, friendship and loyalty, through the eyes of young recruit Jake Roedel. Where he and his fellow First Kansas Irregulars go, no one is safe, no one can be neutral. Roedel grows up fast, experiencing a brutal parody of war without standards or mercy. But as friends fall and families flee, he questions his loyalties and becomes an outsider even to those who have become outlaws.


Book cover of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Why this book?

I’ve enjoyed Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as much as any adult-focused novel. Considered the first truly American novel because of its narrator and use of language, the adventures entertain with humor and drama, while offering insights into humanity. The novel is narrated by an uneducated 19th Century rascal who flees "sivilization" on a raft down the Mississippi River with a runaway slave. Like our narrator, we see his Black companion as a human being, not as a stereotypical slave of the period. Also, Huck's language, and the many characters' vernacular, while "improper," is creative and effective. For example, what would be a more perfect description than "fishbelly white"? I’ve read this novel many times, and it's invariably entertaining and illuminating. 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

By Mark Twain,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead,

Book cover of The Underground Railroad

Why this book?

The Underground Railroad combines historical fiction and fantasy in a tale that exposes injustice. Set in antebellum America, the novel is told from the slave’s perspective, exposing the violence and suffering inherent in this inhumane system. Regarding his use of fantasy, Colson uses a literal train network underground, rather than the historical hodgepodge system used to help runaway slaves escape to the North. He also creates a Black dormitory where residents are secretly subjected to forced sterilization and are the unknowing subjects of a study on the progression of syphilis, akin to the actual Tuskegee experiment of the 20th Century. This mix of reality and fantasy is a powerful brew that leaves you gasping. 

The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Underground Railroad as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NOW A MAJOR TV SERIES BY BARRY JENKINS (COMING MAY 2021)

WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE FOR FICTION 2017
WINNER OF THE ARTHUR C. CLARKE AWARD 2017
LONGLISTED FOR THE BOOKER PRIZE 2017
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER 2016

'Whitehead is on a roll: the reviews have been sublime' Guardian

'Luminous, furious, wildly inventive' Observer

'Hands down one of the best, if not the best, book I've read this year' Stylist

'Dazzling' New York Review of Books

Praised by Barack Obama and an Oprah Book Club Pick, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead won the National Book Award 2016 and the…


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