The best historical novels that defy stereotypes to reveal powerful themes

Why am I passionate about this?

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

Ed Protzel Why did I love 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. 

By Harper Lee,

Why should I read it?

33 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…

Book cover of Absalom, Absalom!

Ed Protzel Why did I love 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. 

By William Faulkner,

Why should I read it?

4 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…

Book cover of Woe to Live On

Ed Protzel Why did I love 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.

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

Ed Protzel Why did I love 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. 

Book cover of The Underground Railroad

Ed Protzel Why did I love 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. 

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?



'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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Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…

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