The best historical fiction books in which the location/place are primary characters – there will be trees & water

Jane Galer Author Of The Navigator's Wife
By Jane Galer

Who am I?

I’m a poet more than anything else, and perhaps that is why I'm drawn to books with well-developed landscape and subterranean lines of thought more than plot or human characters. The natural world and the magical universe are intertwined in my writing as a way to convey the importance of our place, or responsibility in the world. I'm always aware of how much work an author has done to know his landscape. When I lived overseas in Iran, I spent the hot summer days reading through my mother’s library. She had been an English teacher and so I had available all of the classics which I read–often at an earlier age than I should have.


I wrote...

The Navigator's Wife

By Jane Galer,

Book cover of The Navigator's Wife

What is my book about?

In 1810, the Russian fur trade expedition ship Sv. Nikolai wrecked off the Northwest Olympic Peninsula coast en route from Sitka, Alaska to California. On board with the crew and officers were several indigenous natives of Hawaii and Alaska, and the wife of the incompetent captain, Anna Petrovna. This story is the telling of the tale from a woman’s point of view. The skeletal facts available to us from historical records provide an intriguing and exciting canvas from which to imagine what became of Anna Petrovna, and why.

The books I picked & why

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This Is Happiness

By Niall Williams,

Book cover of This Is Happiness

Why this book?

By far the best book I have read in a decade, Williams’ gifts as a writer are many but this book stands out for the pitch-perfect ‘ear’ he has for the Irish dialect. The story is a simple tale of love set against the history of electricity coming to rural Ireland, and two men who help each other find their path to love. The characters are immaculately drawn and find their footing within the details of the insular countryside of early 20th c. Ireland. We experience cycling the country roads, visiting the rural pubs, and following the seasons of the vivid river that drives and divides the land. Love and how to follow through with the heart are the point of this amazing gift of a book, but settle in with it and hear the voices, experience the country, and you will truly escape to another time and place. Surprisingly, I would also say that this book is going to be a compelling read for men. Don’t shy away from a love story. 

This Is Happiness

By Niall Williams,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked This Is Happiness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shortlisted for Best Novel in the Irish Book Awards Longlisted for the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction From the acclaimed author of Man Booker-longlisted History of the Rain 'Lyrical, tender and sumptuously perceptive' Sunday Times 'A love letter to the sleepy, unhurried and delightfully odd Ireland that is all but gone' Irish Independent After dropping out of the seminary, seventeen-year-old Noel Crowe finds himself back in Faha, a small Irish parish where nothing ever changes, including the ever-falling rain. But one morning the rain stops and news reaches the parish - the electricity is finally arriving. With it…


The Bass Rock: A Novel

By Evie Wyld,

Book cover of The Bass Rock: A Novel

Why this book?

Evie Wyld writes atmospheric and eerie stories that always have an edge, a threat of danger about them, and this wonderful book is almost gothic in its atmosphere of place. The rock itself actually exists, I’m not sure if the house in question does, but the rock and the house and the remote Scottish location bind us into a feeling of constant danger like no single character ever could. The story unfolds in a series of tales told across time periods, back and forth (a tricky format to pull off, but Wyld does it brilliantly). The central character is the great old house, in some disrepair,  and how it has been occupied over time by women who have been, to one degree or another imprisoned by their circumstances. I don’t want to spoil the story, but I guarantee that from the first few pages you will be drawn into the sense of being bound and held and in danger. This is a tale of misogyny, of women in danger, of isolation by social divisions, and by the difficulties of finding oneself isolated by a remote landscape. 

The Bass Rock: A Novel

By Evie Wyld,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'A modern gothic triumph' Max Porter

The Bass Rock has for centuries watched over the lives that pass under its shadow on the Scottish mainland. And across the centuries the fates of three women are linked: to this place, to each other.

In the early 1700s, Sarah, accused of being a witch, flees for her life.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Ruth navigates a new house, a new husband and the strange waters of the local community.

Six decades later, the house stands empty. Viv, mourning the death of her father, catalogues Ruth's belongings and discovers her…


The Winter Soldier

By Daniel Mason,

Book cover of The Winter Soldier

Why this book?

This harrowing description of WWI French army medical teams fighting to save lives in a remote landscape, cut off by winter conditions, threatened with enemy actions and meager supplies is, believe it or not, a love story. Describing the life of a young volunteer doctor from a well-to-do family in Paris who chooses to volunteer for this remote and hazardous post rather than find a safe job (his mother’s preference), the cold, the slogging forest denuded of summer green, the horrible injuries, madness, and futility the Hero of the story encounters will make you reach for a hot cup of tea and a blanket, and then keep reading. Mason is a fine writer, and this book has been compared to similar love stories (Cold Mountain, which I also loved), but the book is its own and the scholarly research of the military and medical landscape is impressive on its own merits. Mason has a deft touch with the love story as well, incongruous and satisfying. Put the kettle on.

The Winter Soldier

By Daniel Mason,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Winter Soldier as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The epic story of war and medicine from the award-winning author of The Piano Tuner is "a dream of a novel...part mystery, part war story, part romance" (Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See). 

Vienna, 1914. Lucius is a twenty-two-year-old medical student when World War I explodes across Europe. Enraptured by romantic tales of battlefield surgery, he enlists, expecting a position at a well-organized field hospital. But when he arrives, at a commandeered church tucked away high in a remote valley of the Carpathian Mountains, he finds a freezing outpost ravaged by typhus. The other doctors have…


The Illness Lesson: A Novel

By Clare Beams,

Book cover of The Illness Lesson: A Novel

Why this book?

Set in the 19th century New England social landscape of transcendentalist educational trends, this is an important book about women, misogyny, education, and ‘western’ medicine. The landscape here is a farmhouse outside a New England village where the patriarch social philosopher and teacher has started a school for girls following the death of his wife. His grown daughter is his helper, and you see where I’m going with this…also his prisoner. She is vulnerable by her sensitive nature and by her lack of worldly education. When other girls come to board at the new school and other teachers, men, arrive to practice the educational theories they have developed in a fervor of advancing just how women’s education should evolve, the young women respond variously to these new influences. The remote landscape, again, keeps them from freedoms that might improve their awareness. There are also magical trees, birds, and a touch of gothic mystery that seems so bound to that time period. This is not Little Women, and can be uncomfortable reading at times, but the book is supremely important in its message, its unpredictable sense of balance, of magic, and vulnerability make every page a reason to make women’s rights your most important social agenda.

The Illness Lesson: A Novel

By Clare Beams,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'A modern scream of female outrage. A masterpiece' ELIZABETH GILBERT

'Astoundingly original . . . belongs on the shelf with your Margaret Atwood' NEW YORK TIMES

Haunting, intense and irresistible, The Illness Lesson is an extraordinary debut about women's minds and bodies, and the time-honoured tradition of doubting both.

In 1871, at an elite new school designed to shape the minds of young women, the inscrutable and defiant Eliza Bell has been overwhelmed by an inexplicable illness.

Before long, the other girls start to succumb to its peculiar symptoms - rashes, tics,
night wanderings and fits.

As the disease takes…


The Summer Book

By Tove Jansson, Thomas Teal (translator),

Book cover of The Summer Book

Why this book?

This little book is a gem that I just read for the first time recently. It’s the kind of book I would read with a pencil nearby for there are gems here, of descriptive prowess and of wisdom. It is the story of a grandmother and her young granddaughter alone on a remote Finnish island spending the summer at their little cottage as they always do. The days are long, sleepy, and lush with swims in the sea, berry collecting, and conversations between an inquisitive seven-year-old and her grandmother. The grandmother has a way of guiding the child in and out of life’s daily progress that is soft and wry. But odd and intrusive things happen as well. The landscape begins to change. The rocky island has boundaries, the sea makes itself known. You could read this book to a seven-year-old, or read it to yourself, and when you are finished, I think you will set it in a special place and read it again from time to time. 

The Summer Book

By Tove Jansson, Thomas Teal (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Summer Book as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Summer Book Tove Jansson distills the essence of the summer—its sunlight and storms—into twenty-two crystalline vignettes. This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia’s grandmother, nearing the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. The grandmother is unsentimental and wise, if a little cranky; Sophia is impetuous and volatile, but she tends to her grandmother with the care of a new parent. Together they amble over coastline and forest in easy companionship, build boats from bark, create a miniature…


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