The best nonfiction books about overlooked historical figures

Shelley Puhak Author Of The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World
By Shelley Puhak

Who am I?

As a child, I was drawn to the silences in family stories and as a young adult, the gaps in official records. Now I’m a former English professor turned full-time writer who is fascinated with who gets written out of history, and why. I love exploring overlooked lives, especially women’s lives—from Stalin’s female relatives to nineteenth-century shopgirls, and most recently, a pair of early medieval queens.


I wrote...

The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World

By Shelley Puhak,

Book cover of The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World

What is my book about?

The remarkable, little-known story of two trailblazing women in the Early Middle Ages who wielded immense power, only to be vilified for daring to rule. Brunhild was a foreign princess, raised to be married off. Her sister-in-law Fredegund started out as a lowly palace slave. And yet-in sixth-century Merovingian France, where women were excluded from noble succession these two iron-willed strategists reigned over vast realms. Yet after the queens' deaths—one gentle, the other horrific—their stories were rewritten.

The Dark Queens sets the record straight, resurrecting two very real women in all their complexity, painting a richly detailed portrait of an unfamiliar time and striking at the roots of some of our culture's stubbornest myths about female power. The Dark Queens offers proof that the relationships between women can transform the world.

The books I picked & why

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The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

By Hallie Rubenhold,

Book cover of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

Why this book?

I love books that teach me something new about something I had always assumed to be true, like the “fact” that Jack the Ripper preyed on prostitutes. Rubenhold turns this narrative on its head to give Ripper’s canonical victims “that which was so brutally taken away with their lives: their dignity.” These exhaustively researched biographies show how sickness, trauma, and addiction intersected with the indifference of employers, husbands, and public officials to force each woman out onto the streets of Whitechapel. The Five is not just an impassioned indictment of middle-class Victorian society, but of any society that decides working-class women don’t matter.


The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million

By Daniel Mendelsohn,

Book cover of The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million

Why this book?

If you’ve ever found yourself obsessed with a family mystery, you’ll be captivated by The Lost. Mendelsohn had always wondered what happened to his great-uncle and aunt, and their four daughters, during the Holocaust. His search starts with ordinary genealogical curiosity but quickly spirals into an epic quest. I admire Mendelsohn’s elegant, lyrical prose and was swept up in his ruminations on what we owe the past. His discoveries are heartbreaking but they also spark hope—by rescuing one ordinary family from oblivion.


Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

By Pamela D. Toler,

Book cover of Women Warriors: An Unexpected History

Why this book?

In Women Warriors, the footnotes are every bit as informative and bitingly funny as the text itself. Toler travels across many cultures and eras, from ancient times up until the 20th century, to show that, like it or not, “women have always gone to war.” She covers some women you’ve likely heard of before—like Boudica, Hua Mulan, and Joan of Arc—as well as many others you probably haven’t—like Tomyris, Artemisia II, and Lakshmi Bai. These mini-biographies, taken together, provide an eye-opening and unforgettable corrective about women and warfare.


Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts

By Rebecca Hall, Hugo Martínez (illustrator),

Book cover of Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts

Why this book?

I don’t often read graphic novels, but I found myself entranced by this one about a particular sort of women warrior. Wake recounts Dr. Hall’s search for the enslaved women who rebelled during the Middle Passage and in colonial America. Dr. Hall writes, “if you believe something doesn’t exist, you don’t go looking for it. Worse, if you stumble upon it, you still can’t see it.” By approaching old material with fresh eyes, Hall is able to uncover and reimagine these women’s stories, showing how the past haunts us whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. I was moved by Hall’s insights and by the resolution of the women she portrays.


The Perfect Prince: The Mystery of Perkin Warbeck and His Quest for the Throne of England

By Ann Wroe,

Book cover of The Perfect Prince: The Mystery of Perkin Warbeck and His Quest for the Throne of England

Why this book?

I love gorgeous sentences alongside a good mystery, and Wroe expertly crafts both. A decade after the Princes in the Tower were presumed murdered, a charismatic young man appeared, claiming to be the younger of the two princes—Richard, Duke of York. His enemies, though, said he was a boatman’s son named Perkin Warbeck. So who was he really? Wroe’s meditation on appearance and identity has even more resonance in the Instagram-era than it did when it was first published. What does it mean to “look the part”? And what matters most—who we think we are, or who others think we might be? 


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