The best portrayals of real people in historical fiction

Pamela Redford Russell Author Of The Woman Who Loved John Wilkes Booth: The Diary of Mary Surratt
By Pamela Redford Russell

Who am I?

I love to read and write historical fiction—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling the past—revealing the thoughts and emotions of characters real and imagined through psychological insights. My mentor Fawn Brodie wrote non-fiction, specifically psychobiography. Her Thomas Jefferson: an Intimate History introduced the world to the enslaved Sally Hemings. The seeds of my first novel The Woman Who Loved John Wilkes Booth were sown in Fawn Brodie’s UCLA lecture hall. I can only imagine what her historical fiction might’ve been. Now I wait for novels from historians Imani Perry South to America and Isabel Wilkerson Caste. Meantime there are so many wonderful novelists writing history. 


I wrote...

The Woman Who Loved John Wilkes Booth: The Diary of Mary Surratt

By Pamela Redford Russell,

Book cover of The Woman Who Loved John Wilkes Booth: The Diary of Mary Surratt

What is my book about?

Through the use of a fictitious but vividly imagined diary, Pamela Redford Russell goes beyond historical drama to create a novel of emotional depth and psychological penetration… the fascinating and little-known story of Mary Surratt, the only woman to be hanged for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and its subsequent effect on her daughter Annie.

“A gripping novel of stunning emotional impact rooted in those dark days of hysteria and shock that swept the nation when Lincoln was assassinated… a spellbinding tale of high drama and penetrating psychological insight.” G. P. Putnam’s Sons Spring 1978 Catalogue of New Books

The books I picked & why

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The Winds Of War

By Herman Wouk,

Book cover of The Winds Of War

Why this book?

Herman Wouk’s The Winds Of War was published more than half a century ago. That makes it an old book. Not a bad thing, but old books do need to be read with a sensitivity to the times in which they were written. Winds holds up well. The story of the Henry family on the eve of WWII is stunning. A long book by today’s standards but so worth reading. Herman Wouk’s early training in radio can be heard in the attention-grabbing passages of domestic drama—soap opera at its engrossing best. But it’s Wouk’s grasp of history and historical figures that has landed this book on my list. Hitler.  Mussolini. Churchill. And best of all, FDR.

“Behind the warm jolly aristocratic surface, there loomed a grim ill-defined personality of distant visions and hard purpose…” One astonishing sentence on page 655. It doesn’t get any better! 

The Winds Of War

By Herman Wouk,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Winds Of War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Herman Wouk's sweeping epic of World War II, which begins with THE WINDS OF WAR and continues in WAR AND REMEMBRANCE, stands as the crowning achievement of one of America's most celebrated storytellers.

Like no other books about the war, Wouk's spellbinding narrative captures the tide of global events - the drama, the romance, the heroism and the tragedy of World War II - as it immerses us in the lives of a single American family drawn into the very centre of the maelstrom.

"First-rate storytelling." - New York Times

"Compelling . . . A panoramic, engrossing story." - Atlantic…


March

By Geraldine Brooks,

Book cover of March

Why this book?

When recommending Geraldine Brooks’ multi-layered and intricately crafted March, another book must always be mentioned. Louisa May Alcott’s Little WomenMarch is the Pulitzer Prize-winning historical fiction rooted in Alcott’s classic novel that’s been read and loved for centuries. The March of the title is Jo March’s father in Little Women. In real life, his name was Amos Bronson Alcott. And he was the father of Louisa May Alcott. Brooks tells March’s fictitious story masterfully and with great historical acumen. Her depictions of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson are truly historic. Geraldine Brooks is not a historian. Her husband Tony Horwitz was. In Brooks’ case it seems that to fall in love with a historian is to fall in love with history as well. March is the beautiful proof.

March

By Geraldine Brooks,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked March as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the author of the acclaimed YEAR OF WONDERS, a historical novel and love story set during a time of catastrophe, on the front lines of the American Civil War. Set during the American Civil War, MARCH tells the story of John March, known to us as the father away from his family of girls in LITTLE WOMEN, Louisa May Alcott's classic American novel. In Brooks' telling, March emerges as an abolitionist and idealistic chaplain on the front lines of a war that tests his faith in himself and in the Union cause when he learns that his side, too,…


The Alienist

By Caleb Carr,

Book cover of The Alienist

Why this book?

Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist is the work of a military historian. Carr tells the story of how neither his agent nor his publisher wanted him to write historical fiction. So he submitted The Alienist as a true crime story based on an early serial killer. Finally he had to admit he’d made up criminal psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, the alienist, the killer, and most of the other captivating characters in his chilling, savage, and convincing novel. The way historian/novelist Carr describes the glamorous and gritty world of 1896 New York City, J.P. Morgan, and especially Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt makes The Alienist terrifyingly real.

The Alienist

By Caleb Carr,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Alienist as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The internationally bestselling historical thriller, now a major Netflix series starring Luke Evans, Dakota Fanning and Daniel Bruhl.

Some things never change.

New York City, 1896. Hypocrisy in high places is rife, police corruption commonplace, and a brutal killer is terrorising young male prostitutes.

Unfortunately for Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, the psychological profiling of murderers is a practice still in its infancy, struggling to make headway against the prejudices of those who prefer the mentally ill - and the 'alienists' who treat them - to be out of sight as well as out of mind.

But as the body count…


Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel,

Book cover of Wolf Hall

Why this book?

Hilary Mantel was not a historian. She was not a psychologist. She was an insightful and imaginative novelist who wrote in searing psychobiographical style. With Wolf Hall Mantel gave us an understanding of and sympathy for one of history’s most misunderstood and maligned men – Thomas Cromwell – and in the process she transformed historical fiction. When asked if she believed in an afterlife, Mantel answered. “Yes. I can’t imagine how it might work. However, the universe is not limited by what I can imagine.” And yet, I always believed Hilary Mantel’s imagination was limitless. Read Wolf Hall. I think you’ll agree.

Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel,

Why should I read it?

16 authors picked Wolf Hall as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Man Booker Prize Shortlisted for the the Orange Prize Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award

`Dizzyingly, dazzlingly good' Daily Mail

'Our most brilliant English writer' Guardian

England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey's clerk, and later his successor.

Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with…


Booth

By Karen Joy Fowler,

Book cover of Booth

Why this book?

It could be that Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth should have been called The Booths. I had the opportunity to ask her about it. She said that the working title had always been Booth. She thought it would ultimately be changed by her publisher, but it was considered strong and remained Booth. Presidential assassins are difficult characters to write about – not uninteresting – even mesmerizing – but at the bottom unlikeable. I experienced this writing about Mary Surratt in my own book. I used a fictitious diary to give readers something not to hate about the only female Lincoln assassination co-conspirator.

In Booth Karen Joy Fowler gave readers John Wilkes Booth’s family to sympathize with and it works because of her skillful portrayal of a real family devastated by one of its member’s heinous acts. Their story was harrowing. Sad. And all too sadly relatable. Yes, maybe Booth should have been The Booths. It’s still a remarkable piece of historical fiction.

Booth

By Karen Joy Fowler,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Best Book of the Year
Real Simple • AARP • USA Today • NPR • Virginia Living

Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize

From the Man Booker finalist and bestselling author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves comes an epic and intimate novel about the family behind one of the most infamous figures in American history: John Wilkes Booth.

In 1822, a secret family moves into a secret cabin some thirty miles northeast of Baltimore, to farm, to hide, and to bear ten children over the course of the next sixteen years. Junius Booth—breadwinner, celebrated Shakespearean actor, and master…


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