The best time travel novels that transport you to another time and place

Ken Yoder Reed Author Of Both My Sons
By Ken Yoder Reed

The Books I Picked & Why

War and Peace

By Leo Tolstoy, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky

Book cover of War and Peace

Why this book?

The 6 ½ hour Russian version of War and Peace came to town when I was working as an English teacher in Hokkaido, Japan. I watched the whole thing in Russian with Japanese subscripts translated to me by my friend, Mr. Genzu. What an incredible story! 

The book itself, which I first read in college, chronicles Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1805 and tells the stories of five Russian aristocratic families, with its primary hero, Pierre, an alter-ego for Tolstoy himself. Tolstoy brought a new kind of consciousness to the novel. His story has both a God’s eye point of view with individual character points of view, in sharp detail, woven throughout. Critics have compared Tolstoy’s style to the movies, because of his use of panning, wide shots and close-ups. He worked with primary sources—interviews and journals and his own Crimean War experience—to recreate the battle for Moscow which took place sixty years before Tolstoy wrote and published his novel in 1863. Pierre Bezhukov is seeking truth and his self-discoveries during the outrage of Napoleon’s invasion show us why this novel may be the greatest novel ever written.

I love this book because I so deeply admire Tolstoi’s ability to weave together sweeping history and relational drama.  Because I believe each of us is part of both sweeping history and lots of small interpersonal drama.


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Silence

By Shusaku Endo, William Johnston

Book cover of Silence

Why this book?

Japan’s Tokugawa Era was created by the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, in 1603. Ieyasu withdrew Japan from international trade and relations and created a closed, feudal society.  For 250 years, the Japanese conducted international trade only with the Dutch and Chinese, and even then only in specially designated trading ports such as the manmade island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbor. Ieyasu also brutally suppressed Christianity and expelled European missionaries. 

Silence tells the story of a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Sebastiao Rodrigues, who is sent by the Catholic Church to Japan in 1639 to investigate reports that his mentor, a Jesuit priest in Japan named Ferreira, has committed apostasy and renounced the Christian faith. About half of the book is Rodriguez's written journal. Rodrigues and his companion Garrpe arrive in Japan to find the local Christian population has been driven underground. To ferret out these hidden Christians, government officials force suspected Christians to trample on a fumi-e, or carved image of Christ. They imprison those who refuse and kill them by ana-tsurushi, hanging them upside down in a dark pit and slowly bleeding them to death.

Rodrigues and Garrpe are eventually captured. The government's strategy was to torture Christian laypeople and force their priests to look on, telling them they must renounce their faith in order to end the suffering of their parishioners. Rodrigues’ journal tells his struggle. Suffering for one’s own faith—yes. But is it self-centered and unmerciful to refuse to recant if it will end another’s suffering? At the climactic moment, Rodrigues hears the moans of those who have recanted but still hang in the pit until he tramples on the image of Christ. The voice of Christ breaks the silence and tells him to trample on His face.

I ask myself: what would I do in this situation? Would I trample the face? And I conclude that I would.


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A Tale of Two Cities

By Charles Dickens

Book cover of A Tale of Two Cities

Why this book?

Although A Tale of Two Cities is Dicken’s most famous and perhaps most popular work (200 million copies sold), it is probably the least typical of his stories, which are usually about London society. He wrote the book in 1859 and followed it two years later with Great Expectations. Dickens is considered the best-known novelist of England’s Victorian Period.

A Tale of Two Cities is set against the turmoil and chaos of the French Revolution (1789 – 1799). The complex story of the Revolution filters through family history and a cast of characters that includes the truly evil Madame DeFarge, who encodes the names of the Revolution’s enemies into her knitting, and the one-time villain, now Christ-figure, Sydney Carton, who conspires to save his condemned friend, Charles Darnay, from the guillotine by breaking into Charles’ prison cell and swapping places with him.

Dickens hits some of his favorite themes—imprisonment, injustice, social anarchy, and self-renunciation which fosters renewal. The book includes the famous opening—"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." This book teaches me the nature of revolution. Every revolution promises high and idealistic change and ends up ‘eating its own.'


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Hawaii

By James A. Michener

Book cover of Hawaii

Why this book?

Michener published Hawaii in 1959, the same year that Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state. Michener traces Hawaii’s epic history in a set of episodes that begins with the physical birth of the islands as volcanos. From there, in succession, the story follows the Polynesian seafarers who made the perilous 1,300-mile journey in canoes, then the arrival of American missionaries in the 19th Century. Further episodes include the arrival of the Chinese and then the Japanese and in the final chapter, "The Golden Men," we see how intermarriage of all of these ethnicities produces the modern ‘golden Hawaiian.'

In 1966, parts of the book were made into the film, Hawaii, starring Max von Sydow as the American missionary, Abner Hale, and Julie Andrews as his wife. The film covers the book’s third chapter, the settlement in the island kingdom by its first American missionaries and their crusade against Hawaiian animistic culture and American merchant shipment.

It’s a ripping good story! I love this book because the clash between cultures-- especially Christian teachings and a pagan culture—fascinates me.


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Beloved

By Toni Morrison

Book cover of Beloved

Why this book?

Beloved is set against the backdrop of mid-19th Century America, the division between the ‘free states’ and ‘slave states’ and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which permitted slaveholders to recover their runaway slaves, even if they had escaped to the free states.

Morrison published her most celebrated novel, Beloved, in 1987. Her heroine, Sethe, was an enslaved African-American woman who escaped slavery but was pursued by slave hunters. Facing a return to slavery, Sethe kills her two-year-old daughter but is captured before she can kill herself. Sethe has endured the unthinkable but has not gone mad. She is held captive by memories of Sweet Home, her childhood home. Meanwhile, Sethe’s house has long been troubled by the angry destructive ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. And then a mysterious teenage girl arrives, calling herself ‘Beloved’.

Beloved won Morrison the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was a key to her Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In 1998, Beloved was adapted for the big screen, with Oprah Winfrey starring as the main character, Sethe.

I love this book because I believe the fringe cultures and people in our society—the African-Americans, the Mennonites, and Amish—show the heartbeat of life more clearly than the daily headlines.


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