Jo’s Picks of the Week: Compelling Historical Fiction

In the library world, every season has a hot book, the one with a gazillion holds. This spring’s buzzy title is The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, about a family trying to survive the Dust Bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s. This topic was expertly taken on in 1939 by John Steinbeck’s epic The Grapes of Wrath. Hannah gives her own spin on the topic with a desperate mother determined to save her family by moving from a barren farm in Texas to the promised land of California.

I admit, The Grapes of Wrath is one of my all-time favorite classics, so I was dubious about the Hannah book, but The Four Winds transported me to that terrible period out West. Her research and complex characters made the book a compelling, albeit sad, read. Some readers complained that the book was too sad, but come on, reading about surviving the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression is bound to make anyone cry.

If you are on hold for The Four Winds, I highly recommend two historical fiction novels worth your time.

Vera by Carol Edgarian transports readers to another terrible time in American history – the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Edgarian did extensive research and provided details to transport the reader to that smoky city in ruin. The protagonist is a plucky teenager named Vera Johnson. Vera longs for her biological mother Rose, a notorious madam running a bordello catering to the rich and powerful. Rose arranged for Vera to be raised by a widow nearby with a young daughter, Pie. Vera, who has dark features like her mother, always feels like she doesn’t fit in with the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian family. Her adopted mother, Morie, likes to drink and gamble, and when she loses her temper, gets violent. Her sister, Pie, is sweet but naïve and doesn’t come to Vera’s defense.

When the earthquake hits, the lives of Vera, Pie, Rose, and so many other San Franciscans are upended. Edgarian writes about how the most serious effect of the earthquake was the raging fires that consumed so much of the city, and how residents survived the aftermath. She also gives an entertaining look at local politics, with a corrupt mayor trying to stay out of jail while other corrupt politicians wait for his downfall. Vera, inheriting the smarts of her mother, figures out ways to keep herself, her sister, and others alive. She is an endearing, witty character who speaks her mind and knows how to take risks to survive. And along the way, she finds the family she longs for.

Many historical novels have been written about World War II, and one of the newest, The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles, is an engrossing look at what it was like to live in Paris during the Nazi occupation. The story goes back and forth from 1983 Montana to 1939 France. Lily, a lonely teenager living in a small Montana town, wonders about her elderly, mysterious neighbor who is known as the War Bride. Slowly she and the readers get to know Odile Souchet, and why she moved from Paris just after the war ended. And Lily gains a valuable friend and ally.

The young Odile lands her dream job of working at the American Library in Paris, where she can use her skills as a librarian and her English fluency. When the Nazis take over and enforce their barbaric rules, Odile and her library comrades resist. Books that must be destroyed are hidden away. When Jews are no longer allowed in the library, the staff smuggles books to their patrons. Despite their efforts, Odile sees how Parisians are so willing to turn on each other to gain favor with the Nazis. People who are your friends, family, neighbors, suddenly can become enemies and break your heart.

Skeslien Charles worked at the American Library and learned about how the staff resisted the Nazis during the war, which inspired her book. The library scenes ring true and will appeal to bibliophiles who love libraries. The Paris Library is a terrific novel that carries readers to a world of great hardship and courage, when the City of Light was at its darkest.

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