I’ve read five historical fiction books so far this year, which means I’ve reached the “Victorian Reader” level of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. The three that I’ve read since my last reading challenge post are…
The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein
Yes, it’s a YA horror novel, but it also counts as historical fiction since it was published in 2002 and it’s set in the early 1970s (judging by the references to the Vietnam war, bell bottoms, and Cat Stevens).
If you start this novel expecting a sapphic Twilight, you’ll be in for a surprise. It’s more like The Bell Jar with a supernatural twist. It takes a deep-dive into the mind of an intelligent, troubled girl, and explores her obsession with a classmate whom she suspects of being a vampire.
It’s intense, thoughtful, occasionally over-intellectual, and it wholeheartedly embraces ambiguity. Is Ernessa really a vampire? Is the narrator having a nervous breakdown? Is she in love with her best friend? Every question is thoroughly explored, but never truly answered, in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a girls’ boarding school.
So Many Beginnings by Bethany C. Morrow
This “remix” of Little Women (Authors are always remixing and retelling and reimagining, and never admit that they are literally publishing fanfiction) imagines the March sisters as four newly emancipated Black girls in the colony of Roanoke, North Carolina. The civil war is raging around them, and they are determined to build lives of their own making.
Being a white girl from Britain, I’m pretty clueless about African American history, and this was an eye-opener for sure. Racism and the after-effects of slavery impact every aspect of the girls’ lives, from Bethlehem’s health to Joanna’s writing career. This makes for a very different story to Little Women, as the “burdens” the girls carry are external rather than internal.
It’s not a perfect book. The male characters are thinly drawn, and a few inevitable anachronisms creep in. But it’s full of love and rage, and a true celebration of sisterhood. Two more things I loved:
1. Joanna’s portrayal as asexual/aromantic. These words aren’t used of course, but it’s made clear in conversation with Meg and in her relationship with Lori. As an aro-ace woman I usually have to seek out representation, but to find it right there waiting for me in a character I’ve always identified with felt like a gift.
2. The last line. OMG, you’re gonna cry (happy tears).
All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison
Told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Edie, this starts out as an evocative, unsentimental picture of life in rural England in the 1930s. It’s also a comedy of manners, with city slicker Connie being entertainingly clueless about the realities of rural life.
But about halfway through it becomes something different and more unsettling. People who seemed harmless are suddenly a genuine threat. Quaint traditions like witch bottles take on a new significance.
Maybe it’s just because I read the two close together, but I couldn’t help but notice similarities with The Moth Diaries. Once again, the protagonist is a thoughtful teenage girl of ambiguous sexuality and wobbly mental health. Once again, the lines between natural and supernatural blur. And once again, antisemitism rears its ugly head.
So, quite by accident I’ve ended up reading three female-focussed coming-of-age stories. I feel like I should balance it out with some stories about old dudes. If you have any historical fiction recs where the protagonist is an elderly gent, please leave them in the comments!