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theGrio’s Top 50 books to read this summer: ‘Historical Fiction’

Great Black authored hIstorical fiction provides invaluable entree and insight

For African Americans, historical fiction can be tricky. This nation’s past has long been treacherous territory. So some presume the literature bourne of it must necessarily be nothing but pain. While I understand the hesitation, I’m particularly partial to historical fiction. Some of the best African American novels are creative explorations of our history. Plus Faulkner’s most famous quotation is ubiquitous for a reason: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So it must be reckoned with. Great Black authored historical fiction provides invaluable entree and insight. Excavations of the past unearth stories of joy and perseverance as well as pain.

Wild Women and the Blues by Denny Bryce

Wild Women and the Blues is a vividly written historical novel with dual timelines. In the 1920s, young Honoree, a sharecropper’s daughter, is working hard to make it as a dancer/performer within the Chicago Jazz scene, a site of exciting cultural change and dangerous vice. Many decades later, in 2015, a film student interviews a 110-year-old Honoree, now an elderly woman with a truckload of secrets, about her life.

Island Queen by Vanessa Riley

A stunning historical novel dramatizing the remarkable life and times of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, an enslaved woman born on a plantation in the Caribbean in the 18th century who purchases her own freedom and rises to be a person of influence in both business and politics. 

A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia

An original and unflinching historical novel about the corrosive plantation culture of antebellum Louisiana. When a young French aristocrat fleeing the French Revolution is manipulated into a marriage to a Louisiana planter she strongly feels is beneath her, she becomes the bitter matriarch to a cursed clan. There’s a diverse ensemble cast to the story but Williams-Garcia intentionally places the villains Sylvie Guilbert and her son Lucien at the center, subjecting their actions and their worldview to devastating scrutiny.

Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa Afria (Mystery, LGBTQ)

The first in a historical mystery series with an intriguing lead. A young queer Black woman living in Harlem at the height of the Jazz Age, Louise Lloyd is a reluctant crime solver. After a traumatic experience when she was younger, she just wants to enjoy her freedom, drinking and dancing at Speakeasy and hanging out with her girlfriend. But she can’t just be a bystander when she sees something wrong. So, one night leaving the Zodiac, that conscience, and a tussle with a corrupt cop, land her in jail. To stay out of trouble, she accepts a deal from a detective: help him catch a killer targeting Black teenage girls in Harlem, and he’ll wipe her record clean. An amateur sleuth is born.

Sisters in Arms by Kaia Alderson

Despite making indelible contributions to troop morale in World War II, the courageous, all-Black 6888 battalion of the U.S. Women’s Army Corps were long relegated to the ranks of hidden figures—  marginalized people who are overlooked and unsung in American history. In her engrossing new historical novel, author Kaia Alderson corrects this oversight. In addition to being some of the first female officers, her protagonists are also among the first Black women allowed to serve.

The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris

An acclaimed new American saga about a small Georgia community in the waning days of the civil war and in the midst of the enforcement of Emancipation. The novel centers on two brothers, recently freedmen from a local plantation who are hiding out from their obstinate former master until they can scrape together the resources to make their way north, and the eccentric white family who become their unlikely but fervent allies. It’s an emotional and humane story and a surprising page turner full of twists and turns. The period the book covers and the issues the book raises feel strikingly resonant right now.

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