Kimber here. Mom is busy rustling up some Independence Day eats. I’m not too sure about the potato salad and corn on the cob thing. But I’m all over the grilled burgers! Yeah, Lassie!
Well. The subject of “best U.S. historical fiction” came up the other night. We were watching videos of last year’s fireworks or somethin’. You know. The stupid Big Boom things. (Why do humans do this every Independence Day? I don’t get it.)
I was all ears. (For the book list. Not the Big Boom things. Mom got me a Thunder Shirt for that.)
Anyway, just in time for Independence day, Mom and I put together a list of the best historical fiction reads set in the U.S. Mom says we aren’t even going to try to cover books by decade, social movement, issue, or what not. That’d take us like, till the cat comes home. Gag me with Meow Mix!
This is our not-PC, totally unscientific, 100 % subjective list of great historic-ish reads for a great American holiday! To make the cut, titles have to be good stories. Well-written. Based on or interweaving actual events, people, or epochs from U.S. history. (Not sure what that means. But it sounds delish!)
Ready? Set? Let’s Go!
Best historical fiction novels set in the United States from pre-colonial times to recent times. And yep. We’ve actually read all of these. So. In no particular order:
1.Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes
A riveting novel about the defining events leading up to the American Revolutionary War.
Fourteen-year-old Johnny Tremain, an apprentice silversmith with a bright future ahead of him, injures his hand in a tragic accident. This forces him to look for other work. Johnny is soon involved in the pivotal events shaping the American Revolution from the Boston Tea Party to the first shots fired at Lexington. Powerful illustrations by American artist Michael McCurdy bring to life Esther Forbes’s quintessential novel of the American Revolution. A Newbery Award winner.
- Woods Runner, by Gary Paulsen
Samuel, 13, spends his days in the forest, hunting for food for his family. He has grown up on the frontier of a British colony, America. Far from any town, or news of the war against the King that American patriots have begun near Boston.
But the war comes to them. British soldiers and Iroquois attack. Samuel’s parents are taken away, prisoners. Samuel follows, hiding, moving silently, determined to find a way to rescue them. Each day he confronts the enemy, and the tragedy and horror of this war. But he also discovers allies, men and women working secretly for the patriot cause. And he learns that he must go deep into enemy territory to find his parents: all the way to the British headquarters, New York City.
- The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic tale examines the concepts of sin, guilt, and pride.
- To Try Men’s Souls, by Newt Gingrich
This story follows three men with three very different roles to play in history: General George Washington, Thomas Paine, and Jonathan Van Dorn, a private in Washington’s army.
The action focuses on one of the most iconic events in American history: Washington crossing the Delaware. Unlike the bold, courageous General in Emanuel Leutze’s painting, Washington is full of doubt on the night of December 25, 1776. After five months of defeat, morale is dangerously low. And then…
- The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth Speare George
It’s 1687. Sixteen-year-old Kit Tyler is marked by suspicion and disapproval from the moment she arrives on the unfamiliar shores of colonial Connecticut. Alone and desperate, she’s been forced to leave her beloved home on the island of Barbados and join a family she has never met. But Kit’s friendship with Hannah Tupper, believed by the colonists to be a witch, proves more taboo than she could have imagined. It ultimately forces Kit to choose between her heart and her duty.
- The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara
In the four bloodiest and most courageous days of our nation’s history, two armies came to death grips on the fields of a little town in Pennsylvania. The Killer Angels is unique, sweeping, unforgettable—a dramatic re-creation of the battleground for America’s destiny.
- The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
Set during the Civil War, the story is about a young private of the Union Army, Henry Fleming, who flees from the field of battle. Overcome with shame, he longs for a wound, a “red badge of courage,” to counteract his cowardice. When his regiment once again faces the enemy, Henry acts as standard-bearer.
- Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
A superb piece of storytelling, GWTW explores the depths of human passions with an intensity as bold as its setting in the bluff red hills of Georgia, from the Civil War through Reconstruction.
- The Long Black Schooner: The Voyage of the Amistad, by Emma Gelders Stern
A fictional account of the 1839 revolt of Africans, led by Cinque, against their Spanish captors aboard the slave ship Amistad, and their subsequent arrival in the United States, where they were tried for piracy.
- Sarah Bishop: Left alone after the deaths of her father and brother, who take opposite sides in the War for Independence, Sarah Bishop flees from the British who seek to arrest her and struggles to shape a new life for herself in the wilderness.
- The Island of the Blue Dolphins: Newbery Medal winner Island of the Blue Dolphins is considered one of the greatest children’s books ever written. This story of survival is as haunting and beautiful today as it was when it first appeared in print.
- Streams to the River, River to the Sea: A young Native American woman, accompanied by her infant and her cruel husband, experiences joy and heartbreak when she joins the Lewis and Clark expedition seeking a way to the Pacific.
- Thunder Rolling in the Mountains: A powerful account of the tragic defeat of the Nez Perce in 1877 by the United States Army. Narrated by Chief Joseph’s strong and brave daughter.
- My Antonia, by Willa Cather
Published in 1918, My Antonia is the story of Ántonia Shimerda, who arrives on the Nebraska frontier as part of a family of Bohemian emigrants. Her story is told through the eyes of Jim Burden, a neighbor who will befriend Ántonia, teach her English, and follow the remarkable story of her life.
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith
This book was first published in 1943. Readers are still fascinated by Betty Smith’s moving portrayal of the Nolans, a poor family living in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn.
A poignant tale of childhood and the ties of family, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn will transport the reader to the early 1900s where a little girl named Francie dreamily looks out her window at a tree struggling to reach the sky.
- This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger
1932, Minnesota—the Lincoln School is a pitiless place where hundreds of Native American children, forcibly separated from their parents, are sent to be educated. It is also home to an orphan named Odie O’Banion, a lively boy whose exploits earn him the superintendent’s wrath. Forced to flee, he and his brother Albert, their best friend Mose, and a brokenhearted little girl named Emmy steal away in a canoe, heading for the mighty Mississippi and a place to call their own.
- Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson
For most of her life, sixteen-year-old Hattie Brooks has been shuttled from one distant relative to another. Tired of being Hattie Here-and-There, she summons the courage to leave Iowa and move all by herself to Vida, Montana, to prove up on her late uncle’s homestead claim.
Under the big sky, Hattie braves hard weather, hard times, a cantankerous cow, and her own hopeless hand at the cookstove. Her quest to make a home is championed by new neighbors Perilee Mueller, her German husband, and their children. Despite daily trials, Hattie continues to work her uncle’s claim until an unforeseen tragedy causes her to search her soul for the real meaning of home.
A Newbery Honor book.
- To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Set in a sleepy southern town, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.
- The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
Published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath is an American realist novel and may or may not be considered “historical fiction” in the strictest sense. We’re not that strict. The book won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it was cited prominently when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962.
Set during the Great Depression, the novel focuses on the Joads. They’re a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures. Looking for work, they wind up in California where they quickly discover that “all that glitters is not gold.”
20. The Book of Lost Friends, by Lisa Wingate
The dramatic and hopeful story of three young women searching for family amid the destruction of the post–Civil War South, and of a modern-day teacher who learns of their story and its vital connection to her students’ lives. Read our review here.
- The Wartime Sisters, by Lynda Cohen Loigman
The U.S. is deep into WWII. But The Wartime Sisters isn’t really about a global conflict. It’s about a quiet war between two siblings whose dual secrets and rivalries last for years. And how they eventually close ranks and link arms to protect each other when threatened. Along the way we find out not only what makes each sister tick, but what “sisterhood” really means and why.
Click here for my full review.
- Call of the Wild, by Jack London
Often considered an “adventure” story, Call of the Wild may also qualify as “historical fiction,” as the action takes place in the midst of the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s.
The protagonist is a dog, Buck. He’s stolen, taken to Alaska, and sold to a pair of Canadians named Francois and Perrault. They train him as a sled dog, and he quickly learns how to survive the cold winter nights and the pack society by observing his teammates. I’d bring a blanket ‘fize you.
- Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens
Set in rural North Carolina over a span of about 20 years, Where the Crawdads Sing is a wistful, bittersweet story about Catherine Danielle Clark, aka “Kya.” Also known as the Marsh Girl. The story centers on Kya’s young life as she navigates the wilds of North Carolina alone.
Owens’s story glides between the 1950s and seventies as naturally and seamlessly as the channels and lagoons of Kya’s marsh and the wild lands that bookend her life. It’s a masterful tale of love and loss. Abandonment and rejection. Loneliness. Hope and longing. 5 stars! (May also not be considered “historical fiction” in the strictest sense. But it’s included on the Historical Novel Society’s site, so we’re willing to flex.)
Read my full review here.
- Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George
To her small Eskimo village, she is known as Miyax; to her friend in San Francisco, she is Julie. When her life in the village becomes dangerous, Miyax runs away, only to find herself lost in the Alaskan wilderness.
Miyax tries to survive by copying the ways of a pack of wolves and soon grows to love her new wolf family. Life in the wilderness is a struggle, but when she finds her way back to civilization, Miyax is torn between her old and new lives. Is she Miyax of the Eskimos—or Julie of the wolves?
A Newbery Medal-winning classic.
25. At the Mountain’s Edge, by Genevieve Graham
It’s 1897 and gold fever has hit the Yukon. For Liza Peterson and her family, the gold rush is a chance for them to make a fortune by moving their store from Vancouver to Dawson City, the only established town in the Yukon.
For Constable Ben Turner, a recent recruit of the North-West Mounted Police, upholding the law in the raw frontier is an opportunity to escape a dark past and become the man of integrity he has always wanted to be. But the long, difficult journey over icy mountain passes and whitewater rapids is much more treacherous than Liza or Ben imagined, and neither is completely prepared for the forbidding north. Or for falling in love…
Did your favorite make the list?
What would you add?
This post was originally published in 2020.