5 inspiring works of historical fiction shine a light on heroism
New novels by Isabel Allende, Lisa See, Patti Callahan Henry, Mary Anna Evans, and Mirinae Lee take readers to other times and places.
Review by Carol Memmott May 21, 2023
Out of war and struggle, heroes are born. Sometimes, their acts of courage are public and dramatic; other times, they are quiet and subtle. Five new and upcoming novels shine a light on acts of valor in history, dramatized in captivating fictional tales.
‘The Secret Book of Flora Lea,’ by Patti Callahan Henry
More than 1 million British children were evacuated to the countryside after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. Henry’s new novel revolves around this well-intentioned but sometimes tragic effort to keep young Brits safe from bombing raids. Londoner Camellia Linden sends her daughters Hazel, 14, and Flora, 5, to the relative safety of Oxfordshire. When Flora disappears, Hazel blames herself and spends the next 20 years searching for her sister. After discovering a storybook that reminds her of the fairy-tale world she and Flora created to cope with their loneliness, Hazel is convinced the author might be Flora. In this heartfelt novel, Henry deftly examines the bonds of sisterhood while seamlessly melding the horrors of war with the comfort of fairy tales, reminding us that “telling stories is one of the greatest powers we possess.” BUY THE BOOK
‘The Traitor Beside Her,’ by Mary Anna Evans (Poisoned Pen)
Evans sets her cinematic novel in Arlington Hall, a former women’s college in Virginia where female codebreakers worked during World War II. Using their knowledge of languages, math and science, these women decrypted enemy messages and are believed to have helped coordinate the D-Day attacks. Evans, who co-edited a book about Agatha Christie, lays out a Christie-inspired closed-room mystery set against the backdrop of the codebreakers’ work. Government agents Justine Byrne, a math prodigy, and Georgette Broussard, who speaks fluent Choctaw, infiltrate Arlington Hall as they investigate who there is passing messages to America’s enemies. Ferreting out a traitor is a common trope, but Evans’s characters are vividly drawn, elevating this story and i
‘The Wind Knows My Name,’ by Isabel Allende (Ballantine )
This beloved author transports us to two dark periods in history: Nazi-overrun Vienna in 1938 and the current dire situation at the border crossings between the United States and Mexico. Samuel Adler was part of the lifesaving Kindertransport that escorted Jewish children out of Europe into foster homes in Britain. At age 5, like thousands of other children, he makes the journey without his parents, who later die in the Holocaust. Seven-year-old Anita Díaz, crosses into the United States with her Salvadoran mother in 2019. They hope for asylum but are immediately separated, and Anita finds herself alone at a detention camp in Nogales, Ariz. Both stories are rich enough to carry the weight of one novel, but Allende expertly intertwines them. Employing her signature touch of magical realism, she wraps us in a compassionate story that reminds us “we could all just as easily find ourselves in similar situations.”
‘Lady Tan’s Circle of Women,’ by Lisa See (Scribner )
Celebrated for novels that pull readers deep into Chinese history and culture, See imagines the life story of Tan Yunxian, a 15th-century physician who devoted her life to caring for women. Tan learned from her grandmother how to diagnose illnesses, especially those related to pregnancy and childbirth, at a time when male doctors refused to even touch female patients or help them give birth. See envelops her story in the accepted practices of the time: arranged marriages, the buying and selling of concubines, the pressure to provide male heirs, and the crippling and sometimes deadly practice of female foot binding. Despite the inordinate limits placed on women, See allows their strengths to dominate their stories, even though not all women were graced with lives of fulfillment.
‘8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster,’ by Mirinae Lee (Harper)
Mook Miran, the indomitable woman at the center of this gripping story set against the backdrop of Korea’s turbulent history, claims to have lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Korean conflict and World War II. Beginning with the abuse she suffered as a child, the nearly 100-year-old Mook tells her incredible story of survival to an obituary writer at a nursing home in South Korea. This brilliant and original novel by Lee recounts the tale of a woman, who among other things, was forced into sexual enslavement at a Japanese “comfort station” and who did everything she could, including committing murder, to save her life. Mook was a terrorist, an enslaved person, a spy and an escape artist, but she was also a lover and a mother. Lee gives us an authentic character, beset by a lifetime of horror, who, like the men and women in all these novels, inspires us through their stories.
Carol Memmott is a writer in Austin.