Monday, February 1, 2016

Top Ten Historical Settings I Love

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

Today's topic is an interesting one, about which historical (or futuristic) book settings we love. I would imagine for some people, this means that there are certain historical periods and places for which they seek out books with that setting. For me, I looked at some of the books I've enjoyed and figured out which settings I've found to be particularly intriguing. I'd welcome reading additional books with these historical settings if they were done well.

1. Biblical times
Let's start way, way back with Biblical retellings. Sometimes these are terribly done (I'm looking at you, Lamb), but I loved the creative retelling of the story of Dinah in The Red Tent, and the more by-the-Book but vibrant and immersive stories in Unshaken and Unafraid. Because the Bible is itself already a collection of stories, but overly familiar ones that often provide scant detail, I like seeing how author reimagine the sights, sounds, and smells of every piece of the story.

2. Medieval Europe
When I was in middle school, I won the Young Authors contest for 7th grade at my school with an obsessively researched story about a girl who travels back in time to the Middle Ages. I found it such an interesting time period, with the juxtaposition of the "society" we think about (e.g., knights and ladies) and the rough living conditions that even the most well-off folks had compared to today's standards. Despite how dated it is, I enjoyed the classic story of Ivanhoe and its weaving of history and mythology from that time period.

3. Puritan New England
It's no surprise that stories like The Crucible and The Witch of Blackbird Pond have sought to draw parallels between this time period and the present day. Whether it's the witch hunts or simply the societal banishment for "wrong" beliefs, we see echoes of the mistakes of that time in every era since. When certain presidential candidates talk about making America a Christian nation again, I think about the rigidity of the religiously ruled society that caused finger pointing and harassment to those who were different (even a different kind of Christian) in Puritan New England.

4. The French Revolution
Similar to the witch hunts of New England, the French revolution was an utter mess of suspicion and attempts to "cleanse" society. I remember being surprised in freshman-year English that I didn't hate the "boring" classic A Tale of Two Cities, which was in part because the setting itself provided such uncertainty and intrigue. And before that, I loved The Scarlet Pimpernel, which challenged the idea that everyone sent to the guillotine deserved it.

5. Mid-1800s Pioneer America
Although I was pretty meh about Little House on the Prairie, I did enjoy the similar story Caddie Woodlawn. Having read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I'm always looking to see how these kinds of books address white settlement and interactions with American Indians during this period. We can't change history, but we don't have to whitewash it either.

6. Late 19th century / early 20th century American Southwest
This past weekend I finished Lonesome Dove, which is considered the quintessential "Western" novel. It follows a group of cowboys as they travel where fewer and fewer white settlers have been before them. The protagonist of These Is My Words is also striving to make a life on the frontier, in the Arizona territory, and the amazing Half-Broke Horses is based on the life of a woman born in the Southwest at the turn of the century. Now that our country is so densely populated, it's hard to imagine this time when you could ride a horse for miles and miles and not see another human being.

7. Depression-era America
Many of us in my generation had grandparents who grew up during the Depression, so it's intriguing to learn what that time felt like (for those who weren't still running horse ranches in the Southwest). You can either go fully bleak and desperate with a powerful book like The Grapes of Wrath, you can ride the rails with those eking out a living in Water for Elephants, or you can experience life in a Minnesota farming community in Orphan Train. There were so many facets to live in that period that no one narrative can capture everyone's experience.

8. WWII Europe
Whether it's the war itself, the many ways that civilians were affected or involved, or the horrific consequences of xenophobia that have lessons for the world today, this is a time period that seems to have been mined for stories at every angle. Yet then you get something new, like female pilots and spies in Code Name Verity or a blind French girl aiding the Resistance in All the Light We Cannot See. There are of course many real-life stories about the horror of concentration camps, like Night or The Hiding Place. You can even see joy and healing in the ashes of the war in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The historical lessons from this time period about the strength of the human spirit and the dangers of radical prejudice lend themselves easily to great books.

9. Partition-era India
Most of my historical settings are in America and Europe because that's where my reading has tended to be concentrated, but pushing myself outside that comfort zone has introduced me to some other fascinating historical periods around the world. I learned a lot about Partition from Midnight's Children, and I could see how the Hindu/Muslim divide played out in the following years in A Suitable Boy, and even the reverberating consequences of prejudice and suspicion years later, during the Emergency, in A Fine Balance. This idea that people of different religions are so different that they can't even coexist peacefully in a single country certainly lends itself to exploration through fiction.

10. 19th century China
Finally, to continue even farther east, I am fairly ignorant about the course of China's history (though I learned a lot about early communism in Dreams of Joy), but I loved the book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It depicts, in detail, the fascinating/horrific practice of foot binding, as well as the way that social class and gender constricted the main characters' life paths. I also had known nothing about the Taiping Rebellion, which was apparently one of the deadliest civil wars in history. This historical setting was so new to me and yet so similar in many ways to those I am familiar with, and I would be interested to read something else set during this time.

Which historical settings do you find most interesting to read about?

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