Welcome back to the Pond and welcome to another one of Varian’s recommendation posts! In case you’re new to the Pond’s recommendation posts, the recommendation posts are brought to you by Varian, the Pond’s very own Toadshifter who is knowledgeable in all kinds of magic! One of Varian’s ambitions is to get better at sewing, hence why whenever Varian has shown you their latest costume, they will always recommend a book that inspired that costume.
A genre that I don’t usually talk about – but actually consistently enjoy reading – is historical fiction! I’ve never consider myself a history nerd but there’s something so incredible and amazing when you learn about something that actually happened. (And indeed, one of my favourite things to do after reading historical fiction based on real events is to go and research it extensively and then tell everyone that I know about it.)
Even more special to me, is when I learn about a piece of history that not a lot of people know about. It makes me think: if this author hadn’t written this book and I hadn’t read it, I would never have known about it and others may never have known about it. And I think that can be an exceptionally humbling thought. That’s why, today’s book recommendation post is dedicated to historical fiction books that centre on an ‘invisible’ piece of history.
When I think about history, I think about what the teachers in high school taught me. Growing up in New Zealand, I learned about Nazi Germany and New Zealand’s involvement in World War II. But if you ask someone from another country what they learned in history class, they’ll tell you that they learned something else. How history is passed on, and what we teach our young people, is a good example of how history is written and often shared in ways that celebrate and glorify ‘the good’ and a country’s successes and how their failures or acts of violence, particularly on marginalised communities, are erased and forgotten — and thus rendered invisible.
Today, I dedicate my post to these ‘invisible’ moments in history and I dedicate to the people who have had to endure and live with it. I dedicate my post to those, whether lived or felt the ripple through generations, who have not forgotten whilst others have. I also acknowledge that my book recommendation post does not cover all ‘invisible’ moments in history, nor is it the end-all-be-all. So, if you know of any books about such ‘invisible’ history, please share so I and others can discover and read them!
For today’s recommendation post, Varian made a costume that is heavily inspired by a certain famous time-travelling Doctor! Varian has watched all seasons of Doctor Who, but they really love the costume for The Thirteeth Doctor.
FREEDOM SWIMMER BY WAI CHIM
Freedom Swimmer by Wai Chim is one of my favourite books of all time. And when you realise that this book is based on the author’s father’s life? You will appreciate this story so much, and the implications of it being told today.
- Follows Ming, a Chinese teen and orphan who meets and befriends a city boy from the Communist Party, and together form a plan to escape China by swimming to freedom.
- Prior to reading this, I had no idea that people had attempted to swim from China to Hong Kong, so this book told such a powerful story – even more so that this book was inspired by the author’s father’s life.
- This may be a sombre story, but it’s also a powerful story about friendship, bravery, and the price of freedom and dreams.
THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY BY HANNA ALKAF
Books featuring Malaysian characters are hard to come by, but to find a book that was about the Malaysian 1969 racial riots as well? Finding and reading Hanna Alkaf’s story was so meaningful to me, especially because my very own parents survived these racial riots.
- Follows Melati, a Malay teen with OCD who tries to search for her mother during the Malaysian 1969 racial riots between Malay and Chinese people.
- Not a lot of people outside of Malaysia know that these riots took place, despite it being a significant and terrible event with the implications of the outcome that has rippled across decades.
- This book also explores mental illness in a historical and Asian context, particularly how OCD was understood and perceived in the 1960’s.
HOMEGOING BY YAA GYASI
I’ve included Homegoing, despite that most of the world knows about African slavery in the US, but I think not a lot of people understand the history of it and the decades of violence and effects of colonialisation and harm. This is a multi-generational novel that spans 300 years, taking us from Ghana to America.
- Begins with two half-sisters in 18th century Ghana, and follows their descendants all the way through war in Ghana, British colonialisation, Civil War in the South, to Harlem present day.
- Powerfully depicts how history shapes people today, in particularly how the machinations of systemic oppression and racism, and how these institutions shape one family’s lives.
- It’s been almost a year since I’ve read this book, but the stories and the characters will forever sear into your memory.
SALT TO THE SEA BY RUTA SEPETYS
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a book that I read many years ago but is the book that ignited my appreciation for historical fiction. Its story centers on one of the biggest maritime disasters in history – the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
- Follows four teens – a Polish girl, a Prussian boy, a Lithuanian girl, and a German boy (later revealed to be a Nazi*) – and how their lives intersect with the Wilhelm Gustloff in the context of WWII.
- In the author’s note, Sepetys wrote this book as a way to give the children and youth affected and displaced by the war a voice.
- This book is painful and challenging to read, but it also candidly and frankly explores the impact and suffering of war.
*Although one of the POV characters is a Nazi, the storytelling is written in a way that consistently challenges the Nazi regime. The character is given no moral ambiguity. He is clearly and explicitly framed as a bad person.
IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES BY JULIA ÁLVAREZ
When going through this list, I realised that I hadn’t read any historical books based on real events by Latinx authors about Latinx history. So, I consulted Adriana, an incredible book blogger at Boricua Reads and creator of #ReadLatinx to help me fill this gap. Adriana recommended In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Álvarez, a book set during the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.
- The book follows three sisters during the Trujillo dictatorship in 1960’s in the Dominican Republic who were assassinated for their role in an underground plot to overthrow the government.
- The Mirabal sisters are real people in history, and Álvarez imagines their lives as teenagers and their gradual involvement with the revolution.
- I haven’t read this book myself, but I plan to – this sounds like an evocative and powerful story about sisterhood and rebellion in a pivotal time in the Dominican Republic’s history.
I hope you all enjoyed today’s book recommendations! Though this is definitely not a comprehensive list – and that there are definitely other books out there about real life events that not a lot of people know about – I hope this book recommendations post will be a good first step, and encourage you all to read more historical fiction!
- Have you read any of the book above? What did you think of them?
- Do you have any book recommendations to add to this list?
- What is your favourite book historical fiction book? What is something you have learned from historical fiction?