Six Great Historical Fiction Stories about the Civil War
The Civil War Books
This painful, terrible time in our nation's history makes for some poignant, brutal, often beautiful storytelling. News of the World and Simon the Fiddler are two more by Paulette Jiles that I've waxed poetic about on this blog, and others on my to-read list include The House Girl by Tara Conklin, March by Geraldine Brooks, Old Abe by John Cribb, Widow of the South by Robert Hicks, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott, and Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles.
If you like historical fiction, check out these other Bossy Bookworm Greedy Reading Lists:
Have you read any of these books? I'd love to hear what you thought! And which other books should I add to my Civil War historical fiction to-read list?
01 The Color of Lightning by Paulette Jiles
This beautiful, heartbreaking book. It's set toward the end of the Civil War on the Texas plains, centering around the bare-bones but amazing basic facts known about the real life of a freed black man—with the details of his life imagined and elaborated on in fantastic form by the author, and many other richly created characters that make the story come to life.
Absolutely brutal and vivid details of Native Americans’ physical brutality are depicted; naive and uninformed eastern urban white men’s ideas and outrageously rigid ideas meant to “civilize” western Indians are gradually undone; complexities and brilliantly laid out fundamental differences in white and Native American life views are gracefully explored; white-Indian friendships fraught with potentially lethal misunderstanding but incredible trust and humor are imagined; and the tragic and multilayered reasons for the undoing of any hope of white-Indian coexistence build slowly to a tragic end.
The dreams of many of the key characters and self-reflections are lovely and illuminating and poignant. Jiles turns assumptions on their heads: untested characters find they are capable of incredible grit—and other idealist characters find themselves crushed and without any of the basic answers about justice and life they were once confident in.
02 Fallen Land by Taylor Brown
Taylor Brown's debut novel is set in the final year of the Civil War. Callum, an Irish horse thief, fled to America an orphan at fifteen years old. Ava's family is gone, killed by war. The young couple find one another and bond to each other in their desperate run to escape the devastated South.
They encounter the fiery ruin of Sherman's March on their way to safety and a new life, and their love is one beautiful light in the darkness of the country's ravaging war.
I was stressed reading Ava and Callum's circumstances, but the preciousness of lives lived moment by moment (while the characters fight for survival--and also attempt to live as good people and find love and joy) was wrought beautifully by Brown.
Their perspective of coming upon the devastation immediately after Sherman's March through Atlanta was particularly shocking and affecting.
This is a rough yet sometimes tender story set at the end of the Civil War, amid the confusion and desperation and cruelty and kindnesses of that time.
Brown also wrote the wonderful Gods of Howl Mountain and also Pride of Eden, which is on my to-read list.
03 Wilderness by Lance Weller
“I'm American. Like I told you. And I'm American and not something else because they failed that day. They couldn't do it and most of them probably knew they couldn't do it before they even started, but they went anyhow. There's honor in that. I don't reckon there's much honor left in the world now, but they had it that day and I honor them on both sides by knowing what I can about it. Much as I can.”
Weller's Wilderness is set several decades after the Civil War, but the story pivots on Abel Truman's experiences in the Civil War's Battle of the Wilderness and how they shaped his life, led him to the wilds of Washington state, and set him on what is likely his final journey.
This took me a while to get into, but I'm so glad I didn't give up on it. I loved the merging of stories and the luminous writing about tragedy, evolution of character, and boundless love--this is a gorgeous story.
Weller has developed a graphic novel adaptation of this book, to be published this year.
04 Gilead by Marianne Robinson
“I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.”
Marilynne Robinson's Gilead chronologically precedes her novel Lila and takes the form of the aging Reverend's recollections and letters to his young son.
The book spans generations of fathers and sons from the Civil War to the twentieth century, includes reflections about the war, and it's a beautiful book, so I decided that it's going on my Civil War list.
Gilead is largely an exploration of the Reverend's complicated relationship with his troubled young namesake and the evolution of his faith and preaching. This is a gentle, slow-paced story from the heart-wrenchingly gorgeous writer.
05 Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird
Bird's Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is based on the story of a real-life female Buffalo Soldier, Cathy Williams, with many liberties taken for the sake of shaping a story.
I was happy to suspend my disbelief at the many conveniently outlandish circumstances or coincidences—which led key characters to cross unlikely paths, caused characters to avoid making important discoveries until the timing was more convenient to the arc of the tale, or set events essential to a resolution in a magical otherworld to allow imagined outcomes.
Bird does an excellent job of keeping up the tension and making clear the high stakes of Williams’s enormous secret and the destruction that would befall her if it came out.
She explores in fascinating detail the hardscrabble life of a newly freed Black person—and the often desperate circumstances of women (especially Black women) without men to protect them at the time.
The major and minor love stories are sweet and tragic on multiple levels.
I also mentioned this book in the Greedy Reading List Six Historical Fiction Novels I Loved in the Past Year.
06 Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
“Only then (nearly out the door, so to speak) did I realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing.”
The premise of Lincoln in the Bardo, which the reader quickly grasps, is that the characters are caught in limbo, somehow unaware of and in denial about their earthly demises, and they repeat the same patterns and manipulations while making mental excuses for their diminished or changed states, all the while waiting for (impossible) opportunities to "feel better" and return to their lives.
The construction (short, often one-line passages followed by the speaker's name) of Lincoln in the Bardo could've been clunky, but the characters' voices were distinct enough to work.
This is twisted, base, and funny, but sometimes also sentimental and poignant, with peeks into deceased characters' pivotal life moments as well as hypothetical looks into Lincoln's frame of mind and motivation as he struggled with his personal losses and feelings of responsibility for the significant loss of life on both sides during the Civil War.
The character growth surprised me and felt in line with the tone and pacing of the story. This was unusual and fascinating all around.