Nevertheless, she persisted. It’s a phrase that means so much to me (I even have it as a bumper sticker on my car). Throughout history women have defied expectations, found inner strength and strength in each other, and persevered through immense challenges. I always find it so satisfying to pick up a work of historical fiction and be pulled into the past, experiencing life through a strong woman. If you love fierce women and an immersive setting, try one of these novels.
Aria by Nazanine Hozar: Abandoned as an infant in 1950s Iran, Aria is raised by three wildly different mother figures before becoming a mother herself against a backdrop of the 1979 revolution. The characters are beautifully realized and the setting becomes a character itself. It’s dramatic, moving, and a truly engrossing read.
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste: An action-packed, character driven novel that shines a light on the fierce women who fought against Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The author was inspired by her great-grandmother, who fought against Italy despite her family’s objections. It’s a fascinating look at a little-known time in history, told with riveting detail and fully realized characters.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See: Set in 19th century China, this haunting story explores a complex friendship between two women: Lily, the daughter of a farmer, and Snow Flower, the daughter of a respectable family. Though the two come from different backgrounds, they’re bonded for life, even as startling secrets threaten their friendship. Lisa See is a lyrical writer ad the story is both suspenseful and deeply moving.
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan: Mulan meets The Song of Achilles in this bold, queer, lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. When a brother and sister are orphaned, Zhu assumes her brother’s identity for the chance to claim a new future. This is a fantasy novel with historical roots, so it’s a bit of a stretch for this list, but I just got this ARC and am so excited I had to include it!
Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik: A lyrical, compelling reimagining of the life of rebel poet and filmmaker, Forough Farrokzhad. Farrokzhad is a young writer in search of freedom and independence from the restrictions imposed on women in mid-20th century Iran. She’s bold, strong, and passionate and this novel is emotional and illuminating.
A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian: A group of women in Bangalore fight to save their homes from destruction in this powerful, high drama story told through lyrical prose, endearing characters, and vibrant imagery. I could not put this one down.
White Houses by Amy Bloom: This moving, romantic novel dives deep into the richly rumored relationship between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the trailblazing journalist Lorena Hickock, “Hick.” Hick narrates the novel, recounting her rough childhood in South Dakota through to her intensifying affair with Eleanor. It’s an incisive celebration of love, loyalty, and sacrifice.
The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar: The stories of two girls living 800 years apart- one a modern-day Syrian refugee and the other a medieval adventurer apprenticed to a legendary mapmaker- are woven together to showcase the pain and triumph of life for women in Syria. It’s lush and imaginative, while still providing a very real look into war-torn Syria.
Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende: You can never go wrong with Isabel Allende, and this is one of my absolute favorites. A young woman living in Chile decides to follow her lover to San Francisco for the California Gold Rush. Disguised as a man, she spends years searching for her love, but ends up finding something more: freedom and fulfillment. Like all of Allende’s books, this is a lush, lyrical, atmospheric tale.
There are so many wonderful works of historical fiction centering strong, bold women. In the face of sexism, violence, racism, and homophobia, women persist. What are your favorite books following women through history? Let me know in the comments!