Must-Read Historical Fiction with Strong Leading Female Protagonists

Photo courtesy of The Regal Writer

March is Women’s History Month, and to commemorate the occasion, this week’s post will focus on historical fiction featuring strong female protagonists.

Throughout history, women have made huge contributions to our world – in science, politics, lifestyle, sports and, of course, literature. It makes sense to tell their stories to showcase their accomplishments. Even fictionalized accounts of real events can bring meaning to today’s readers.

Historical fiction can mean a number of things. It could be fictionalized stories that take place during  true events, such as World War II (Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale), or it could be a fictionalized story of the lives of real people (Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler).

While I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, I’ve read enough of them to compile my list of must-reads. Below are my top choices of historical fiction featuring strong leading female characters. They are not listed in any particular order. In some cases, I’ve included alternates choices.

Do you read historical fiction? Which of the stories you’ve read would you recommend?

* The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale is the story of two sisters who find themselves facing life-changing horrors during Germany’s occupation of France during World War II. Vianne and Isabelle resist the war in ways they never thought possible. Beautifully written and at times heartbreaking, The Nightingale has one of the most poignant and memorable endings. It is currently being made into a movie starring real-life sisters, Dakota and Elle Fanning.

Alternate choice: Winter Garden, also by Kristin Hannah

Set in the year 70 C.E, 900 Jews held out for months against the Roman army on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. Historians say only two women and five children survived. Hoffman’s novel tells the stories of four bold and resourceful women, each of whom has come to mountain by different means. It took Hoffman five years to research and write this lengthy novel. Beautifully written but at times painful to read. Be patient; the book starts out slow and meanders in the opening section, but with each women’s story, readers get a view of the horrific pain and devastation that affected so many lives.

Alternate choice: The Museum of Extraordinary Things, also by Alice Hoffman

  • In The Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

    In November 1960, three sisters were found dead near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff in the Dominican Republic. A fourth sister lives however. The sisters, whose code name was Las Mariposas (the Butterflies) were leading opponents of the country’s dictatorship. The story is told through the voices of the four sisters who speak across several decades of their lives up until their deaths. I found the story intriguing and heartbreaking at times.

Set in Charleston in the early 1800s, The Invention of Wings tells the story of the two Grimke sisters, Angelina and Sarah, who became early abolitionists and advocates for women’s rights. When 11-year-old Sarah is given 10-year-old Handful to be her personal maid, Sarah balks. With alternating viewpoints, the story shows how their relationship evolves over 35 years.

Alternate: The Secret Life of Bees also by Sue Monk Kidd  

The only book on my list written by a man, The Book Thief is also set during World War II. While standing at her brother’s grave site, Liesel finds a book buried in the snow, which spurs her love of books. With the help of her step-father and a Jewish refugee that her family hides, she learns to read. Anyone who loves books and reading can empathize with young Liesel who goes to great lengths to spare books from destruction by Nazis. One of the few stories I enjoyed as both a book and a film.

  • Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler

    Interestingly, I find this fictionalized account of the life of Charlotte Bronte far more compelling than the original Jane Eyre. The story covers the last nine years of Bronte’s life, her relationship with her father and sisters and how she came to write Jane Eyre.

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