Feature Image Credit: @thebookend.diner
Strong women rock, and always have. Unfortunately, their stories haven’t always been celebrated. Below is a list of recent (and one classic) historical novels featuring badass female main characters—some based on real women and some inspired by the strong women of their time.
Surviving Savannah by Patti Callahan
A dual-timeline story of modern-day museum exhibit designer Everly Winthop dealing with personal tragedy as she researches an 1838 passenger steamboat explosion. Based on the true story of the wreck of the luxury steamship Pulaski and the actual recent discovery of the wreck off the North Carolina coast, Callahan weaves the stories of Savannah passengers and their endurance and rescue through harrowing days after the explosion. Both modern and historic Savannah come to life in this well-researched, fascinating, true story.
The Secret Stealers by Jane Healey
As with her previous best-selling novels The Beantown Girls and The Saturday Evening Girls Club, Healey delivers another fabulous story of strong women working together, this time, going undercover for the OSS in Vichy Paris in WWII. Anna Kavanaugh is based on actual agents and their dangerous assignments, passing herself off as native-born French while transporting illegal telegraph equipment around Pairs in a suitcase and transmitting the vital intelligence that helped win the war.
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
The number one best-selling author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone does not disappoint with this American epic novel set during the Great Depression in Texas and California. Elsa Wolcott Martinelli could be a composite of thousands of Depression-era dustbowl farm women. Displaced from her Texas homeplace, Elsa is abandoned by her husband. She and her children travel to California in search of the proverbial land of milk and honey. A powerful story with a shocking ending that will stay with you. Also, a great audiobook listen, narrated by Julia Whelan.
The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd
Set in 1739 in the low country of South Carolina, this meticulously researched story about Eliza Lucas and her role in the development of the American indigo industry is based on Eliza’s letters and actual historical documents. Eliza tenaciously pursues a successful dye crop, researching and experimenting with planting and harvesting methods that went against standard agricultural practices of the time and despite the objections of her family. Eliza figured it all out, and indigo dye became one of the highest moneymaking exports of the era. George Washington was a pallbearer at her funeral.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
In Hurston’s classic story of hardscrabble migrant agricultural life in the Everglades of South Florida at the start of the twentieth century, Janie Crawford is arguably one of the most resilient female characters in fiction. Hurston’s bittersweet classic novel tells the story of a beautiful, naïve young woman who adapts, survives, matures, and finds true love as an older and wiser woman, only to lose it to a natural disaster. This audiobook, narrated by the late, great actress Ruby Dee, stands as a classic in itself.
Exile Music by Jennifer Steil
Orly, a well-off, Viennese Jewish girl, must flee her country and leave everything behind to evade the Nazis in 1938. Unlike many recent WWII novels, this lushly scenic, well-researched book is based on the little-known stories of the European Jewish refugees who escaped and created a community in La Paz, Bolivia. Steil excels at bringing to life the heyday of artistic Vienna and the culture shock of a new and foreign life in the South American Andes.
The Revolution of Marina M by Janet Fitch
The best-selling author of White Oleander creates a sweeping saga of the Russian Revolution as told through the eyes of a St. Petersburg teenaged girl. There is a second volume to this saga, called Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, that came out in 2019. Marina’s coming-of-age story begins when she is a young, inquisitive, spoiled teen and plays out like a classic of Russian literature, with multiple complex characters and vivid settings. Through Marina’s eyes, Fitch weaves fascinating history with romance, psychological and sexual intrigue, and the violence, upheaval, and deprivation that marked this era.
Things Past Telling by Sheila Williams
Born in the mid-eighteenth century, Maryam survives more than a hundred years of a life limited by oppression, but made beautiful by her tenacity. As a young girl, Maryam is stolen from her West African home and sold in the American slave market. In time, she learns midwifery skills that combine techniques from African, Indigenous, and European women to become a highly valued midwife. This new position allows her to sometimes cross racial and class barriers, but she must tread delicately as she navigates a cruel system that sees the newborns of slave parents as property. Following Maryam through more than a hundred years of life, through trials, loves, and losses, Things Past Telling is an unforgettable historical epic about a past that continues to live on in all of us.