Today, thoughts on historical fiction from Fresh Fiction Editorial Manager Danielle Dresser…
Once upon a time, I was a publicist for a wonderful publisher (shout out to Sourcebooks!) and I spent a lot of time paying attention to publishing trends – what was working in the industry? What were editors acquiring? What was selling, aka what were people reading? On top of my job, I was also a member of a book club and we went through a period of about a year or so where just about all we read was World War II fiction… was it because people really loved reading about this time period, or was it because that’s what the publishing industry decided to publish?
To be fair, our book club instituted an unofficial rule to not read WWII fiction (until very recently, LOL!) and now that I’m back in the publishing industry, I’ve noticed something else…
Post-World War II fiction. Set well after the war, usually in the 50s and 60s, these novels still have WWII looming over its narrative. Perhaps it’s a family member dealing with PTSD before there was a word for it, as a community dealing with tragedy grapples with in Judy Blume’s IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT… Or maybe it’s women grappling with the glimpses of independence they were given while the men were off fighting, as we see in THE ALL-GIRLS FILLING STATION REUNION by Fannie Flagg… Or it might be something different still – feeling like the rest of the world is moving forward, but some places are stuck in the past. These are the novels I find myself drawn to; stories sometimes set outside of the US but still during this postwar time period.
In Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, beginning with MY BRILLIANT FRIEND, two girls, Elena and Lila, the smartest girls in their class, feel both hindered and encouraged by each other’s academic prowess. While they are hungry for more freedom and education, Naples is still stuck in the past, with families expecting young women to help at home and marry well. While not explicitly explained in the novels, Naples was devastated by WWII, and the after-effects – poverty, despair, and guilt – still plague the town. Elena is able to continue her education and essentially get out, while Lila marries young and feels trapped. Elena, as we learn in later books, will always be tied to Naples and feel certain obligations to her friend.
Set a little later in the late 50s and early 60s, NEXT YEAR IN HAVANA and the forthcoming WHEN WE LEFT CUBA by Chanel Cleeton takes an entirely different spin on post-war fiction because they deal with something else entirely – the Cuban Revolution and eventually the Cold War. Cuba was, for the most part, a faithful Allie during the war, so when it’s own political turmoil takes places in the late 50s, the rest of the world isn’t quite sure how to take action. The lives of Elisa and Beatriz Perez are completely changed when their comfortable lives as the daughters of a wealthy sugar baron are in danger as Castro comes into power. Both Elisa and Beatriz take different paths, though ultimately they have to leave their beloved Cuba for Florida.
Even though there are some tough things that take place throughout these books, ultimately, I think what appeals to me the most about postwar fiction is the sense of hope and something greater to come – after the hardship of the Second World War, people have to move forward, and these books show how they moved through history.
More World War II and Postwar novels to consider:
NOT OUR KIND by Kitty Zeldis
THE BAR HARBOR RETIREMENT HOME FOR FAMOUS WRITERS by Terri-Lynne DeFino
THE WAR BRIDE’S SCRAPBOOK by Caroline Preston
THE SUMMER WIVES by Beatriz Williams
THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristin Hannah
THE PARIS ARCHITECT by Charles Belfoure
LADY BE GOOD by Amber Brock
THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
THE DOLLHOUSE by Fiona Davis
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS by M.L. Stedman
Books featured in this article:
When a series of passenger airplanes crashed in Elizabeth,
New Jersey within a three-month period in 1951–1952, Judy
Blume was a teenager. “These events have lingered in my mind
ever since,” says Blume. “It was a crazy time. We were
witnessing things that were incomprehensible to us as
Was it sabotage? An alien invasion? No one knew, and people
were understandably terrified.” Against this background,
Blume uses her imagination to bring us the lives of three
generations of families, friends, and strangers, who will be
profoundly affected by these events, either directly or
But life goes on and Blume digs deep into her characters—we
see them coping not only with grief but with first love,
estranged parents, difficult friendships, familial
obligations, divorce, career ambitions, a grandparent’s
love, a widower’s hope, and everything in between. . . .
Most important, In the Unlikely Event is filled with the
same warmth and authenticity that have won Blume the hearts
and minds of readers of all generations.
The one and only Fannie Flagg, beloved author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven, and I Still Dream About You, is at her hilarious and superb best in this new comic mystery novel about two women who are forced to reimagine who they are.
Mrs. Sookie Poole of Point Clear, Alabama, has just married off the last of her daughters and is looking forward to relaxing and perhaps traveling with her husband, Earle. The only thing left to contend with is her mother, the formidable Lenore Simmons Krackenberry. Lenore may be a lot of fun for other people, but is, for the most part, an overbearing presence for her daughter. Then one day, quite by accident, Sookie discovers a secret about her mother’s past that knocks her for a loop and suddenly calls into question everything she ever thought she knew about herself, her family, and her future.
Sookie begins a search for answers that takes her to California, the Midwest, and back in time, to the 1940s, when an irrepressible woman named Fritzi takes on the job of running her family’s filling station. Soon truck drivers are changing their routes to fill up at the All-Girl Filling Station. Then, Fritzi sees an opportunity for an even more groundbreaking adventure. As Sookie learns about the adventures of the girls at the All-Girl Filling Station, she finds herself with new inspiration for her own life.
Fabulous, fun-filled, spanning decades and generations, and centered on a little-known aspect of America’s twentieth-century story, The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion is another irresistible novel by the remarkable Fannie Flagg.
Book one in the New York Times bestselling Neapolitan quartet about two friends growing up in post-war Italy is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted family epic by Italy’s most beloved and acclaimed writer, Elena Ferrante, “one of the great novelists of our time.” (Roxana Robinson, The New York Times)
Beginning in the 1950s in a poor but vibrant neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, Ferrante’s four-volume story spans almost sixty years, as its protagonists, the fiery and unforgettable Lila, and the bookish narrator, Elena, become women, wives, mothers, and leaders, all the while maintaining a complex and at times conflictual friendship. Book one in the series follows Lila and Elena from their first fateful meeting as ten-year-olds through their school years and adolescence.
Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighborhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists.
“An intoxicatingly furious portrait of enmeshed friends,” writes Entertainment Weekly. “Spectacular,” says Maureen Corrigan on NPR’s Fresh Air. “A large, captivating, amiably peopled bildungsroman,” writes James Wood in The New Yorker.
Ferrante is one of the world’s great storytellers. With My Brilliant Friend, she has given her readers an abundant, generous, and masterfully plotted page-turner that is also a stylish work of literary fiction destined to delight readers for many generations to come.
Havana, 1958. The daughter of a sugar baron, nineteen-year-old Elisa Perez is part of Cuba’s high society, where she is largely sheltered from the country’s growing political unrest–until she embarks on a clandestine affair with a passionate revolutionary…
Miami, 2017. Freelance writer Marisol Ferrera grew up hearing romantic stories of Cuba from her late grandmother Elisa, who was forced to flee with her family during the revolution. Elisa’s last wish was for Marisol to scatter her ashes in the country of her birth.
Arriving in Havana, Marisol comes face-to-face with the contrast of Cuba’s tropical, timeless beauty and its perilous political climate. When more family history comes to light and Marisol finds herself attracted to a man with secrets of his own, she’ll need the lessons of her grandmother’s past to help her understand the true meaning of courage.
In 1960s Florida, a young Cuban exile will risk her life–and heart–to take back her country in this exhilarating historical novel from the author of Next Year in Havana, a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick.
Beautiful. Daring. Deadly.
The Cuban Revolution took everything from sugar heiress Beatriz Perez–her family, her people, her country. Recruited by the CIA to infiltrate Fidel Castro’s inner circle and pulled into the dangerous world of espionage, Beatriz is consumed by her quest for revenge and her desire to reclaim the life she lost.
As the Cold War swells like a hurricane over the shores of the Florida Strait, Beatriz is caught between the clash of Cuban American politics and the perils of a forbidden affair with a powerful man driven by ambitions of his own. When the ever-changing tides of history threaten everything she has fought for, she must make a choice between her past and future–but the wrong move could cost Beatriz everything–not just the island she loves, but also the man who has stolen her heart…