Seven Of The Best Historical Southern Novels
by Staff Writer
It’s been a great year for historical fiction, hasn’t it? Our list of seven historical novels you need to read this year cover true stories fictionalized as novels, fictional accounts of real people and just plain made up stories of the south. Something for everyone.
Have at it! Then tell us in comments which are your faves.
Surviving Savannah by Patti Callahan
When Savannah history professor Everly Winthrop is asked to guest-curate a new museum collection focusing on artifacts recovered from the steamship Pulaski, she’s shocked. The ship sank after a boiler explosion in 1838, and the wreckage was just discovered, 180 years later. Everly can’t resist the opportunity to try to solve some of the mysteries and myths surrounding the devastating night of its sinking.
Everly’s research leads her to the astounding history of a family of eleven who boarded the Pulaski together, and the extraordinary stories of two women from this family: a known survivor, Augusta Longstreet, and her niece, Lilly Forsyth, who was never found, along with her child. These aristocratic women were part of Savannah’s society, but when the ship exploded, each was faced with difficult and heartbreaking decisions. This is a moving and powerful exploration of what women will do to endure in the face of tragedy, the role fate plays, and the myriad ways we survive the surviving.
The Saints Of Swallow Hill by Donna Everhart
In the dense pine forests of North Carolina, turpentiners labor, hacking into tree trunks to draw out the sticky sap that gives the Tar Heel State its nickname, and hauling the resin to stills to be refined. Among them is Rae Lynn Cobb and her husband, Warren, who run a small turpentine farm together.
Though the work is hard and often dangerous, Rae Lynn, who spent her childhood in an orphanage, is thankful for it–and for her kind if careless husband. When Warren falls victim to his own negligence, Rae Lynn undertakes a desperate act of mercy. To keep herself from jail, she disguises herself as a man named “Ray” and heads to the only place she can think of that might offer anonymity–a turpentine camp in Georgia named Swallow Hill.
Swallow Hill is no easy haven. The camp is isolated and squalid, and commissary owner Otis Riddle takes out his frustrations on his browbeaten wife, Cornelia. Although Rae Lynn works tirelessly, she becomes a target for Crow, the ever-watchful woods rider who checks each laborer’s tally. Delwood Reese, who’s come to Swallow Hill hoping for his own redemption, offers “Ray” a small measure of protection, and is determined to improve their conditions. As Rae Lynn forges a deeper friendship with both Del and Cornelia, she begins to envision a path out of the camp. But she will have to come to terms with her past, with all its pain and beauty, before she can open herself to a new life and seize the chance to begin again.
By Her Own Design by Piper Huguley
1953, New York City
Less than a week before the society wedding of the year where Jacqueline Bouvier will marry John F. Kennedy, a pipe bursts at Ann Lowe’s dress shop and ruins eleven dresses, including the expensive wedding dress, a dress that will be judged by thousands. A Black designer who has fought every step of the way, Ann knows this is only one struggle after a lifetime of them. She and her seamstresses will find the way to re-create the dresses. It may take all day and all night for the next week to accomplish the task, but they will do it.
Raised in Jim Crow Alabama, Ann learned the art of sewing from her mother and her grandmother, a former slave, who are the most talented seamstresses in the state. After Ann elopes at twelve with an older man who soon proves himself to be an abusive alcoholic, her dreams of becoming a celebrated designer seem to be put on hold. But then a wealthy Tampa socialite sees Ann’s talent and offers her an amazing opportunity—the chance to sew and design clothing for Florida’s society elite. Taking her young son in the middle of the night, Ann escapes her husband and embarks on the adventure of a lifetime.
The Wedding Veil by Kristy Woodson Harvey
Present Day: Julia Baxter’s wedding veil, bequeathed to her great-grandmother by a mysterious woman on a train in the 1930s, has passed through generations of her family as a symbol of a happy marriage. But on the morning of her wedding day, something tells her that even the veil’s good luck isn’t enough to make her marriage last forever. Overwhelmed and panicked, she escapes to the Virgin Islands to clear her head. Meanwhile, her grandmother Babs is also feeling shaken. Still grieving the death of her beloved husband, she decides to move out of the house they once shared and into a retirement community. Though she hopes it’s a new beginning, she does not expect to run into an old flame, dredging up the same complicated emotions she felt a lifetime ago.
1914: Socialite Edith Vanderbilt is struggling to manage the luxurious Biltmore Estate after the untimely death of her cherished husband. With 250 rooms to oversee and an entire village dependent on her family to stay afloat, Edith is determined to uphold the Vanderbilt legacy—and prepare her free-spirited daughter Cornelia to inherit it—in spite of her family’s deteriorating financial situation. But Cornelia has dreams of her own. Asheville, North Carolina has always been her safe haven away from the prying eyes of the press, but as she explores more of the rapidly changing world around her, she’s torn between upholding tradition and pursuing the exciting future that lies beyond Biltmore’s gilded gates.
Black Cloud Rising by David Wright Falade
By fall of 1863, Union forces had taken control of Tidewater Virginia, and established a toehold in eastern North Carolina, including along the Outer Banks. Thousands of freed slaves and runaways flooded the Union lines, but Confederate irregulars still roamed the region. In December, the newly formed African Brigade, a unit of these former slaves led by General Edward Augustus Wild—a one-armed, impassioned Abolitionist—set out from Portsmouth to hunt down the rebel guerillas and extinguish the threat.
From this little-known historical episode comes Black Cloud Rising, a dramatic, moving account of these soldiers—men who only weeks earlier had been enslaved, but were now Union infantrymen setting out to fight their former owners. At the heart of the narrative is Sergeant Richard Etheridge, the son of a slave and her master, raised with some privileges but constantly reminded of his place. Deeply conflicted about his past, Richard is eager to show himself to be a credit to his race. As the African Brigade conducts raids through the areas occupied by the Confederate Partisan Rangers, he and his comrades recognize that they are fighting for more than territory. Wild’s mission is to prove that his troops can be trusted as soldiers in combat. And because many of the men have fled from the very plantations in their path, each raid is also an opportunity to free loved ones left behind. For Richard, this means the possibility of reuniting with Fanny, the woman he hopes to marry one day.
Carolina Built by Kianna Alexander
Josephine N. Leary is determined to build a life of her own and a future for her family. When she moves to Edenton, North Carolina from the plantation where she was born, she is free, newly married, and ready to follow her dreams.
As the demands of life pull Josephine’s attention away, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to pursue her real estate aspirations. She finds herself immersed in deepening her marriage, mothering her daughters, and being a dutiful daughter and granddaughter. Still, she manages to teach herself to be a businesswoman, to manage her finances, and to make smart investments in the local real estate market. But with each passing year, it grows more and more difficult to focus on building her legacy from the ground up.
Thread Collectors by Shaunna J. Edwards & Alyson Richman
1863: In a small Creole cottage in New Orleans, an ingenious young Black woman named Stella embroiders intricate maps on repurposed cloth to help enslaved men flee and join the Union Army. Bound to a man who would kill her if he knew of her clandestine activities, Stella has to hide not only her efforts but her love for William, a Black soldier and a brilliant musician.
Meanwhile, in New York City, a Jewish woman stitches a quilt for her husband, who is stationed in Louisiana with the Union Army. Between abolitionist meetings, Lily rolls bandages and crafts quilts with her sewing circle for other soldiers, too, hoping for their safe return home. But when months go by without word from her husband, Lily resolves to make the perilous journey South to search for him.
As these two women risk everything for love and freedom during the brutal Civil War, their paths converge in New Orleans, where an unexpected encounter leads them to discover that even the most delicate threads have the capacity to save us. Loosely inspired by the authors’ family histories, this stunning novel will stay with readers for a long time.