March is Women's History Month, and as a result, this month I am highlighting books about fabulous women. This week I am focusing on historical fiction stories about strong women, both fictional and real.
I put an asterisk by the authors that I chatted with about their books in case you want to learn more about a particular book. And as always, shop local or use my affiliate Bookshop.org links below which support independent bookstores and the production of my podcast.
Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig*
During World War I, a group of women volunteers from Smith College traveled to France to help the country’s citizens whose lives and livelihoods were destroyed by the German invaders. The Smith College Relief Unit, including two female doctors, arrived in France ready to contribute aid, but found that, first, they had to overcome numerous obstacles, including dissension within their own group. Much of the historical-fiction novel is based on letters from the actual women who served in the Smith College Relief Unit, and Willig fills the book with fascinating facts about these Americans who headed to Europe as part of relief efforts, the work they did, and the role they played in the war.
Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner (out May 2022)
In 1950s London, Bloomsbury Books, a bookstore that sells new and rare books and that has existed for over a century, is run by men and guided by the general manager’s 51 rules. But following World War 2, three strong women working at the store strive to modernize the store’s ways and chart their own paths in a male-dominated world. Interacting with literary greats such as Daphne de Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Peggy Guggenheim and more, these three women push the boundaries of the early 1950s.
The Chanel Sisters by Judithe Little*
The Chanel Sisters book chronicles the lives of Antoinette and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel from their early years at the convent orphanage in Aubazine. Their time at the orphanage left a lasting impression on both girls and forged a determination in Coco to create a better life for herself and to seek entrée into the upper-crust society who refused to accept her. From the days of their hat shop on rue Cambon in Paris to the years after the war, Little tells the women’s stories through the eyes of Antoinette detailing their friendships, romances, and success in the fashion business. In her Author’s Note, Little includes fascinating tidbits about Coco Chanel’s inspiration for her CC symbol which recreated the interlocking loops in Aubazine’s stained glass and for her jewelry which copied the patterns found on the orphanage’s stone floors. Readers will be captivated by this page-turner.
The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck*
Robuck brings real-life American heroine Virginia Hall to life, highlighting her immense bravery as an Allied spy in German-occupied France during World War II. She vividly depicts Hall’s extraordinary heroism amid the horror of the Nazi atrocities while also shining a light on the thousands of regular people who bravely joined the Resistance (and put their lives on the line) to ensure that their country would not fall to the Nazis.
Learning to See by Elise Hooper
Dorothea Lange’s photographs from the Great Depression – and the Japanese American internment camps to a lesser extent – are iconic and part of the fabric of our culture but the story of her life is less well-known. Hooper’s novel tells Lange’s tale including the sacrifices she made to bring about social change for the less fortunate. Learning to See is a fabulous tale from start to finish, and the inclusion of some of Lange’s photographs at the end of the novel are an added bonus.
The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict
The Only Woman in the Room chronicles the long and accomplished life of Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Keisler), the Hollywood screen star from the 1940s and 1950s. Escaping her Nazi-affiliated husband in the dead of night, she arrives in Hollywood where she launches the acting career for which she is well known. Unable to forget the horrors she witnessed in Austria, she recruits a partner (George Antheil), and they quietly begin work on an invention that she hopes will help the United States win the war against Germany. While the U.S. Navy did not adopt their invention until the 1960s, their work eventually led to the creation of Bluetooth and ultimately WiFi and the cell phone, and she and Antheil were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray*
Belle de Costa Greene worked as J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian and curator of his private library housed in a townhouse off of East 36th Street before the collection became the Morgan Library and Museum. While she became an influential individual in the art world and one of the country’s most prominent librarians, she hid a devastating secret – she was a Black woman “passing” as a white woman and moreover was the daughter of the first Black graduate of Harvard. The Personal Librarian chronicles Belle’s life and legacy and what it was like to be torn between success and the desire to be herself.
Sisters in Arms by Kaia Alderson
Debut author Kaia Alderson’s book is inspired by the true story of the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion (the Six Triple Eight), the only all-Black battalion of the Women’s Army Corp during World War 2. Tasked with crossing the Atlantic to ensure U.S. servicemen received word from their families during the war, these brave women not only dealt with the regular dangers of war, but they also had to contend with racial injustice and those who wanted them to fail.
Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie*
This beautifully written debut tells a fictionalized, loosely based version of the relationship between James Taylor and Joni Mitchell in the late 1960s. This coming-of-age tale follows Jane Quinn, a talented singer, as she rockets to stardom, encounters extreme sexism in the music industry, battles with wanting to stay true to herself and her music, whether to choose love or a career, the stigma of mental illness, and more. Brodie brings the music of the era to life and had me wishing I could actually listen to Jane’s music. Songs in Ursa Major is truly stunning and is my favorite book of the year so far.
Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez* (out April 2022)
In this dual timeline story, Civil Townsend hopes to make a difference in her community by working as a nurse at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic in 1970s Alabama and serving those desperately in need of care. But when one of her first jobs involves putting 11 and 13-year-old girls on birth control when neither girl has even kissed a boy, Civil is compelled to fight this injustice. Years later, Dr. Townsend is ready to retire but these stories from her past refuse to stay hidden.
When We Were Young & Brave by Hazel Gaynor*
In this compelling novel, Gaynor brings to life the story of a group of teachers and students at a British-operated missionary school in Chefoo, China. Inspired by a true story, When We Were Young & Brave chronicles this group’s experience as captives of the occupying Japanese army during World War II. When Japan declared war on Britain and the United States, the Japanese forces took control of the Chefoo School and its inhabitants and eventually moved the group to a Japanese internment camp, requiring the teachers to help their students weather unimaginable adversity. Gaynor vividly portrays the horrors of war, life in captivity, the resilience and optimism of humans, and the importance of relationships.
The White Girl by Tony Birch*
The White Girl is set in the 1960s rural Australian town of Deane, a fictional representation of a typical small town in Australia. Odette Brown and her fair-skinned granddaughter Sissy live in the Aboriginal section of the town, Quarrytown, and are subject to the restrictions placed on them by the welfare authorities. When a new policeman arrives, Odette realizes that Sissy is in danger of being taken from her with absolutely no recourse on Odette’s part because during this time period Aboriginal people could not be Australian citizens or make basic decisions for themselves, such as when and where to travel or what job they will hold. I loved Odette, and her strength and perseverance against all odds will stay with me for a long time.