Historical Novels

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by Oakley Hall (1978; Bantam; out of print). This is the second basic fictional plot. Hall’s protagonist is an unlikely but brilliantly persuasive amalgam of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Adams, a bookish Eastern stranger who arrives in the Dakota Territory in 1883 and tries to make a new life for himself. Lynchings, vigilantes, cattle drives, saloons, and brothels—it’s never been better done. As a bonus, we have the Scottish Lord Machray, likewise a stranger come to town, a spectacularly Falstaffian character based on the historical Marquis de Morés.

The Trees

by Conrad Richter (1940; Ohio University). A beautiful first sentence: “They moved along in the bobbing, springy gait of a family that followed the woods as some families follow the sea.” This is followed by a great lyric saga of the settlement of the Ohio Valley at the end of the eighteenth century. Gentle, anguished, profoundly inevitable—American history as Chekhov might have written it.

The Great Meadow

by Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1930; Ivan R. Dee). One of the most appealing heroines in American fiction, Diony Hall, marries and moves with her new husband in 1777 into the Kentucky wilderness. There’s not much more to the plot than that. But here the simple, abstract theme of human nature against the wilderness is brought to life in gorgeous prose, tempered by the author’s remarkable introduction of other voices, such as those of Thomas Jefferson, Bishop Berkeley, Daniel Boone, and the poet Virgil. (As the baseball player and manager Casey Stengel said apropos of the perennial dispute about plot over character, “Good pitching will always stop good hitting, and vice-versa.”)

Arundel

by Kenneth Roberts (1929; Down East Books). Arundel is a town in southern Maine. From it in 1775 young Steven Nason joins Col. Benedict Arnold on his expedition up the Kennebec River and overland for a doomed assault on Quebec. Roberts wrote many best-selling historical novels, including Northwest Passage and Rabble in Arms. But for sheer storytelling exuberance and historical detail (not to mention a rich and sympathetic depiction of New England Indian life), this has always seemed to me the pick of the lot.

The Killer Angels

by Michael Shaara (1974; Ballantine). Henry James thought that the novel could arrive at the condition of art only by means of the third-person point of view. Here, in a tour de force of disciplined imagination, Shaara re-creates the Battle of Gettysburg from the several points of view of its actual soldiers, North and South: Lee, Longstreet, Pickett, Buford, and most especially Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Realistic dialogue, interior monologue, heartbreaking metaphors and similes: There are no invented characters, but the techniques of fiction and history have rarely been so powerfully fused.

Lincoln

by Gore Vidal (1984; Knopf). Vidal makes two perfect technical decisions. The first is to avoid a full-scale birth-to-death narrative and to tell only the story of Lincoln’s Presidency. The second is to present Lincoln not from the inside, like the characters in Shaara’s novel, but only from the outside, as observed by a revolving carousel of his enemies and friends, including John Hay, William Seward, and Lincoln’s intermittently mad wife, Mary. The result is Homeric, noble, a history focused on a single, mysterious, barely flawed hero who ultimately wills his own murder, the young John Hay comes to believe, “as a form of atonement for the great and terrible thing that he had done by giving so bloody and absolute a rebirth to his nation.”