3 Historical Novels. Just Because.

Today is International Literacy Day

–and what better way to celebrate than by taking a peek at three gorgeous historical novels set in days when literacy was not only rare, but, for some, deathly dangerous.

Although it might seem that one of these is not like the others, it actually is. All three deal with questions of identity, perception, love, and the human need for safety and intellectual advancement.

In no particular order:

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

Set in 1746 New York, this novel is an absolute joy to read. Fun, intriguing, intelligent, subversive in all the right ways, it tells the story of a handsome young stranger who arrives one cold evening at a countinghouse door on Golden Hill Street.

This is Mr. Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion shimmering. For in his pocket, he has what seems to be an order for a thousand pounds, a huge sum, and he won’t explain why, or where he comes from, or what he is planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money. Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him; maybe even kill him?

Gorgeously written, this novel is never quite about what the reader thinks it might be about.

After reading it I’ve become Francis Spufford’s instant fan, and I will read anything he writes, even if it’s about sports. (no idea if he writes about sports. Just saying it takes a lot to get me to read sport stuff)

Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson

In 1850s Virginia, a young enslaved girl, Pheby Delores Brown, is forced to leave the only home she’s ever known, and everyone she’s ever loved. Although fiction, this novel is based on real places and enough real stories to feel thoroughly authentic.

Pheby unexpectedly finds herself thrust into the bowels of slavery at the infamous Devil’s Half Acre, a jail in Richmond, Virginia, where the enslaved are broken, tortured, and sold every day. There, Pheby is exposed not just to her Jailer’s cruelty but also to his contradictions. To survive, Pheby will have to outwit him, and she soon faces the ultimate sacrifice.

Pheby’s capacity for love and compassion elevates the story above the breathless brutality. I was deeply moved by this novel, and I know some scenes will haunt me for a long time.

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The most famous of these, and deservedly so.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, this #1 New York Times bestseller chronicles a young enslaved girl’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South.

Cora is an enslaved woman on a cotton plantation in Georgia. An outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is on the cusp of womanhood—where greater pain awaits. And so when Caesar urges her to join him on the Underground Railroad, she seizes the opportunity and escapes with him.

It’s hard to call a novel about such brutality beautiful, but it is, in language, structure, and characterization.

Emilya Naymark

Emilya Naymark is the author of the novels Hide in Place and Behind the Lie.
Her short stories appear in the Bouchercon 2023 Anthology, A Stranger Comes to Town: edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.

When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.

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