Researching Stories | Reader’s Shelf

“Research” comes from the Middle French word “recherche” (“to go about seeking”). Whether it’s understood as fact-finding, investigation, or exploration, research requires careful attention to detail and locale, both of which are helpful when composing well-analyzed works of historical fiction, as the following five books demonstrate. 

“Research” comes from the Middle French word “recherche” (“to go about seeking”). Whether it’s understood as fact-finding, investigation, or exploration, research requires careful attention to detail and locale, both of which are helpful when composing well-analyzed works of historical fiction, as the following five books demonstrate.

Rachel Kadish’s historical epic The Weight of Ink (Mariner. 2018. ISBN 9781328915788) is a puzzle of a novel whose dual-timeline narrative involves a young Jewish scribe in 1660s London and, in present-day London, an ailing gentile historian named Helen Watt. Helen comes upon papers hidden in the walls of a historic home, and her initial research reveals them to be a 17th-century account of the Jewish diaspora. She sets about studying the scribe’s signature (“Aleph,” the Hebrew letter A) to determine their identity and is surprised to find that Aleph was Ester Velasquez, the rare literate woman of her era. Ester works alongside a rabbi (who’d been blinded during the Inquisition) to document Jewish history through Spain, Amsterdam, and London. For her part, Kadish spent years researching the Jewish diaspora and over a decade writing this mysterious, interwoven novel. READ-ALIKE: Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book is a fine companion.

Yaa Gyasi’s brilliant debut Homegoing (Vintage. 2017. ISBN 9781101971062) spans three centuries, starting in the 1700s. Gyasi (a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” in 2016) was born in Ghana and raised in the United States. When grant funding prompted her return to Ghana during her second year at Stanford University, she undertook extensive research into the forced sea journey of West African enslaved people to the West Indies. The research inspired Gyasi to write this novel about Effia and Esi, two 18th-century Ghanaian half sisters—each unaware of the other—whose lives take startlingly different paths; Effia marries a British officer and moves to the luxurious Cape Coast Castle, while Esi is sold into slavery. Subsequent chapters follow Effia’s and Esi’s descendants through slavery on an American plantation, the 1859 Slave Act, convict leasing, the Great Migration, and the Harlem Renaissance. Gyasi’s profoundly moving look at the dissolution of families reveals a complicated lineage and legacy. READ-ALIKE: Suggest Jeffrey Colvin’s Africaville.

Kathleen Rooney sets her novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (Picador. 2018. ISBN 9781250151162) in 1930s New York. It’s inspired by the life of poet Margaret Fishback, who had been the country’s highest-paid ad copywriter when she was employed by Macy’s department store in the 1930s and ’40s; Rooney’s fictional account is full of amazing details culled from Fishback’s papers. The novel unfolds as the first-person memoir of Lillian Boxfish, a now-85-year-old who still ambles through her beloved Manhattan while reflecting on the full, colorful life she led. Bold, progressive Lillian arrives in New York in 1926 as a young woman—a proto-feminist flâneuse with a Dorothy Parker-esque wanderlust and love of life. As Lillian faces 20th-century social changes in New York (from subway vigilantes to the AIDS crisis), her determination and her love of the city’s streets endear her to readers. READ-ALIKE: Florence Gordon, by Brian Morton, makes a fine next suggestion.

Jami Attenberg fictionalizes the life of the very real Mazie Phillips, a brash, boisterous New York City movie theater owner, in Saint Mazie (Grand Central. 2016. ISBN 9781455599905). The book was sparked when Attenberg, curious about a Brooklyn bar called Saint Mazie, delved into the origin of its name and found Mazie, a onetime ticket-taker and eventually proprietress of the Venice Theater and patron of the Bowery during the 1920s and ’30s. Hard-partying Mazie was known (and profiled by Joseph Mitchell in the New Yorker) for helping the city’s jobless, homeless, and down-and-out. Whether handing out soap bars and coins or opening the Venice’s doors to the needy, Attenberg’s Mazie is a Lower East Side heart-of-gold heroine. Inventively employing generously imagined ideas, eye-opening research, and amazing fictionalized diary entries, Attenberg invites readers to become acquainted with rough-around-the-edges Saint Mazie; archival photographs add authenticity. READ-ALIKE: Try another by Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel.

Georgia Hunter was surprised to learn, at age 14, that several of her family members were Holocaust survivors; after World War II, her grandmother’s hometown of Radom, Poland, was left with only 300 residents (from a population of 30,000 people before 1939). For years after the discovery, Hunter continued uncovering bits of family history, which she eventually turned into the fictionalized account We Were the Lucky Ones (Penguin. 2018. ISBN 9780399563096), which traces three generations as they are scattered far and wide, from Soviet work camps to the front lines of Italy’s Battle of Monte Cassino. Hunter was initially tempted write a nonfiction work from her research, but she judged that employing present tense gave her creative license to dive more deeply into the experiences of her characters. Stepping into the shoes of relatives who found themselves in cities as distant as Toulouse and Tehran, she develops a stunning, dynamic demonstration of how an almost unbelievably resilient, determined, and hopeful family successfully reunited. READ-ALIKE: Offer readers Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer.

This column was contributed by librarian and freelance writer Andrea Tarr, Alta Loma, CA.  

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