Conventionally, readers opt for nonfiction when they want to accumulate information and turn to fiction for an escape from reality. But books are more complicated than that, especially when it comes to history. The textures and imaginative immersion of a fictional narrative might convey the historical experience more vividly and viscerally than many well-researched compendium’s footnotes and citations.
The novels highlighted here all set out to recreate nineteenth-century American life, which means – nineteenth-century American life being what it was – they tend to highlight the astringent severity of the cowboy lifestyle, the internecine meat grinder of the Civil War, and the monstrous atrocities of American chattel slavery. In other words: things get heavy.
But there’s variety here, stylistic and otherwise. Some of these books, like Outlawed and The Underground Railroad, are elastic and experimental in their portrayal of not only historical events but the world itself; others, like The Good Lord Bird and Lincoln in the Bardo, conscript familiar boldfaced names from history textbooks and reimagine them with vibrant and surprising storytelling.
And if you were to sit down and read all fifteen of these novels in order, you would absorb an evocative sense of various pockets of American life from the 1820s through the 1890s. You’d also probably want to stand up, stretch your legs, get outside for some fresh air. Get a little exercise. Fifteen’s a lot of books. Reading is great, but c’mon.