We are living through a tumultuous time in history. The COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, political tension — every day, it seems, we experience a new event in keeping with the recent theme of crazy-high levels of change.

This isn’t the first time, however, that this country has gingerly picked its way over dangerous ground. In our relatively brief history, America has been marked by trials, tribulations and hard-won triumphs that open the door to even more efforts that need to ensue in order to build a better nation.

The Civil War is one example of a monumental event that was a long time coming, happened over the course of years, and left us in a state of wearied but hopeful rebirth. Also like the issues facing us today, there were many complex layers to the crisis and many clashing perspectives.

Countless stories can be wrenched from the wreckage and held up as inspiration, and they come from a diverse collection of individual voices. Below, we’ve picked out some historical fiction exploring this significant period and aiming to find universal truths through the power of literature. 

by Marilynne Robinson

This epistolary novel is more than a story of fathers and sons; it’s a journey through America from the Civil War era to the 20th century. A Civil War chaplain comes into conflict with his pacifist son, and their complex relationship echoes down through the family across generations. Three sequels, Home, Lila and Jack, have all received high praise as well. Robinson’s lyrical prose, combined with her profound understanding of humanity’s deepest questions and doubts, also earned this work a Pulitzer Prize in 2004. Additionally, Oprah selected Robinson’s four Gilead books as her 87th, 88th, 89th and 90th Book Club picks, proving that Gilead will appeal to an extraordinarily wide audience from the academic intelligentsia to a busy mom. 

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Across the River
by Richard Snodgrass

A gorgeously vivid spy novel set during the War Between the States depicts two Union soldiers requesting intel and aid from a young Pennsylvania couple. There’s a twist, of course; the men are actually Confederate soldiers in disguise, and things only get more complicated when Libby, the southern-born wife, and one of the chameleon Confederates become increasingly attracted to each other. The author does a great job with characterization, and the historical accuracy he brings to the tale is stellar. Read our review here.

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Faith on Fire: Thy Will Be Done
by Deborah Curtin

Charles and Robert Wait are two very different brothers who tread disparate life paths during the Civil War years; the former is an invalid kept in an institution away from home while the latter, our protagonist, creates a plan to get him home. Robert goes on to attend Harvard but grows restless in his privilege. He chooses to discreetly join the Union navy, a bold move that lands him in prison. What’s next on this adventure? Well, there’s an incredibly arresting and climactic ending that will leave you reeling long after you turn the last page. Knowing that the author based the fictional novel on the life of her great-grandfather provides another layer of depth and intrigue in this thought-provoking story. Read our review here

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The Secrets of Mary Bowser
by Lois Leveen

Many of us have probably never heard of Mary Bowser. A freed slave who risked everything to spy for the Union during the Civil War, Bowser posed as a slave in Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s house. Using her photographic memory, Bowser pretended to be illiterate while transmitting the information she read to Union leaders. There is very little information about Bowser to be found, but Leveen uses her expertise as a historian and what little information is known about the heroine to paint a picture of this intelligent and courageous woman. 

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Cold Mountain
By Charles Frazier 

New York Times bestselling author Charles Frazier delivers with his National Book Award winner Cold Mountain, stunning enough to inspire an Oscar-nominated film starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law. Are you on board yet? A wounded and weary Confederate soldier decides he’s had enough and abandons the war to return, he hopes, to the woman he loves. The odds are stacked high against him, and his journey is perilous. Meanwhile, his beloved Ada is tasked with running a farm and really, for the first time, her whole life, after her father’s death. This book was originally published in 1997 but is timeless, impactful and admirably researched. 

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My Name is Mary Sutter
by Robin Oliveira

The first installment of a duology, this book tells the story of a young woman who dreams of becoming a doctor to do her part for the Union war effort. Mary is an unusual woman for the time period because she is determined to achieve her goal in spite of the repressive perspectives of those around her. With two doctors to guide her, the stage is set for a love triangle even as battle rages on. Oliveira is herself a certified nurse, so not only the historical, but the medical details are sharp and satisfying.

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Trouble the Water
by Rebecca Dwight Bruff

This novel, based on a true story, follows the voyage of Robert Smalls. Once enslaved, he’s now out for vengeance by commandeering a Confederate ship alongside fellow slaves. After purchasing the house in which he suffered so much, he became one of the first Black legislators, proving that one’s former experiences do not define them. This profound story tells how Smalls went from the illiterate child of a slave to a champion for freedom. Bruff’s novel will inspire and uplift while telling an incredible story of triumph.

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