Historical Musings #50: Presidential Historical Fiction

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

I got the idea for this month’s post when my blogging friend Judy commented on one of my reviews that as an American she knows a lot more about American history than British history. I’m sure most people would say the same – that we have a better knowledge of our own country’s history than any other – and it’s certainly true in my case, which is why I’ve been making an effort over the last few years to branch out and read more historical fiction set in places I’m less familiar with. In previous posts I’ve asked for some suggestions of novels set in Japan, Australia, India, China and Wales, to give just a few examples.

But Judy’s comment reminded me that there are also some areas of American history than I know very little about – not so much the major events (I’ve read quite a lot of fiction set during the Civil War and Revolutionary War, as well as books that span several centuries of history like New York by Edward Rutherfurd) but the people. I’m ashamed to admit that there are many presidents and First Ladies who are little more than names to me.

This month, then, I’m looking for your recommendations of historical fiction about US presidents and/or their wives and families. I’m sure some of you will have read non-fiction books about the lives of presidents and I’m happy to hear about those too, but when I don’t know much about a subject I often find it easier to learn through fiction at first. The only one which comes to mind that I’ve read so far is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders; apart from that, I’ve read some books where presidents make brief appearances, but I can’t think of any others where they have been the main focus of the story. Here are some lists I found that might provide a starting point, but as I don’t know anything about any of these books I will need some advice!

Historical Fiction about Presidents or Their Wives (Goodreads)
Presidential Historical Fiction Books (Bookbub)
Historical Fiction Books about First Ladies (Bookbub)

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Have you read any Presidential/First Lady fiction? Which books would you recommend?

21 thoughts on “Historical Musings #50: Presidential Historical Fiction

    • Helen says:

      It’s not an area that has come up in my reading very often either. I’m hoping to get some good recommendations in the comments!

      • Calmgrove says:

        Judy’s comments below reminds me that Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here, a satirical account of a fictional Democrat who gets the presidency in the 1930s but who behaves just as Trump has been doing now. I think it was Penguin which reissued it in the wake of Trump’s success: I got a third of the way through before what was happening in real life chilled me to the bone. As Trump’s (hopefully one and only) presidency heads towards its final year I may feel ready to pick it up again.

  1. Sandra says:

    Oh dear, that makes three of us! And I totally agree with you, Helen, on how often it is easier to enter into a subject through fiction.

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    Thanks for mentioning me, Helen!
    Not chronological but…
    Suggestions from books I have read: Love Is Eternal by Irving Stone: Abraham Lincoln from the viewpoint of his wife Mary.
    Immortal Wife, Irving Stone: about John C Fremont, his life and bid for president in the 1830s.
    Advise and Consent by Allen Drury: politics between the president and the senate during the Cold War: dense but eyeopening! It won a Pulitzer Prize.
    All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren: about a political demagogue during the 1940s, shows how populism led to some strange political leaders.
    All ten of the Lanny Budd series by Upton Sinclair follows US history in relation to WWI, WWII and after, includes Presidents Wilson, FDR.
    American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld: fictional account of a president’s wife based on George W Bush.
    Not read but plan to: Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire, novels about key points in American history including key presidents.
    Hope you find some of these fit your needs and happy reading!

    • Helen says:

      Thanks, Judy. I knew I could rely on you! I would love to try some of Irving Stone’s books, although most of them seem to be out of print here at the moment. I’ll look out for them. American Wife appeals to me too as I remember enjoying one of Curtis Sittenfeld’s other books. Gore Vidal is also on my list of authors I want to try at some point!

  3. April Munday says:

    I read Lincoln by Gore Vidal recently. It’s an interesting book. It’s told from lots of points of view, but never Lincoln’s. The reader never knows what he’s thinking or what his motivation is.

    Not long after it first came out in the 70s I read his Burr, in which several presidents appear, but I just remember not knowing enough of the history to appreciate it.

  4. Elle says:

    Varina, by Charles Frazier, is about the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and really excellent. (Also, the Confederate government is something I don’t see many historical novelists tackling at all.)

    • Helen says:

      That sounds interesting – I know almost nothing at all about the Roosevelts! I seem to find it easier to retain facts from novels rather than from non-fiction, for some reason, so historical fiction is usually the best way for me to introduce myself to a new subject.

  5. piningforthewest says:

    I really enjoyed reading Gore Vidal’s Washington, Burr and Lincoln although it’s years since I read them I’ve always intended to re-read them eventually, and I rarely do re-reads.

    • Helen says:

      It’s just not a subject that seems to come up in fiction very often! I’m looking forward to trying one or two of the books people have suggested above.

  6. Ruthiella says:

    I second the recommendation of All the Kings Men. Huey Long was never president, but he could have had a chance at it had he lived. But that book is amazing.

    You might want to try American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. I liked it though I felt it was also perhaps a little voyeuristic. it is based on the life of First Lady Laura Bush. You won’t get much insight into the Bush II administration but you will get a fictionalized idea of why a woman like Laura Bush would have married a man like George W. Bush.

    Just thinking too, there was recently that book about Eleanor Roosevelt titled “White Houses” by Amy Bloom. I’ve not read it but I hear good things.

    • Helen says:

      It sounds as though I really need to try All the King’s Men! I would like to read American Wife too as I enjoyed one of Curtis Sittenfeld’s other books (Prep) and a book based on Laura Bush’s life sounds interesting.

      Thanks for suggesting White Houses. I’ve seen it mentioned on a few other blogs over the last year or two but I didn’t know what it was about.

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