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)


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

The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain

Diane Chamberlain is not an author I have ever thought about reading, but when I unexpectedly received a review copy of her new book, The Stolen Marriage, from the publisher a while ago I was intrigued. The setting and the plot both sounded appealing and I decided that it would be worth at least giving it a try to see what it was like.

Our narrator is Tess DeMello and as the novel opens in 1944 it seems that she has her future all planned out. She is engaged to the man she loves – Vincent Russo, a newly qualified doctor – and she is about to take the final exams that will enable her to become a registered nurse. Things begin to go wrong when Vincent volunteers to help with a polio epidemic in Chicago and stays away for longer than expected. Feeling lonely and neglected, Tess agrees to join her best friend Gina for a weekend trip to Washington, where one thing leads to another and she finds herself pregnant by another man.

Convinced that Vincent will want nothing more to do with her, Tess goes in search of her baby’s father, Henry Kraft, the wealthy owner of a furniture company in Hickory, North Carolina. All she wants from Henry is enough money for somewhere to live and to provide for the child when it is born, so she gets a big surprise when he asks her to marry him. Thinking about the baby’s future, Tess agrees and soon she is part of the Kraft family, living in their luxurious home in Hickory.

Life in Hickory brings new challenges for Tess, however. She quickly discovers that, although Henry is not unkind, her marriage is a loveless one. Worse, she is unable to trust her new husband. Why is he hiding money from her and where does he disappear to in the middle of the night? And worst of all, Tess finds it impossible to fit in with Henry’s family and friends. His mother and sister seem to hate her – and make no secret of their hatred – but Tess isn’t sure why. Is it just that, with her Italian background and her desire to work for a living, they don’t consider her good enough for Henry – or could there be another reason for their resentment?

It took me a few chapters to really get into The Stolen Marriage, but after that the pages flew by. I was kept in suspense wondering what Henry’s secret could possibly be and although there were plenty of clues I still didn’t guess correctly! Tess didn’t understand what was happening either and I had nothing but sympathy for her as she tried to come to terms not just with the destruction of her old life but the awareness that her new one was built around lies and deceit. However, I struggled to understand some of the choices she made and I felt that her actions (and the actions of other characters) were sometimes contrived to move the story forward rather than feeling like the natural way she would have behaved. There were a few unconvincing plot twists and developments near the end of the novel too, but although this was slightly disappointing it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the novel too much. There were so many other things to love.

I particularly enjoyed the insights into what it may have been like to live in a small town in North Carolina in the 1940s. Having moved from an Italian neighbourhood in Baltimore, Maryland, Tess experiences a culture shock when she arrives in Hickory. Her husband’s family and friends are prejudiced, narrow-minded snobs who make Tess feel very uncomfortable, finding fault with her looks, her clothes, her opinions and her family background. Racial tensions are also high in the town and this aspect is explored through the story of a black family who work as servants in the Kraft household. Of course, there are good and bad people everywhere and in all walks of life, which Tess discovers when the polio epidemic reaches Hickory and the community must pull together to build and staff a new hospital in record time.

The building of the hospital is based on a true historical event (you can find out more by searching online for ‘the Miracle of Hickory’); I had never heard about this before, so I found that section of the novel fascinating! As the story is set in 1944, it was also interesting to read about the impact of World War II on the people of Hickory, with rationing in place and families waiting anxiously for news of sons, husbands and brothers fighting overseas. I loved the glimpse this book gave me into another time and place and although I’m not sure whether this is typical of Diane Chamberlain’s novels, I will certainly be looking for more of her books in the future.

Thanks to Macmillan for providing a copy of this novel for review.

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

It’s been some time since I last read a Tracy Chevalier novel, but having enjoyed some of her books in the past, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read her latest one, At the Edge of the Orchard.

The story begins in 1838 in the Black Swamp of Ohio, where James and Sadie Goodenough are attempting to make a living from the harsh, inhospitable earth on which they have settled. With the help of their five children, James is working hard to establish an orchard with enough apple trees to satisfy the requirements to legally claim their piece of land. Sadie, who does not share her husband’s ambition, longs to move on and start again somewhere else – somewhere more comfortable and welcoming. Finding solace in the strong cider and applejack produced from the fruits of the orchard, Sadie’s is a miserable existence from which there seems to be no escape.

Time passes and we jump forward to the 1850s where the youngest Goodenough son, Robert, has made his way alone to California. What happened to the rest of the family? Why does Robert never get a reply to the letters he sends home to his brothers and sisters? We’ll have to wait until later in the book for these questions to be answered, but in the meantime we read about Robert’s work with the plant collector William Lobb, gathering seeds and plants to sell to gardeners in England. Having grown up surrounded by trees, this is the sort of job that interests Robert – yet there is still something missing from his life, and when he is finally given a chance of happiness, he will have to decide whether to take it.

I enjoyed At the Edge of the Orchard and found it a surprisingly compelling read. I say ‘surprisingly’ because, despite the title and the picture on the cover, which should have been clues, I wasn’t fully prepared for so much information on trees: in the orchard sections, we learn about different types of apple tree – the qualities of ‘eaters’ versus ‘spitters’; the taste of James’ favourite Golden Pippins; and the methods used to graft one tree onto another – and in the California sections we are given a wealth of information on the giant sequoia trees of Calaveras Grove. I have to admit, although I do appreciate the beauty and importance of trees, I have very little interest in them. I’m impressed that Tracy Chevalier managed to hold my attention from the first page to the last; I was never bored and would never have expected a book about trees to be so engaging!

Of course, this is not just a book about trees – it’s also a book about human beings, following the stories of several very different characters. At first, the Goodenoughs don’t seem to be a very pleasant set of people. James is decent enough, but with a tendency to be violent when things annoy him and a frustrating single-mindedness when it comes to growing and nurturing his precious apple trees. His wife, Sadie, is a deeply unhappy woman but any sympathy I may have had for her was destroyed by her bitter, spiteful nature and needlessly cruel actions. It wasn’t until later in the novel that I found some characters I could like and care about. In fact, a series of letters written by two of these characters broke my heart…the sense of loneliness and desperation they each felt came across so strongly.

The novel is carefully structured, moving backwards and forwards in time to ensure that certain things are kept hidden until it becomes necessary for us to know them. A mixture of styles are used to tell the story too, from the letters I’ve mentioned above to conventional third party narration and several passages narrated by Sadie in a very distinctive voice of her own. Although the story of the Goodenoughs is fictional, we also meet several real historical figures: the legendary Johnny Appleseed is one you may have heard of, but the English tree collector William Lobb was also a real person. There are so many different elements to At the Edge of the Orchard and they all come together to form one fascinating, enjoyable and very moving novel.

I’ve now read four Tracy Chevalier novels and so far they have all been very different, covering such diverse subjects as the Dutch art world (Girl with a Pearl Earring), fossil collecting on the south coast of England (Remarkable Creatures), religious conflict in 16th century France (The Virgin Blue) and now the trees and orchards of 19th century America. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her books now that I’ve been reminded of them!

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Some Luck This is the first volume of a trilogy following the lives of the Langdon family across a period of a century. Beginning in 1920 and ending in 2020 (although Some Luck only takes us up to 1953), we will get to know several generations of the family over the course of the three novels, watching as the children grow up, get married and have children of their own, sharing their hopes and dreams, and accompanying them through some of the events which shaped the last one hundred years of American history.

At the heart of the story are Walter and Rosanna Langdon, a young married couple who, as the novel opens, are settling into life on the farm they have recently bought in Iowa. Rosanna has just given birth to their first child, Frank, and in the first few chapters, not only do we see things through the eyes of the two adults, but also through the baby’s, to whom everything in the world is new and strange. As the years go by, four more sons and daughters follow: quiet, gentle, animal-loving Joey; the sweet and angelic Lillian; Henry, who loves reading; and Claire, the youngest and her father’s favourite. Frank himself is handsome, clever and adventurous – and the contrast between his personality and Joey’s adds an interesting angle to the dynamics of the Langdon family.

The novel is carefully structured so that each chapter is devoted to one year and this keeps the story moving forward at a steady pace. However, it also gives the book an episodic feel; each time a new chapter begins and we find that we’ve jumped straight into the following year, there’s a sense that there are some gaps in the story and that things may have changed without our knowledge in a way that wouldn’t happen with a more fluent narrative. Also, as is true in all of our lives, some years are more eventful than others, which means that some chapters are more interesting than others.

Really, though, this is not a book you would choose to pick up if you were looking for a thrilling, action-packed read. Some Luck is a quiet, low-key story about ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Much of the novel is concerned with farming and all it involves: planting and harvesting crops, shearing sheep, trying to cope with summer droughts and winter snowdrifts. It reminded me in this respect of other farm-based novels I’ve read – Willa Cather’s My Antonia and, of course, Little House on the Prairie.

There are some dramas in the lives of the Langdons, but they are relatively small ones – the sort of things that could happen to any of us. Historical events are experienced mainly as the effects filter through to their remote Iowa farm – advances in farming methods, such as the replacement of horses with tractors, cause a lot of excitement and controversy – but occasionally a family member decides to leave the farm and see more of the world. Frank enlists in the army during the Second World War and is sent to North Africa, Rosanna’s sister Eloise moves to Chicago and marries a communist, and Lillian…well, I won’t say too much about what Lillian does except that it’s the one thing I found hard to believe.

Some Luck is the first book I have read by Jane Smiley. I’m aware that A Thousand Acres was her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and might have been a better choice for me to start with, but I did still enjoy this one and am planning to continue with the trilogy soon. I have the next two books – Early Warning and Golden Age – ready to read.

Dragonwyck by Anya Seton

Dragonwyck - Anya Seton Sorry for neglecting my blog recently…I’ve had a busy two weeks at work and haven’t had much time or enthusiasm for blogging. Luckily I have a week off now and will be able to catch up on telling you about all the books I’ve been reading, beginning with this one, Dragonwyck, which I read for the R.I.P challenge.

I had been looking forward to reading this book for a long time, having been a fan of Anya Seton’s for years and also being a lover of both historical fiction and gothic novels. Dragonwyck is a combination of both – it includes some typical gothic elements (mysterious deaths, a mansion with haunted rooms and an old servant who tells tales of ghosts and curses) but it also has a fascinating and thoroughly researched historical background.

One day in 1844 Abigail Wells, wife of a Connecticut farmer, receives a letter from her rich cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn, offering to take one of her daughters into his home as a governess for his own young daughter, Katrine. Eighteen-year-old Miranda is the one who is chosen and she is thrilled to be given this opportunity to improve her situation in life. Nicholas is the Patroon (landowner) of a large estate called Dragonwyck in Hudson, New York, and after growing up on her parents’ farm the naïve and romantic Miranda is immediately captivated by the handsome Nicholas, his luxurious home and his aristocratic lifestyle.

Soon she becomes aware that she is falling in love with Nicholas and is sure he feels the same way – the only problem is, Nicholas is married. When tragedy strikes at Dragonwyck, Miranda’s life is transformed again, but this time she begins to uncover some of the house’s dark secrets and to learn the truth about her mysterious cousin Nicholas. As Anya Seton explains in her author’s note introducing the story: “All Gothic magnificence and eerie manifestations were not at that time inevitably confined to English castles or Southern plantations…”

As a gothic novel I didn’t find Dragonwyck particularly creepy – although it’s certainly a very dark book, with an oppressive, unsettling atmosphere. But the real attraction of this book for me was its wonderful historical setting that gave me some fascinating insights into areas of American history I hadn’t read about before. We learn about the Patroon system, for example, which began when landholders in the Dutch colony of New Netherland were given power over large areas of land, similar to the feudal system in medieval Europe. This led to an uprising of the tenants known as the Anti-Rent War and this forms a large part of Dragonwyck’s historical backdrop. We also learn about the Astor Place Riot during William Charles Macready’s performance in Macbeth and about the steamboat captains who would race each other on the Hudson River with total disregard for the safety of their passengers, sometimes with fatal consequences.

There are also a few brief appearances by real historical figures, most notably Edgar Allan Poe, but these felt as if they had been woven naturally into the story rather than name-dropping for the sake of it (in fact, the Poe episode does have a significance to the plot which only gradually becomes apparent later in the story). The main focus though, is on the three main fictional characters – Miranda, Nicholas and the doctor, Jeff Turner – and you’ll notice I haven’t said much about any of those three, because to attempt to explain why I liked or disliked each character would risk giving away too much of the story.

I did enjoy Dragonwyck but not as much as some of Anya Seton’s other novels (and I don’t think it really comes close to the brilliance of Jane Eyre or Rebecca, two books that it has been compared with). I do love reading ‘older’ historical fiction novels like this one though, as they seem to somehow have a completely different feel from modern ones. This book was published in 1944 and there’s a film too from 1946 with Gene Tierney and Vincent Price. I haven’t seen it, so I’d be interested to know what it’s like and how faithful it is to the book.

As well as this book, I have now read Katherine (one of my favourite historical fiction novels), Green Darkness, The Winthrop Woman, Avalon and Devil Water. If there are any of her others that you think I should look out for, please let me know which ones!

The Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

Despite the title, this is not a real autobiography, but a fictional account of the life of Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump. Measuring only two feet eight inches tall, Vinnie is described as ‘a perfect woman in miniature’. Not content to spend her life living on her family’s farm in Middleborough, Massachusetts, she works briefly as a schoolteacher before leaving home to perform with Colonel Wood’s riverboat show. Wood, who claims to be a cousin, promises to make Vinnie famous as an entertainer but it soon becomes obvious that he has other plans for her and she returns home disillusioned.

Determined not to give up on her dreams, Vinnie contacts the great showman P.T. Barnum and soon becomes a celebrity, travelling the world and meeting presidents and royalty. Her wedding in 1863 to another small person, Charles Stratton, known as General Tom Thumb, captures the imagination of both the press and the public. But when her younger sister Minnie, who is even smaller than herself, is also drawn into the world of show business, Vinnie fears it could all end in tragedy.

I enjoyed Melanie Benjamin’s previous novel, Alice I Have Been, which told the story of the girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, so I’ve been looking forward to reading more of her work. And I enjoyed this book too. There were plenty of things to admire about Vinnie – she had lots of courage, lots of confidence and dignity, and lots of ambition. Instead of staying in the safety of her home which would certainly have been the easiest thing to do, she wanted to get out and see the world, to have new experiences and to build a successful career for herself. I’ve never really stopped to think about how difficult – and even dangerous – everyday life can be for a person smaller than average in a world built for much taller people. Such simple things as opening a door, getting into bed, climbing up stairs and even walking through a crowded room were a challenge for Vinnie and I was impressed with how well she dealt with the situations she found herself in.

However, as the story continued I began to dislike Vinnie more and more. She was obsessed with fame and fortune, she had a very superior attitude and appeared to consider almost everyone else, including her husband and sister, to be less intelligent than herself. I found her relationship with Charles particularly sad to read about as it had the feel of a professional business arrangement rather than a happy marriage and Vinnie seemed to have very little affection or respect for him. Luckily, though, my dislike of Vinnie didn’t stop me from loving the book; it was still one of the most fascinating and original historical fiction novels I’ve read for a long time.

While Vinnie’s personal story is the main focus of this book, there are also lots of interesting facts of American history scattered throughout the novel. Vinnie lived through an eventful period that included the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, as well as the arrival of some exciting new inventions such as the electric light and the telephone. Information on all of these things and many others are provided in the form of short news articles during the ‘Intermissions’ between chapters. Some of these facts are relevant to the chapter that follows, while others are seemingly unrelated pieces of trivia – these don’t do anything to move the story forward, but they all give fascinating insights into the period.

I knew nothing about Lavinia Warren before reading this book so I can’t comment on the historical accuracy of the story, but it did appear to be very well researched. The real Vinnie never actually wrote an autobiography, but she left behind some travelogue-style journals and essays which Melanie Benjamin read as part of her research for the novel. She also includes some interesting photographs in the book, though I was disappointed that there weren’t more pictures illustrating some of the characters who appeared in the story. I was able to find some for myself online and seeing photos of Vinnie, Charles, P.T. Barnum and the others really helped bring the story to life!

New York by Edward Rutherfurd

This historical fiction novel by Edward Rutherfurd looks at the fascinating story of New York City from its early years as a 17th century Dutch trading post through to the present day. Along the way we learn about some of the important events that have shaped the New York we know today, from wars, blizzards and stock market crashes to the 9/11 tragedy. Some real historical figures make brief appearances – including Peter Stuyvesant, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and a few others – but the story is told through the lives of a fictional family, the Masters, who we follow down the generations.

I should start by saying that I’m a big fan of Edward Rutherfurd, having read all of his previous books (London, Sarum, The Forest, Dublin, Ireland Awakening and Russka). Each of Rutherfurd’s novels tells the story of a city or country over a period of hundreds of years and follows the lives of some of the families who lived there. His novels are all written in the same format and although they certainly won’t appeal to everybody I do think that if you read one of his books and enjoy it, there’s a good chance that you’ll enjoy at least some of his others.

This one, New York, is slightly different to the previous books in that it covers a much shorter period of time (from the 1600s to the present day, in comparison to Sarum, for example, which begins in the ice age and ends in the present day). This means that where in the previous novels it was sometimes necessary to skip forward by a few centuries, missing out several generations, New York is told as a more continuous narrative.

Another difference is that while Rutherfurd’s other books have told the stories of five or six main families, this one concentrates on one in particular: the Master family. I’m not sure I liked the way Rutherfurd chose to follow the Masters throughout the entire book. They were a family of merchants and bankers so their lives revolved around money, banking and the stock exchange, things I don’t find very interesting to read about. The book would have worked better for me if instead of spending so much time with the money-obsessed Masters, there had been more focus on some of the other families we meet: the Caruso family, who were Italian immigrants, the Jewish Adler family, the Irish O’Donnells, and the descendants of Quash the slave.

I also felt that the book was too uneven. I appreciate that when writing a novel like this one it must be very difficult to decide what to include and not to include, but I thought there were some parts that felt very rushed while others dragged on for too long. Also, I found the characters in the earlier chapters more engaging and well-developed. It almost seemed that the author himself had started to lose interest when he reached the 20th century and was making less effort to think of compelling storylines and characters for the later sections of the book.

I don’t want to sound too negative though, because I did think this was a good book and I learned a lot from it. I’m British, have never been to New York (though I would love to) and have never had the opportunity to study its history, so a lot of things mentioned in the novel were new to me. I knew little or nothing about some of the historical events such as the Draft Riots of 1863 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, for example. I expect that if you’re a New Yorker you’ll take different things away from this book than I did (and maybe you’ll notice historical inaccuracies that I wasn’t aware of) but hopefully you’ll still be able to learn something new.

But although I did enjoy New York, it’s not one of Rutherfurd’s best novels in my opinion, for the reasons I’ve mentioned above. If you’re new to his books, Sarum (English history with a focus on the city of Salisbury and nearby Stonehenge) would be my personal recommendation as a good place to start, though it really depends on your own areas of interest. If you’d like to try some Russian history, I can also highly recommend Russka, and the two books about Ireland are excellent too. Oh, and one final thing I should say is that Rutherfurd’s novels are very long. This one has over 1,000 pages, though it hasn’t taken me as long to read it as I was expecting. I don’t see how the story of New York could possibly be told in any less than 1,000 pages, so I hope the length won’t put you off!

Have you read any of Edward Rutherfurd’s books? Which ones have you enjoyed?