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For Women’s History Month: 5 Historical Fiction Novels That Celebrate Forgotten Women

“Sisters of Night and Fog”, by Erika Robuck

This World War II novel switches between the reimagined lives of two women who fearlessly fought with resistance groups to slow the tide of German rule over France. American Virginia from Alberte-Lake risked her life several times helping to smuggle Allied airmen out of France. Violette Szabo, a half-French, half-English widow and mother, joined Britain’s Special Operations Executive and trained as a saboteur and spy before parachuting into France to fight with the resistance. Although they probably never met during their call to arms, the two women were eventually arrested and held in the same German prison camps, including the infamous Ravensbrück. The essence of this heartbreaking novel applies to all of the women we encounter in these works of historical fiction: that there are many ways in which women are called to serve. “Good mothers are not all alike”, thinks Violette during her incarceration, “any more than good daughters, good wives or good agents. They are each waging a war of women, as they are called to do, on different but essential fronts.

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Equal parts historical fiction and gripping thriller, Quinn’s latest novel celebrating heroic women is inspired by the life of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a legendary Soviet sniper credited with killing more than 300 enemy combatants during the Soviet struggle against Nazi invasion during World War II. Quinn’s imagination and extensive research transform this tale of an extraordinarily talented woman into a highly cinematic action novel that pays tribute to all women in the military. Its tension is palpable as Quinn depicts the horrific casualties on the Russian front and the harrowing confrontations that pit Pavlichenko against Germany’s best snipers. Quinn’s Pavlichenko is multi-dimensional: a patriot, a librarian, a loving mother, and a woman who faced prejudice in the mostly male Soviet military. A fascinating side story recounts Pavlichenko’s visit to the United States to advocate for American war aid and the real-life friendship she shared with Eleanor Roosevelt. (Available March 29)

“His hidden genius”, by Marie Benedict

Rosalind Franklin was an extraordinary British scientist who in the 1940s discovered the DNA double helix that helped unlock the hidden secrets of the building blocks of life. Resentful male colleagues belittled and insulted her, then stole her research in part to prevent a woman from receiving any credit. Benedict, who has written novels about Agatha Christie and Clementine Churchill, brings to life Franklin’s courage and spirit as well as the sexual harassment she faced in performing her meticulous work. Although the story sometimes drags under the weight of painstakingly detailed scientific experiments and data, its unusual focus on female scientists makes it an important contribution to the historical record.

“Tobacco Wives” by Adele Myers

This debut novel doesn’t focus so much on historical figures as it brings to life an amalgam of activists who fought for the rights of women working in North Carolina’s tobacco industry in the mid-20th century. Originally from North Carolina, Myers tells her fascinating story through the eyes of 15-year-old Maddie Sykes, who accidentally finds a confidential letter detailing the dangers of smoking for pregnant women. His discovery coincides with the launch of a mint cigarette targeting women with the promise of improving their health. This lie is being promoted even as women in the fictional town of Bright Leaf miscarry or give birth prematurely. Myers’ novel is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a lesson in the power of the working class to bring about change. (Available March 22)

Carol Memmott is a writer in Austin

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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson