My Favorite Historical Nonfiction Books

Out today is David W. Blight’s new biography on Frederick Douglass. If you have seen me around, you know how obsessed I am with Douglass. Sometimes I joke that he is my historical boyfriend (and yes, I completely understand how problematic that statement is). My love for Douglass is strong, and has been a presence in my life since I was an undergraduate student at Arizona State University. There is something about his image and his words that resonant years after I have graduated.

This isn’t a post about Frederick Douglass. Alas, it is only a brief list of my favorite historical nonfiction books.

The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed

I had to read this book for a class on American literature. I ended up forcing it into a paper on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. What does Sally Hemings have in common with the protagonist of Melville’s novella? I honestly couldn’t tell you.

Despite being forced to use this book in a paper – the book is one of my favorites. Annette Gordon-Reed does a masterful job weaving the untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves with what was happening in American politics and history. This book is more than the story of one family, and Gordon-Reed doesn’t gloss over any of the paradoxes that Jefferson attempts to hide. Sally Hemings is not the main character of this book, and her part of the story only makes up a small chunk of the tragedy that her family suffered. It is the true story of the ill-fated lives of her brothers that will be remembered after the last page is turned.

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Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Okay, I get that this book is still super popular and “trendy” due to the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda transposed it into a musical for the 21st century. The amazing part about that is that Miranda stays true to Chernow’s biography of the forgotten founding father. You can place the moments from the musical within the context of the book. There were various times I was reading it where I found myself singing some of the musical’s songs under my breath. This actually helps with the reading experience. Chernow never leaves anything out of his biographies (Hamilton is no exception) and the book can be an intimidating and overwhelming reading adventure. This book is a great companion for those that love the musical. Fortunately, the books can also stand on its own as a masterful achievement of a biography. Hamilton is much more than a biography – much like John Adams by David McCullough, the biography digresses into an extensive exploration of the time period and events that helped to create the subject. Alexander Hamilton was most definitely a product of his time, and Chernow does an exhaustive job weaving the history of America with the biographical history of a complicated man.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

I heard this was going to be a movie and squealed so loud. I cannot wait to see it come alive on the big screen. I have read this book twice, and the first time I could not believe that what I was reading was really true. Disclaimer: I was fated to love this book because it contains two of my favorite subjects to read about, serial killers and World’s Fairs. What can I say? I am easy to please.

Erik Larson juxtaposes two historical moments in time – the serial murders committed by  H.H. Holmes, and the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Holmes was a twisted and depraved murderer that actually had a special “castle” built (complete with incinerator) to kill and dispose of the bodies of his victims. Some records claim that Holmes was responsible for the killing of 200 people. This true crime story would be fascinating in its own rights, but for the fact that right next door was the World’s Fair. Larson brilliantly describes the people that visited the fair, from Buffalo Bill to Thomas Edison, along side the amazing inventions and oddities that were on display. The irony of the Gilded Age is that Holmes was able to exploit the World’s Fair as a means to lure women and men to their deaths. A fascinating read.

KL: The History of the Concentration Camp by Nickolaus Wachsmann

Some of you may know that I have a minor in modern German history. If you don’t know this, consider yourself enlightened. While many are fascinated with the Holocaust and its aftermath, there are others that are fascinated by Hitler or one of his commanders. My fascination has always been with the build-up: how did something as atrocious as the Holocaust happen? Wachsmann delivers on the answer to that question, using historical records and scholarship to explore various theories on how the Holocaust became reality. This book is not a light read, and some of the chapters are painful to read. Yet, we cannot look away and we must read these historical accounts in order to remember what happened so that it will never happen again.

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Queen Isabella by Alison Weir

Weir always writes about the most badass bitches. I love every book she has written (well, the nonfiction ones – her historical novels sound so boring). If I had to choose one as my favorite, it would be her biography of Queen Isabella. In the 14th century, Isabella arrived from France to marry the English king and produce heirs to the throne and mend some political wounds. She was twelve. Since Edward II was a known bisexual, their marriage was an unconventional one and after giving birth to four children, Isabella fled the country. She returned later with her lover to stage a rebellion. After a successful rebellion, she had her lover killed and put her son on the throne. Called a “she-wolf” by history, Weir does a great job showcasing a woman that was not afraid to fight for power – and who ultimately knew how to keep it. If you are waiting impatiently for the next season of Game of Thrones, I recommend you read this book to hold you over.

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N S Ford

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