Good Reads Inspired by History

These absorbing novels feature strong female protagonists whose lives intertwine with historic events and personalities.

The Hours Count

Jillian Cantor reimagines the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American couple executed in 1953 for conspiring to commit espionage. The story is told through the lens of a fictional neighbor Millie Stein, who meets and befriends Ethel in Knickerbocker Towers, the New York City apartment building where the Rosenbergs lived prior to their arrest. Ethel and Millie bond over concerns for their children and the challenges of being young mothers with limited incomes and opportunities to spread their wings.

This absorbing and often poignant novel conveys the paranoia of the Cold War era when Americans actively worried about “the bomb,” but also of a time when male-female roles were rigidly adhered to and such problems as autism were not commonly known about.

Cantor’s critically acclaimed 2013 novel, Margot, also uses an historic figure as inspiration: Margot Frank, Anne’s sister, whom she portrays as surviving Bergen-Belsen and coming to America where she poses as a Christian from Poland. (Riverhead)

The Muralist

B.A. Shapiro, author of the bestselling novel, The Art Forger, mixes fictional characters with iconic abstract expressionist artists in this compelling new novel, set primarily amidst events leading up to World War II. The novel features as its fictional protagonists Danielle Abrams, who lives in 2015 and works for Christie’s auction house, and her great-aunt Alizée Benoit, a gifted young American-Jewish artist who paints murals for the WPA in the late 1930s. Alizée’s circle of friends and colleagues include such real-life artists as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner and Willem de Kooning.

Alizée struggles to define herself as an abstract artist at the same time as she works to obtain visas for family members in Nazi-occupied France. Along the way she meets and is befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt. The First Lady offers help, but the artist also comes up against the powerful isolationists Charles Lindbergh, Joe Kennedy and Breckinridge Long. Suddenly, in 1940, she disappears and isn’t seen again. (Algonquin)

The Jazz Palace

The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris is set in early 20th century Chicago, and features two families, the Lehrmans, who run a small hat factory, and the Chimbrovas, who run a saloon. Both suffer terrible blows—the former, the loss of a son in a snowstorm, and the latter, of three boys in the tragic 1915 sinking of the SS Eastland, a ferry. Encountering one another on the day of the sinking, but not actually meeting until later, are Benny Lehrman and Pearl Chimbrova. Later, Benny becomes an accomplished jazz pianist whom Pearl invites to perform at her family’s saloon. Morris beautifully evokes the sights and sounds of Chicago’s jazz era, its clubs, musicians, gangsters and famous figures, Louis Armstrong and Al Capone, among them. A Chicago native, Morris’s previous books include highly regarded short story collections, novels and travel memoirs. (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)

St. Mazie

In Saint Mazie, Jami Attenberg, author of the wonderful 2013 novel, The Middlesteins, reimagines the story of Mazie Phillips Gordon, a bawdy Prohibition-era bad girl who, when the Depression strikes, opens the doors of The Venice, the movie theater she runs, to help the down and out. The story is ostensibly based on Mazie’s diary, rediscovered by a documentarian 90 years later, as well as those who remember her. In actuality, Attenberg was inspired to write the book by the life of a woman profiled by legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. (Grand Central)