Lately, I’ve been using audiobooks as a way to motivate myself to take long walks after work. Listening to a good book while walking on the bike trails in our neighborhood makes an hour go by in what seems like a few minutes. It’s a wonderful way to escape and unwind after long days of meetings, preparing proposals, and designing spaces for our clients. I especially love historical fiction, so I thought I would round up some of my all time favorite audiobooks in this popular genre.
Pick #1 – Lavender Girls
I recently finished Lavender Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. It was a longer book, clocking in at 17 hours and 30 minutes. The book begins in 1939, on the verge of World War II, and follows the stories of three women over the next twenty years. The chapters alternate among each of the three main characters – an American society lady, a Polish teenager involved in the underground, and a German doctor. For much of the novel, the stories progress almost independently, but Kelly intertwines all three in the last chapters, bringing each story to a satisfying conclusion.
The book is inspired by true events, and two of three main characters were actual women whom the author heavily researched. The audiobook concludes with a message from the author in which she discusses how she was inspired to write this story and her process for researching it.
Pick #2 – All Things New
All Things New by Lynn Austin was another more recent choice that I thoroughly enjoyed. I didn’t think it was as complex or nuanced as some of my other choices here, but the story was entertaining and engrossing.
Austin set the novel at the end of the Civil War, opening in Richmond and eventually following the main characters to their plantation home in rural Virginia. The primary character is twenty-two-year-old Josephine Weatherly, practically a spinster in the 1860s South. Her father and oldest brother were both casualties of the war, leaving Josephine alone with her mother and sister. Eventually her other brother returns, but he suffers from the psychological effects of battle and is in no condition to restore their floundering plantation.
The book is also told from the perspective of one of the Weatherly’s former slaves Lizzie, who remains with her husband and children to continue working for the Weatherly family when all of the others have chosen to leave. Lizzie offers additional context to the story and eventually reveals secrets which affect both her own family as well as the Weatherlys.
Throughout the story, Josephine struggles with her relationship with God as well as with her overbearing mother and angry revengeful brother. She forms a clandestine friendship with a carpetbagger Yankee, who helps her to regain her footing and her faith after the long years of suffering and privation. In the end, he saves her and her family in more ways than one, helping to heal the wounds of war.
Pick #3 – The Seamstress
I loved The Seamstress by Sarah Tuvel Bernstein because it was so different from any other Holocaust novel I’ve ever read. First, the author’s straightforward narrative of her experiences resonated in a deeply personal way. Second, the author was Romanian, and much of the early story is set in her rural Romanian hometown and in Bucharest. I had never read a World War II novel set in Romania and the descriptions of the countryside, towns and city were mesmerizing.
Sarah is incredibly smart and wins a scholarship to attend school in Bucharest, but she is eventually expelled. Needing to support herself and unwilling to return home, she finds work in a dressmaker’s shop and eventually becomes an accomplished seamstress. She manages to escape the Nazis for some time due to her to her blond hair and blue eyes.
Eventually, she and her sisters are conscripted into forced labor. Later, they are deported to Ravensbruck, the infamous women’s concentration camp. Sarah was determined that both she and her sister would survive the war. She recounts her story matter-of-factly and without bitterness. I was struck by the poignancy of this true story, and it remained with me long after I’d finished reading it.
Pick #4 – The Invention of Wings
The Invention of Wings by Susan Monk Kidd is a pre-war Southern novel that chronicles the story of a house slave Handful Grimke and her mistress Sarah. Sarah and her younger sister Angelina were renowned abolitionists who fled their native Charleston, South Carolina, where they were threatened due to their advocacy for not only African-American liberty but also equality.
Sarah instinctively feels, even as a young child, that owning another person is wrong. She rebels early on by teaching her personal slave Handful to read. As she matures, she maintains outward propriety by engaging in required womanly pursuits, but inwardly, she cannot reconcile herself to the societal norms of her time.
The novel alternates between Handful’s perspective and Sarah’s, which makes the story even more compelling in audio format. Kidd does an excellent job at bringing the Grimkes to life and recreating 1800s Charleston and later Quaker life in the North.
Pick #5 – The Storyteller
The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult is one of those novels that completely sucks you in. I found myself sneaking minutes to listen to it whenever I could because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.
This book also features multiple narrators – Sage Singer, a twenty-something baker, living in New England, and her Jewish grandmother Minka, who survived the Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. The novel alternates between Sage’s voice in present day and Minka’s during the war. Also, Minka is a budding author when she is imprisoned by the Nazis, and excerpts of her writing feature prominently as standalone chapters, which provide a dark and sinister undertone to the entire book.
Sage, who was traumatized by a car accident that killed her mother, befriends an elderly German man whom she meets in her grief support group. Eventually, she comes to suspect that Josef is a Nazi war criminal, living a normal life, undetected for decades. She sets out to prove that Josef’s life is a lie, taking her on an emotional and harrowing journey into the past.
If you love World War II fiction, multiple narrators, and alternating time periods, as much as I do, this book is a must-read or listen.
Pick #6 – The Chaperone
The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty is also based on a true story. It chronicles the life of Louise Brooks, a 1920s silent film star, told from the point of view of her chaperone on her first trip to New York City. Cora Carlisle was an orphan, born in New York, who eventually was adopted by a Kansas couple. She lost her adoptive parents in her teens and was shunned by their older biological children. She quickly marries their young attorney and begins a seemingly traditional life as a housewife.
At thirty-six, disappointed in marriage and craving answers about her origins, she volunteers to chaperone spoiled young Louise Brooks as she travels to New York to study at the Denishawn School of Dancing. Their terse relationship is not improved by the close quarters conditions in their tiny apartment. While Louise dances during the day, Cora embarks on a quest to discover the truth about her parents. Along the way, she forms a friendship that sets her free and allows her to return to Kansas to pursue a more fulfilling, if unconventional, existence.
I know some people who loved this book and others who hated it. Personally, I was enthralled with Cora’s story as well as her bravery and perseverance to build a life that was truly her own.
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