When people think of historical fiction based on true events, they probably jump straight to WW2, which is understandable – this has become an increasingly popular sub-genre in the last few years and regularly features on my Instagram feed.
But as much as I love WW2 books, I’ve recently expanded my knowledge into other areas of history that I’m keen to explore more of. This list contains some of my favourite (and underrated) WW2 books, as well as some other incredible fiction books based on true events.
For historical fiction based on true events, my spotlight recommendation is:
The Last Reunion by Kayte Nunn
Genre: Historical fiction based on a group of Australian & British WW2 servicewomen
Based on true events, The Last Reunion centres around a group of women who ran a mobile canteen in the Burma war. Fast forward nearly 60 years and the women reunite on New Year’s Eve, where secrets spill and long-ago friendships face the ultimate test.
This novel is incredibly constructed and very well researched, covering a geographical area rarely touched on in WW2 fiction and aptly named ‘the forgotten war.’ It is enthralling and captivating, spanning decades and countries fronted by female-driven narratives.
More historical fiction based on true events to add to your TBR
Here are some of the best historical fiction books based on true stories that I recommend, covering events that include the 1627 Barbary pirate raids in Iceland, the 1918 Spanish flu, and the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s.
Sin Eater by Megan Campisi
Genre: Historical fantasy fiction set in 16th-century England
After being caught stealing a loaf of bread, May is sentenced to become a sin eater, where she listens to the dying confess their sins and absolves them after death, consuming each sin which is represented by a different food. When a non-confessed food is revealed on the Queen’s governess’ coffin, May is suspicious, aware that something is happening in the underbelly of the castle and is determined to solve the mystery. But at what price?
Sin eating is a popular theme in folklore tales and was the inspiration behind this novel. It’s an interesting concept and one that Megan Campisi has woven into a complex and original story.
Read if you like: Coming-of-age stories, magical realism, and unexpected endings.
The Magnolia Palace by Fiona Davis
Genre: Historical fiction set in New York in 1919 and 1966
1919: After fleeing the scene of a scandal, Lillian seeks refuge in an old home and unwittingly finds herself interviewing for the role of secretary. It’s a far cry from her usual work as an artist’s model, with her figure portrayed in iconic statues across the city, including the Frick residence, where she accepts the job and begins working under the domineering Helen Frick. Though the job at first saves her, she soon becomes privy to family secrets that, if revealed, could cost Lillian her life.
1966: A once-in-a-lifetime fashion shoot brings Veronica from England to the former Frick mansion, now an esteemed museum. There, she meets art enthusiast, Joshua, and the two discover a hidden clue that could hold the answer to long-buried secrets, including an infamous murder.
Taking past events and true facts, Fiona Davis has created a fictional tale around the anonymous New York model who, by mere chance, got caught up in her neighbour’s murder and the wealthy Frick family, overseen by cruel and cunning Henry Clay Frick.
Read if you like: Dual timelines, family drama, and secret identities.
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Genre: Historical fiction set during the Spanish flu pandemic in Dublin, 1918
The majority of The Pull of the Stars takes place in an understaffed hospital, where Nurse Julia is tasked with looking after the expectant mothers quarantined together in a tiny makeshift ward. With only a smattering of characters and a storyline that covers just three days, it is a raw and honest account of one woman’s fight to save mothers, babies, and staff from a ravaging and unstoppable disease.
Read if you like: slow burns, strong character building, and intense endings.
Note: there are no speech marks in the book and only four chapters which catches a lot of people off-guard.
People Like Us by Louise Fein
Genre: Historical fiction set in Leipzig, Germany in the 1930s
People Like Us sets itself apart from other books set during WW2 as the story is told from the eyes of Hetty, a girl whose father is a highly ranked SS Officer and who epitomises ‘the perfect German.’ The book paints a tragic love story between Hetty and Walter – a boy she loves but a boy who also goes against everything her family in the Nazi circle believe.
Read if you like: WW2 novels from a unique angle, events that leave you breathless, and heartbreaking endings.
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
Genre: Historical fiction set in Texas during the Great Depression
Most would expect The Nightingale to be my Kristin Hannah book of choice for this list (which I still highly recommend) but we’re jumping further back in time with The Four Winds which is set during the dry and drought-ridden Dust Bowl. I loved this one even more than The Nightingale as the way Kristin Hannah explores the Great Depression and the California ‘dream’ is nothing short of exceptional.
Read if you like: Immersive scenery descriptions, family sagas, and character transformations.
The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson
Genre: Historical fiction retelling set in the early 1600s between Iceland and Algeria
Barbary pirates raided Iceland in 1627 and sold the captured Icelanders into slavery. Though the raid itself is well recorded, little is known about the futures of the women or children who were sent to Algiers.
The Sealwoman’s Gift is a rich retelling, layered with sagas and stories, and gives a voice to Icelandic women. Bursting with history, the book is refreshing and interesting, particularly if you’ve not read an Icelandic book before.
Read if you like: Icelandic/North African culture, descriptive settings, and powerful storytelling.
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
Genre: Historical fiction set in Depression-era America
I’ll admit, Me Before You was not my jam as an avid avoider of all chick-lit. However, The Giver of Stars totally redeemed Jojo Moyes as an author in my eyes, with a book based on the real-life story of the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.
Read if you like: Strong female leads, a solid narrator (audiobook), and interesting character backgrounds.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
Genre: Historical fiction about the Blue People of Kentucky
There may be controversy surrounding this book and The Giver of Stars which share themes around the packhorse library, however, having read both, I can confirm that while there are shared themes, the stories are entirely different. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is much more focused around the Blue People ancestry, exploring racism, acceptance, poverty, and vanity.
Read if you like: Wholesome characters, remote settings, and a Kentucky accent (for the audio lovers).
The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer
Genre: Historical Fiction set in Nazi-occupied Poland and modern-day America
The Things We Cannot Say is, to date, one of the best books I’ve ever read. Yes, it’s another WW2 book, but believe me when I say this one stands out among all the others.
Read if you like: Intertwining narratives, gasp-worthy twists, and experiencing every emotion the body is capable of producing.
The Zookeeper of Belfast by S. Kirk Walsh
Genre: Historical fiction set in Belfast during WW2
Based on a true story, The Zookeeper of Belfast centres around the city’s first ever female zookeeper who is tasked with looking after the zoo’s latest recruit – a baby elephant – as bombers continue to target the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Read if you like: WW2 books from a unique perspective, uplifting narratives, and human-animal friendships.
Don’t forget to check out this WW2 book list if you want to add even more options to your overflowing TBR. Let me know which book(s) you choose and be sure to tag me in your reviews so I can read your thoughts!