From nurses struggling to save the lives of wounded soldiers to journalists stationed on the front lines, women have played an important part in wars throughout history. It’s no surprise, then, that these types of heroines are some of our favorite characters in historical fiction. Their stories tell of good versus evil but also the ways in which such stark distinctions become more complicated as empathy and humanity creep in. Through them we not only learn about important historical events but also gain a deeper understanding of struggle, sacrifice, courage, perseverance, and—often—love. We’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite novels set during wars from World War I to Vietnam featuring fierce female protagonists who aren’t afraid to step up for the cause.
“A searing, tightly woven tale of war and the legacy it leaves behind. . . . A nuanced, sophisticated portrayal of what it means not only to endure, but to insist on hope.” —Oprah.com
When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Aleppo, Syria, she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. It’s 1915, and Elizabeth has volunteered to help deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian Genocide during the First World War. There she meets Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. After leaving Aleppo and traveling into Egypt to join the British Army, he begins to write Elizabeth letters, realizing that he has fallen in love with the wealthy young American.
Years later, their American granddaughter, Laura, embarks on a journey back through her family’s history, uncovering a story of love, loss—and a wrenching secret that has been buried for generations.
“The narrative, as always with McEwan, smoulders with slow-burning menace. The book is magically readable, and never has McEwan shown himself to be more in sympathy with the vulnerability of the human heart.” —The Sunday Times (London)
Ian McEwan’s symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness provides all the satisfaction of a brilliant narrative and the provocation we have come to expect from this master of English prose.
On a hot summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment’s flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant and Cecilia’s childhood friend. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives—together with her precocious literary gifts—brings about a crime that will change all their lives. As it follows that crime’s repercussions through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century, Atonement engages the reader on every conceivable level with an ease and authority that mark it as a genuine masterpiece.
“There is no shortage of dramatic tension, excitement or persuasive detail [in Charlotte Gray]. . . . Mr. Faulks is a prodigiously talented writer.” —The New York Times
Charlotte Gray tells the remarkable story of a young Scottish woman who becomes caught up in the effort to liberate Occupied France from the Nazis while pursuing a perilous mission of her own.
In blacked-out, wartime London, Charlotte Gray develops a dangerous passion for a battle-weary RAF pilot, and when he fails to return from a daring flight into France, she is determined to find him. In the service of the Resistance, she travels to the village of Lavaurette, dyeing her hair and changing her name to conceal her identity. Here she will come face-to-face with the harrowing truth of what took place during Europe’s darkest years and will confront a terrifying secret that threatens to cast its shadow over the remainder of her days. Vividly rendered, tremendously moving, and with a narrative sweep and power reminiscent of his novel Birdsong, Charlotte Gray confirms Sebastian Faulks as one of the finest novelists working today.
“Exceptional. . . . Magnetically realized. . . . Gordon illuminates her scenes with kinetic precision.” —The New York Times Book Review
At nineteen, Marian Taylor cut herself off from her wealthy, conservative Irish Catholic family and left America to volunteer in the Spanish Civil War—an experience she has always kept to herself. Now in her nineties and diagnosed with cancer, Marian finally shares what happened to her during those years with her granddaughter Amelia, a young woman of good heart but only a vague notion of life’s purpose. Marian’s secret history—of personal and ethical challenges nearly unthinkable to Amelia’s generation, of the unexpected gifts of true love and true friendship—compels Amelia to make her own journey to Spain to reconcile her grandmother’s past with her own uncertain future. Moving and deeply felt, There Your Heart Lies explores how character is forged in a particular moment in history—and passed down through generations.
“This impressive novel finds a new way of illuminating the horrors of an old war.” —People
It’s 1967, and Susan Gifford is one of the first women correspondents in Saigon, dedicated to her job and passionately in love with an American TV reporter. Son is a Vietnamese photographer anxious to get his work to the American press. Together they cover every aspect of the war from combat missions to the workings of field hospitals. Then one November morning, after narrowly escaping death, Susan and Son find themselves the prisoners of three Vietcong soldiers. Helpless in the hands of the enemy, they face the jungle, living always with the threat of being killed and the slow realization that their complicated relationship is the only thing sustaining them both.