Boston Globe: In difficult times, many readers turn to historical fiction

Nancy Harris, a practicing psychologist of 30 years and voracious reader, offers recommendations on books you might enjoy. In this installment of Book Buzz: historical fiction.

When daily headlines are replete with domestic violence and international strife many readers turn to historical fiction to remind them that they are not alone in the struggle to survive during difficult times.

Historical fiction allows readers to enter the lives of others and see how they endured painful moments in history. We momentarily become both witness and participants in an era that may be foreign to us, but discover that people today react to violence and oppression with the same fear, anger, hatred, and love as did earlier generations. As a psychologist, I believe these novels have the capacity to inspire hope and resiliency. It may be that exploration of the sights, sounds, and events of past eras, helps us to imagine how to negotiate the strains of current real-life situations.

Along these lines, preliminary psychological research conducted by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano (2013) at the New School for Social Research suggests that reading “literary fiction” enhances the ability to detect and understand others’ emotions, a crucial skill in navigating relationships. For purposes of the study, Kidd and Castano identified “literary fiction” as narratives with in-depth portrayals of characters’ inner feelings that “let you go into a new environment where you have to find your own way.” A thousand subjects were randomly assigned different texts to read. Those who read literary fiction more accurately identified and labeled emotions in others, as compared with those who read romance, thrillers, or nonfiction. They concluded that with “literary fiction,” “the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind into trying to understand the minds of others.”

Whether you are looking to literary or historical fiction to learn history, expand social empathy, derive hope in difficult times, or merely be entertained, the following books are a few of the best:

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah focuses on two sisters, Isabelle and Vianne Rossignol, in the dark days of the Second World War and the Nazi occupation of France. The oldest, Vianne, a quiet, rule-follower, is both a wife and mother who must watch her beloved husband go off to war. Isabelle is a young, beautiful, rebellious teenager who bridles at any limits. These two women, whose strength is constantly tested by the horror of death, starvation, and even rape, ultimately choose to do more than just survive.

Isabelle joins the French Resistance and risks her life to lead downed Allied airmen and other dissidents out of occupied France. Meanwhile, as Vianne watches her Jewish neighbors being dragged off to concentration camps or murdered, she risks her own life to secretly rescue and hide Jewish children.

This richly detailed, visually evocative novel is inspired in part by the true story of a 19-year-old Belgian woman, Andree de Jongh, who established the Comet Escape Line, a secret network that enabled Allied pilots to escape over the Pyrenees mountains to safety in Spain. Hannah’s work deftly asks us to question what would we sacrifice for friends and community in the face of unspeakable brutality.

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich takes us back to 1575 Venice. Hannah Levi risks death not only for herself but also for the entire Jewish Ghetto Nuovo in Venice as she takes on the role of midwife to save the lives of laboring Christian women and their unborn babies. Despite warnings about the terror that would be inflicted upon the Jews for rendering medical help to Christians, Hannah aids the feverish, laboring wife of the affluent Conte di Padovani. Should anyone discover her use of birthing spoons, a forbidden tool, to assist in delivery, she could be burned as a witch. In return for such risk, she asks for money to rescue her beloved husband who has been captured by mercenaries and languishes in a prison in Malta.

This lush, suspenseful, riveting novel leads us into the complex lives of both Hannah and her sister, a courtesan, depicting both the strength of women and the precariousness of their lives, regardless of status or religion. In its lavish detail this novel holds nothing back as it transports the reader into 16th-century Venice.

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende tells the story of Alma Belasco, a wealthy, widowed matriarch and renowned designer who has chosen to live her final years in Lark House, an independent-living facility. As a young Jewish girl, Alma is saved from Hitler’s reign of terror in Poland and sent to live with her relatives, the Belasco family, in San Francisco. While there, she meets Nathaniel Belasco, her kind, caring, older cousin, and Ichimei Fukuda, the quiet, gentle son of the Belascos’ gardener. The strong bond between Alma and Ichimei blossoms into a tender love affair. Yet, the brutal grip of war can’t be totally escaped — and the two are torn apart when he, like thousands of others, is forced into an internment camp following Pearl Harbor. Over the decades, Alma and Ichimei reunite again and again, but forces compel their love to stay hidden.

As Alma is nearing the end of her life, she meets the lovely Irina Bazili, a young caretaker at Lark House, who, like Alma, has her own troubling and painful memories from a war-torn childhood. Allende’s novel touches upon love, loss, and racism, but is perhaps at its best when illuminating the power of passion even in later life.

The Edge of Lost by Kristina McMorris is the richly woven and absorbing tale of young Shanley Keagan, a poor, young Irish boy in 1919 Dublin who dreams of shedding his harsh existence performing for scraps of food, and finding his biological father in America. When the chance to leave Ireland finally comes, Shanley discovers that it may take more than charm and talent to survive as an immigrant in New York. His introduction to a close-knit, affluent Italian family during the Atlantic crossing may turn out to be just the bit of luck he needs.

Fast forward two decades to a dark October night in 1937, and McMorris’s epic tale now focuses on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, where a warden’s 10-year-old daughter goes missing and only one inmate, convicted bank robber Tommy Capello, knows the truth about her whereabouts. As the prison guards frantically search the entire island, the fates of the young girl and Tommy Capello both hang in the balance.

How these two storylines intersect lies at the heart of this compelling tale of survival and second chances, and of one immigrant’s fantastic journey in the first decades of the 20th century.

Nancy Harris can be reached at dr.nancy23@gmail.com or on Twitter @DrNancy_Globe.

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