The Best American Historical Novels of All Time

American historical novels are an engaging way to understand the past and see how it has shaped the present. Transporting readers to various periods in United States history, these books depict the people, events, and societal changes that have defined the nation. Here, we explore the top ten American historical novels that everyone should read in order to appreciate the rich tapestry of the country’s past.

The 8 Best American Historical Novels You Should Read

A Journey Through Time: The Importance of Historical Novels

Historical novels bring history to life, allowing readers to not only learn about important events and significant figures, but also to gain a deeper understanding of the emotions, motivations, and conflicts that drove people’s actions in that time. By exploring these period-specific details, we can learn to appreciate the complexities of the past in a truly immersive way.

Understanding the Past Through Fiction

Fictional works set in specific historical periods take what may be dry or abstract information and transform it into a living, breathing world. This helps readers to connect on a personal level with the characters and their struggles, as well as with the broader historical context in which they lived.

“The Help” by Kathryn Stockett

The Help

For example, in the novel “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, readers are transported back to the 1960s and are able to experience the racial tensions and discrimination that were prevalent during that time. Through the eyes of the characters, readers gain a deeper understanding of the impact that these issues had on individuals and society as a whole.

Historical novels also offer insight into how history was experienced by individuals from different social classes, ethnicities, and genders. This diversity of perspectives enriches our understanding of the past and allows us to see beyond the iconic figures and major events that typically dominate history books.

“The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club: A Novel

Another example of this can be found in the novel “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan, which explores the experiences of Chinese-American women and their mothers. Through the stories of these characters, readers gain a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by Chinese immigrants in America and the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship.

The Role of Historical Novels in Shaping Perspectives

By presenting history through the lens of relatable characters and compelling storylines, historical novels have the power to reshape our perceptions of the past. They can challenge prevailing historical narratives, encourage empathy for people who may have been marginalized, and inspire curiosity about long-forgotten chapters in our shared history.

“The Underground Railroad” by Colson

The Underground Railroad (Pulitzer Prize Winner) (National Book Award Winner) (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel

For example, the novel “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead tells the story of a young slave named Cora who escapes from a Georgia plantation and makes her way to freedom using the Underground Railroad. By depicting the brutal realities of slavery and the courage of those who fought against it, this novel challenges the romanticized version of the Underground Railroad often presented in history books.

The Birth of a Nation: Early American Historical Novels

Some of the earliest American historical novels were set during the nation’s formative years, exploring the era of colonization and the struggle for independence. These stories bring to life the hardships, courage, and determination of the men and women who built the foundation of the United States.

Exploring Colonial America

Novels set in Colonial America offer readers the chance to immerse themselves in a world of exploration and adventure, as well as witness the challenges and turmoil that characterized the early settlement of the New World. Through these tales, we see the first interactions between European settlers and Indigenous peoples, along with the birth of America’s diverse cultural traditions.

“The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper

The Last of the Mohicans; A narrative of 1757

One such novel is “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper. This classic tale is set during the French and Indian War, and follows the adventures of a white man named Hawkeye and his two Native American companions as they try to protect a group of British colonizers from hostile tribes and French soldiers. The novel offers a window into the complex relationships between different groups during this period of American history.

“The Witch of Blackbird Pond” by Elizabeth George Speare

The Witch of Blackbird Pond: A Newbery Award Winner

Another novel that explores colonial America is “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” by Elizabeth George Speare. Set in 1687, the story follows a young girl named Kit who moves from Barbados to Connecticut and struggles to fit in with the strict Puritan community. The novel provides a glimpse into the religious and social norms that governed life in colonial America, as well as the tensions between different groups within the colonies.

The Revolutionary War and the Founding Fathers

The Revolutionary War and the stories of America’s founding fathers are prominent themes in early American historical novels. By focusing on the personal and political lives of key figures, these novels bring a human dimension to events that are often perceived as larger than life.

“1776” by David McCullough (Fiction)


Yes yes, this is not a fiction novel, but (hear me out), it’s so worth reading as a great example of American Historical books. “1776” by David McCullough is a popular example of a book that delves into the events surrounding the Revolutionary War. The book chronicles the year of 1776, from the early battles in Boston to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Through McCullough’s vivid storytelling, readers gain a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by the Continental Army and the political maneuverings that led to American independence.

“Burr” by Gore Vidal

Burr: A Novel (Vintage International)

Another novel that explores the lives of America’s founding fathers is “Burr” by Gore Vidal. The book takes a fictionalized look at the life of Aaron Burr, the third Vice President of the United States, and his relationships with other prominent figures of the time, including Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Through Burr’s eyes, readers gain a new perspective on the political and personal conflicts that shaped the early years of the United States.

Overall, early American historical novels offer a rich and engaging way to explore the nation’s formative years. Through the eyes of fictional characters and real-life figures alike, readers can gain a deeper appreciation for the struggles and triumphs that shaped the United States into the country it is today.

The Civil War Era: A Divided Nation in Literature

One of the most gripping chapters in American history, the Civil War era is a time of deep divisions and abundant despair, as well as hope and the quest for justice. Historical novels set during this period expertly explore the complexities of a nation torn in two.

Slavery and the Fight for Freedom

Numerous novels explore the devastating impact of slavery on both individuals and the nation as a whole. By telling the stories of enslaved people, their friends, and their foes, these books give voice to the millions who suffered unimaginable hardships, while also highlighting the courage and strength it took to fight for freedom and equality.

Through these narratives, historical novels showcase the often-overlooked heroes of the abolitionist movement and bear witness to the profound courage and sacrifice of those who fought against the institution of slavery.

The Impact of the Civil War on American Society

The Civil War reshaped the United States in countless ways, and historical novels from this era capture the myriad experiences of those who lived through it. From soldiers on both sides of the conflict to wounded civilians at home, these stories offer a poignant perspective on a nation gripped by tragedy, as well as the resilience and hope that ultimately led to healing.

Exploring the effects of the war on the home front, these novels give voice to the experiences of widows, orphans, and displaced citizens as they navigate the uncertain landscape created by the war’s aftermath.

The Wild West: Frontier Life and Expansion

The Wild West era marks a period of rapid expansion and growth for the United States, with settlers venturing into untamed lands in search of opportunity and adventure. Historical novels set in this era perfectly capture the dangers, opportunities, and distinct charm of frontier life.

Cowboys, Outlaws, and Pioneers

The Wild West has long been fertile ground for novelists seeking to create unforgettable characters, including gunslingers, outlaws, and ranchers. Through these stories, we experience the harsh realities of life on the frontier and the unique challenges faced by those who dared to brave the wild landscape.

Such novels also celebrate the pioneering spirit that defined the era, offering a testament to the determination and boundless aspirations of the settlers who sought to build new lives in the vast Western territory.

The Gold Rush and the California Dream

The California Gold Rush is another popular theme for historical novels, painting a picture of both the rewards and the hardships experienced by fortune-seekers in this era of unprecedented opportunity. Tales from this time shed light on the idealism, desperation, and ambition that fueled the massive westward migration during the mid-19th century.

These stories also depict the enduring allure of the California Dream, representing the Golden State as a land filled with possibilities and offering a unique identity distinct from the Eastern United States.

The Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression

The 1920s and 1930s were decades of great contrasts, marked by economic prosperity, cultural revolution, and the subsequent devastation of the Great Depression. Historical novels set during these years bring to life the flamboyance of the Jazz Age, as well as the resilience of those struggling to survive during the darkest days of the Depression.

Jazz Age Glamour and the American Dream

Historical novels set in the Roaring Twenties are often characterized by their dazzling portrayals of excess, glamour, and decadence. Against the backdrop of jazz music, speakeasies, and newfound freedoms, these stories delve into the lives of iconic figures and everyday people striving for success in a rapidly changing world.

Through the eyes of fictional characters, these novels critically examine the American Dream, highlighting the allure of wealth and power, as well as the enduring appeal of the pursuit of happiness.

The Struggle for Survival During the Great Depression

The Great Depression is a rich setting for writers seeking to portray the depths of human endurance and spirit. By focusing on ordinary people caught in the grip of economic despair, these novels reveal the strength of the human spirit to persevere in the face of adversity.

Through unforgettable characters and heartbreaking narratives, historical novels set during the Depression remind us of the sacrifices made by those who lived through one of America’s most challenging eras, and of the indomitable spirit that ultimately saw them through.


Does the author have to be American to write an American historical novel?

Not necessarily. Although many authors who have written in this subgenre are American, it is not a requirement. However, the book must follow a story set within a period of American history for it to be classed as an American historical novel.

What are the best novels in this genre?

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and To Kill a Mockingbird are all canonical American historical novels that have had a huge influence on American literature.

What is modern American historical fiction?

Modern American historical fiction refers to books set in the American 20th and early 21st centuries.

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