The Sleeping Dictionary, by Sujata Massey

The Sleeping Dictionary, by Sujata Massey

The Sleeping Dictionary is the engrossing story of a poor young orphan in India who, through her own intelligence and bravery, fights her way through tragedy and discrimination to earn a good living for herself and to help with India’s struggle for freedom from British rule. The title refers to Indian women who acted as translators for their British lovers. Sujata Massey is a journalist and mystery writer who makes use of her research skills and her personal connection (through…

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Sapphira and the Slave Girl, by Willa Cather

Sapphira and the Slave Girl, by Willa Cather

Sapphira and the Slave Girl is Willa Cather’s last novel, published in 1940. It takes place in 1856 in Back Creek, Virginia. Cather was born in Back Creek in 1873 and lived there for nine years, before moving with her family to Nebraska (the setting of some of her more famous books, such as My Antonia). Sapphira and the Slave Girl was inspired by stories that Cather heard in her childhood. When Sapphira Colbert married and moved from Winchester to…

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The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant has told the Old Testament story of Jacob through the eyes of the women in the family. The novel is narrated by Dinah, who is the only daughter of Jacob mentioned in the Bible. In Diamant’s version, Jacob’s wives (Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah) worship the ancient goddesses of the Mesopotamian religion, but they have no objection to Jacob’s god. First published in 1997, The Red Tent celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. The…

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Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Wench tells of four women slaves who travel with their masters each summer to Tawawa House, a resort in Ohio, a free state. For the women, it is a working vacation, where they have enough leisure to swim in the hot springs and take occasional short trips. Yet even as they are dressed prettily for a special dinner-dance with their masters, they cannot forget that they are slaves, each compelled to share her master’s bed and bear his children. The…

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Katherine, by Anya Seton

Katherine, by Anya Seton

Katherine, first published in 1954, is the story of Katherine Swynford, mistress and then wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. It takes place in England in the 1300s. Since I don’t know much British history, I looked up these two names. Katherine and John are ancestors to King Henry VII and to the current royal family. Katherine was, like many of Anya Seton’s novels, a bestseller when it was first published, and is still a well-known historical novel….

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Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee spent 30 years working on Pachinko, an intriguing novel about Korean immigrants in Japan before, during, and after World War II. The story begins slowly, in the manner of a 19th century novel, with information about the family background of the main character, Sunja. She is born on a small Korean island to a couple who run a boarding house. Some years before her birth, Japan took over Korea, and Koreans had to live like second-class citizens…

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The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child is inspired by the Russian folk tale of an elderly couple who, unable to have children, used snow to form a girl who then comes to life. This novel takes place in 1920s Alaska instead of Russia, and the “elderly” couple, Mabel and Jack, are about fifty years old. Ten years have passed since Mabel gave birth to a still-born child in Pennsylvania, and her grief, and the loneliness she feels at family gatherings full of children,…

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Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

I kept hearing what a great book Life After Life was, but at first I found it confusing because of the sudden shifts in time and place. It took me three tries to settle into this book, and I’m so glad I stuck with it. Life After Life is an unusual, gripping, thought-provoking book. The book begins in 1930 in Germany. A young Englishwoman sits at a café table with Adolf Hitler, before his rise to infamy. She eats a…

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Historical Novellas for Women’s History Month

Historical Novellas for Women’s History Month

I love novellas (short novels under about 200 pages). They combine the depth of a novel with the intensity of a short story. In honor of Women’s History Month, here are my favorite historical novellas by and about women.   I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, by Maryse Conde The real Tituba, a Caribbean slave, was accused of witchcraft in late 17th century Salem, Massachusetts. Based on this tiny bit of information, Conde crafts a larger-than-life character and follows her…

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Cane River, by Lalita Tademy

Cane River, by Lalita Tademy

The novel Cane River is so closely based on Lalita Tademy’s ancestors that she includes family photographs, documents, and newspaper clippings. In 1995, Tademy quit her job as a vice president of Sun Microsystems so she could research her family’s history and write a novel. Cane River was published in 2001. Tademy starts her novel with the story of a woman seven generations removed from herself: Elisabeth, a slave in the early 1800’s on a plantation along Cane River in…

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