9 Amazing Books About American History

Happy 4th of July! In honor of this patriotic holiday, I’d like to share 9 books in my favorite category: American history in fiction and narrative nonfiction. All of these books capture the American spirit and prevailing attitudes of their time. They are great reads for people who love history, for those who love studying human behavior, and for people who just love a great story.

From top left of the collage, going clockwise, categorized by era:

Post-Civil War Era: Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I first read this book in sixth grade, and returned to it last year. I couldn’t believe how much detail I’d forgotten about the Reconstruction era. The first time around, I committed Scarlett and Rhett to memory; the second time around, I was humbled by the history.

WWII: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. The story of Louis Zamperini (Olympian/airman/POW) is as inspiring as it is harrowing. Those of you who know my sensitivity with WWII novels might be surprised that I made it through this one. It was very hard to read, but I kept going, because it was just that good.

The Great Depression: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. Apart from the amazing tale of endurance, prospective was provided with details of life during the Depression, the affect of the dust bowl on the Western U.S., and the building of the Third Reich in Berlin. I also loved reading about the Poughkeepsie regatta (my hometown).

Pre-Civil War: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. Through this beautiful story of heroism and redemption, I learned about Quaker life, the level of immigrant acceptance in the Midwest in the 1850s, and more about the Fugitive Slave Law than I ever learned in a textbook.

WWII Home Front: Dream When You’re Feeling Blue by Elizabeth Berg. This one comes back to me frequently, especially around Veteran’s day and whenever I hear 1940s music. I loved the family, especially the three sisters, depicted in this book. All three had close connections to the war, and all made sacrifices worthy of soldiers. In another time, they would have been fighting on the front lines.

The Great Depression (again): Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. I had to include this book even though it’s a second 1930s historical and a second Hillenbrand. Loved the movie? Read the book. It’s one of my top five of all time. The movie is probably in my top three. “He doesn’t know he’s little. He thinks he’s the biggest horse out there.”

Current Events/Black Lives Matter: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Set in 2016, it’s not technically history yet (at least not according to book categories), but it gives a relatable voice to a major current conflict in our country. I read it a few months ago, and it’s still sticking with me.

General/Marginalized People’s History: America’s Women by Gail Collins. Stories about how women lived in every era of our country’s history, from colonial times to the near-present. (Another of her books, When Everything Changed, focuses specifically on the women’s rights movement from 1960 onward.) Not pictured, but also relevant to this category: A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. The perspective change is worth the time investment (it’s 700+ pages).

What are your favorite American history books? 

This post is also kicking off my month-long theme for July: Books & Reading. I’m going to be devouring summer reads and thinking about what means to be a reader in today’s world. Stay tuned for posts about the “why” of reading, how to read a hundred books in a year, and where to find “sticky” books. 

2 Responses to “9 Amazing Books About American History”

  1. I’ll have to think about about your question–I don’t know that I have any favorite American history books. That said, I did read and love Seabiscuit–but because of the horses, not the history :). I’ve had America’s Women on my list to read literally for years. I like the sound of The Last Runaway, too.

    • Leanne Sowul says:

      America’s Women is SO good, Kathy. Don’t be put off by what seems like an intense, heavy topic. It reads as easily as Seabiscuit. I’ve read it at least twice, and the history I learned inspired some of my own writing.

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