ON THE SHELF: Thought-provoking historical fiction

Published 8:00 am Sunday, August 14, 2022

This column was submitted by Evangeline Cessna, Local History Librarian at the Warren County-Vicksburg Public Library.

This week’s column features New Historical Fiction titles.

Katherine J. Chen reimagines the legend of Joan of Arc in her book “Joan.” It’s 1412 and France is losing its war against England. The people are starving while France’s king is in hiding, but a teenage girl emerges from the chaos to turn the tide of the war and lead the French to victory. This sweeping narrative of Joan of Arc’s life takes us from her joyful yet violent childhood to her meteoric rise to fame as the head of the French army where she navigates the perils of the battlefield as well as the treacherous politics of the royal court. There are many who are threatened by the leadership of a woman and Joan draws the wrath and suspicion of the English and the French. On top of this, her first taste of fame and glory leaves her vulnerable to her own powerful ambition.

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Jennifer Chiaverini tells the untold story of the women of the U.S. Army Signal Corps from World War I in “Switchboard Soldiers.” In June 1917, General John Pershing arrived in France to establish American forces in Europe. Almost immediately, he was unable to communicate with the troops in the field. Realizing he needed operators who could swiftly and accurately connect multiple calls, speak both French and English, remain steady under fire and be able to keep their mouths shut. At the time, most of the well-trained American telephone operators were women, but women were not allowed to enlist — or even vote in most states. Despite this, the U.S. Army Signal Corps began to recruit them and more than 7,600 answered the call. Those who were accepted were among the first women sworn into the U.S. Army under the Articles of War. The male soldiers they replaced had needed one minute to connect each call, while these trained operators could do it in 10 seconds. The risk of death was real and not all of the telephone operators would survive as bombs fell around them and the Spanish Flu raged through the camps. Finally, the essential role these honorable women played in the Allies’ victory is given the spotlight.

“Murder at the Queen’s Old Castle” is the sixth Reverend Mother Mystery by Cora Harrison. Effervescent descriptions of life in 1920s Cork, Ireland and interesting historical details come together to support the clever plot and the fascinating cast of characters. Reverend Mother finds herself embroiled in a brutal murder during a rare shopping trip. In spite of its name, the Queen’s Old Castle is merely a low-grade department store, housed in the crumbling walls of what was once a medieval castle, built at the entrance to the harbor in Cork city. On her first visit in 50 years, the Reverend Mother remarks how little things have changed — save for the strange smell of gas. When the store’s owner staggers from his office and falls over the railings to his death, Mother Aquinas is drawn into another strange murder investigation. Suspects are plentiful as the owner was extremely unpopular and suspicions even fall onto his own family.

“The Librarian Spy: A Novel of World War II” is by Madeline Martin. This novel was inspired by the true history of America’s library spies of World War II. Ava was looking forward to her quiet, routine life as a librarian at the Library of Congress, but an unexpected off from the U.S. military has brought her to Lisbon with a new mission: posing as a librarian while working undercover to gather intelligence for the Allies. Meanwhile, in occupied France, Elaine has begun an apprenticeship at a printing press run by members of the Resistance. Usually, this job is reserved for men, but with the war, those rules have changed. She is well aware that the Nazis are searching for the press and that they will kill the printer in order to silence them. As the war rages on, both Ava and Elaine find themselves connecting through coded messages and discovering friendship and hope in the face of chaos.

Wilbur Smith continues his Courtney saga with “Storm Tide.” Set against the backdrop of the American Revolution, the Courtney family is torn apart as three generations fight on opposite sides of the war destined to change the world forever. It’s 1774 and Rob Courtney has spent his life working a quiet trading post on the eastern coast of Africa while dreaming of an adventurous life at sea. When his grandfather dies, Rob takes his chance and stows away on a ship bound for England with only the Neptune Sword — a family heirloom — to his name. Once in London, Rob is bedazzled by all that the city has to offer and soon finds himself penniless and desperate. The navy comes calling, however, and Rob is sent across the Atlantic to fight in the war with the rebellious American colonists. Unbeknownst to Rob, however, cousins Cal and Aidan Courtney are leading a campaign against the British. They desire American independence and are determined to drive the British from their shores.

Kristin Vayden begins a new historical romance series with her book “Fortune Favors the Duke.” Quinton Errington is content to be teaching at Cambridge while his older brother is carrying on the duties of being the Duke of Wesley. When Quinton goes home to celebrate his brother’s last week of bachelorhood, tragedy strikes, and he becomes the Duke. All Quinton wants is to have his brother back, but he must step up and lead the family. Wesley’s would-be bride, Catherine, is heartbroken and alone. On top of the loss of Wesley, her grandmother has fallen ill, and she has no one else to rely on save the family she was so close to joining. Quinton is kind and she could use a friend. Between learning how to be the head of the family, mourning his brother and trying not to fall in love with Wesley’s fiancée, Quinton will need all the help he can get.