Historical fiction has long been one of my favorite literary genres; as a young adult I read it almost exclusively, eschewing other genres like science fiction and fantasy. Although my reading tastes have broadened as an adult, historical novels are still one of my favorite things to read and one of the categories that I most look forward to when it comes to the Whitney awards. This year the finalists in the category are all established authors whose names should be familiar to you. There are three previous winners: Gale Sears for Letters in the Jade Dragon Box, 2011; Carla Kelly for Borrowed Light, 2011 and My Loving Vigil Keeping, 2012; and H.B. Moore for Abinadi in 2008. The other two authors, Jennie Hansen and Phyllis Gunderson, have both been finalists in previous years. Competition in this category is going to be stiff, especially with such a diverse group of books covering a wide range of historical periods.
Belonging to Heaven by Gale Sears tells the story of Jonathan Napela, one of the first Hawaiian converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the late 1800s. The novel traces Jonathan’s friendship with George Q. Cannon, his assistance in building the Church during its early history in Hawaii, his translation of the Book of Mormon into Hawaiian, and finally his move to the leper colony on Moloka’i after his wife is stricken by the disease.
I was excited to read a book about early Church history that was not set in the Mountain West. Hawaii is dear to my heart for many reasons, and Sears’ descriptions of the people, the culture, and the landscape are lovely and true. She is an author that always does her research and who obviously cares deeply about the characters and events she is depicting—this book is loving and faithful to the people who sacrificed so much to bring the gospel to Hawaii. I felt that at 400 pages it was a bit long and suffered at times from the impulse to include every possible event and person in Napela’s life—the book became most compelling to me during that last third when he makes the difficult choice to stay with his wife after she contracts leprosy.
Esther the Queen by H.B. Moore tells the familiar story of a young, anonymous Jewish girl who is thrust into the world of Persian royalty and uses her new position to save her people.
Moore’s scripture-based historical novels have been some of my favorite LDS novels of the past decade. She sticks close to the scriptural accounts, but brings characters to life by adding details about their daily lives, emotions, motivations, and relationships. I particularly liked both the backstory she gave to Haman to explain some of his actions, as well as the relationship she created between Esther and King Xerxes. Although Esther’s story was quite familiar to me, I still couldn’t put the book down when I got to the end of it.
Safe Passage by Carla Kelly takes readers to the Mormon Colonies in Mexico during the turbulence of the Mexican Revolution in 1912. Ammon Hancock evacuates with his family, but then realizes that his estranged wife Addie has been left behind in Mexico and returns to rescue her. He and Addie must not only try to get out of the country alive, but heal their broken relationship and learn to trust each other again.
Carla Kelly is another LDS author I have come to love during the last few years. Her books are also well-researched and show a great love for her characters and their historical time period. I love how she writes characters that are vivid individuals, not stock historical tropes or stereotypes. This book was also an interesting read because the focus is on the male character and his feelings, not on the female character like in similar books. Despite all the book’s strengths, I still felt like it wasn’t my favorite book by Kelly—the tone is a little uneven throughout and some parts of the book were overwritten and heavy-handed. These flaws mostly stand out in comparison to Kelly’s other books, however, and this was still a great read.
The Mounds Anomaly by Phyllis Gunderson is set within the recent past, but describes an intrepid archaeologist’s investigation into mysteries of life in ancient America. Mathilda, “Matt”, Howard loves to investigate anomalies—archaeological finds that seem to challenge chronology and do not fit in with the accepted historical record. However, after an old coin sets on her on a path investigating anomalies that challenge conventional narratives about ancient American civilization, Matt realizes that someone is actively suppressing the evidence and does not want anyone to discover the truth.
One of my favorite things about this book was the character of Matt Howard—she’s feisty, unconventional, intelligent, and a lot of fun to read about. The suspense in this book was quite real and I found myself quickly reading the last half of the book within the space of a few hours. However, I was disappointed because I felt like the ending of the book was rather abrupt—just when I thought the action was getting started, it ended rather suddenly. I hope Gunderson writes a sequel because I’d love to find out more about ancient American anomalies (and yes, I have done a little internet research on the topic already).
Where the River Once Flowed by Jennie Hansen takes readers to New Mexico during the last half of the nineteenth century. The large Spanish haciendas are being taken over by Americans eager for land, and the Sebastian ranch is one of the last properties still held by its original owners. When Don Sebastian dies and leaves his property to his beloved granddaughter Iliana, she finds herself caught in conflict with her neighbor Ben Purdy who will stop at nothing to get his hands on her property. She finds help from young cowboy Travis Telford, and together they find a way for her to defeat Purdy and restore her family’s ranch to its rightful glory.
Hansen knows how to write a suspenseful story with a lot of great twists and turns. I cheered for the good guys, booed the bad guys, cried at injustices and tragedies along the way, and breathed a sigh of relief when the book was finished. I wish the book had delved a little more deeply into the minds and motivations of the characters because too often it felt too much like a chronology that was just telling me about people and events, rather than artfully revealing them to me.