‘The Woman with the Cure’ by Lynn Cullen is a fascinating look at the eradication of polio that celebrates the women who were instrumental in that success

In “The Woman with the Cure,” Lynn Cullen’s masterful historical fiction, she focuses on Dr. Dorothy Horstmann, a little-known woman scientist, who made important contributions in the race to find a way to eradicate polio. Cullen also brings to life familiar figures in the race against polio such as Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. We learn much about both men, and of course, they are the scientists who come to mind when we think of those who created polio vaccines that saved so many lives. Cullen brings to the forefront the women who also performed important work, work that enabled these two famous men to create their vaccines. But as with so many brilliant women in history, the real women we meet in this story, especially Dorothy Horstmann, have remained largely invisible until Cullen’s research demonstrates their dedication, their determination, and their desperate attempts to destroy this horrific disease.

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‘The House of Eve’ is a stunning historical fiction novel about Black history and two women’s lives

In “The House of Eve,” we read about three years in the lives of two young but very different Black women, Ruby and Eleanor, and we learn great deal about their situations. We also learn not only about life in the early 1950s, but about the abusive and sometimes misogynistic treatment of women in those times before any real emphasis on women’s rights. And that on the ladder of social ills and mistreatment of women, Black women were on the lowest of the rungs. A college student at Howard University, Eleanor learns right at the start of the story, after being denied admittance into the desirable ABC (Alpha Beta Chi) sorority, “that Negroes separated themselves by color.” There is an irony that being Black and attending a Black university did not exempt the students from being subject to cruel prejudice based on the color of their skin. Eleanor’s roommate, Nadine, is from a wealthy Washington, DC family, unlike Eleanor, whose family comes from very modest roots in a small town in Ohio. Eleanor’s parents scraped and saved, and her mother baked and sold pastries to help Eleanor go to Howard University.

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‘The Midnighters’ by Hana Tooke is a delightful middle grade historical fiction romp with a soupçon of the supernatural

Many children know the feeling of not fitting in and in “The Midnighters,” author Hana Tooke explores that feeling through her main character, Ema, whose fantastic, incredibly dangerous journey in this novel finally leads to her finding acceptance and respect. Ema was born into a family of scientists, and while she absorbed much of their knowledge, she didn’t feel their passion. What she felt instead was dread, and that feeling made her feel different than the rest of her siblings and her parents. She seemed to know when bad things were going to happen, and the number twelve was an especially dangerous number in her eyes.

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‘The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights’ by Kitty Zeldis is about the bonds we form and finding family

In “The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights” Kitty Zeldis sweeps us back to experience a time after the Great War, when women not born with a silver spoon in their mouths were limited in their options. This lovely historical fiction presents us with strong female main characters who all also have flaws that make them very relatable. While the action in this novel takes place over the course of a year, we are treated to flashbacks and the characters’ thoughts that give us insight into what their lives were and how they developed into the people we meet at the start of the story. Each character has her own tribulations, and each character must overcome a flaw which makes her life less than it could be.

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Two must-read middle grade novels are ‘Attack of the Black Rectangles’ and ‘Island of Spies’

Two books published in 2022 that on the surface seem quite different, but share an important theme, are “Attack of the Black Rectangles” by Amy Sarig King and “Island of Spies” by Sheila Turnage. Both are about children who are determined to deal with problems that they are told are best left to adults. One of the books is about censorship and speaking out for what is right; the other is a WWII historical fiction in which kids are told they have nothing to contribute even as spies come ashore and ships are sunk on the east coast of the US by German submarines. In both novels, we meet kids who are strong and not afraid to speak out against wrongdoing. We see adults who want to shield the children from unpleasantness only to find that the children are determined to understand the truth and deal with it. We see girls being underestimated and adults who think only they know best. The children know otherwise. Both books are inspiring, and both definitely deserve a place in every library and classroom bookshelf.

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‘One Woman’s War: A Novel of the Real Miss Moneypenny’ by Christine Wells is about a real WWII event and the women who participated

If you enjoy learning about real historical events through gripping fiction, read “One Woman’s War: A Novel of the Real Miss Moneypenny” by Christine Wells. It’s about the famous WWII espionage operation called Operation Mincemeat. I first read about it in a children’s nonfiction book about spy stuff, and Netflix has a new movie, Operation Mincemeat, about that same scheme. The premise seems so outlandish that it’s brilliant. Take a dead body, dress it in a military uniform with identity papers, and handcuff a briefcase filled with real-looking secret documents about the Allied plans to the corpse’s wrist. Make sure Spanish officials will find the body with the fake documents, and the Germans will be sure to be informed. (For more on German involvement in the Spanish Civil War see also “The Girl from Guernica.”)

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‘The Girl from Guernica’ by Karen Robards is a stunning and powerful historical fiction

The Girl from Guernica by Karen Robards

Guernica is the small Basque town in Spain that was made famous by Pablo Picasso in his huge painting of the devastation that town endured during the Spanish Civil War. The Germans destroyed the town and slaughtered men, women, children, and animals at the behest of the rebel forces led by the military. At the start of “The Girl from Guernica,” author Karen Robards takes us to this small town the night before the horror that is a central part of the novel, to see the violence and wanton cruelty through the eyes of the main character, Sibi.

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‘The Thread Collectors’ by Shaunna J. Edwards and Alyson Richman is Civil War historical fiction through the eyes of two women

The Thread Collectors
by Shaunna J. Edwards and Alyson Richman

In “The Thread Collectors,” authors Shaunna J. Edwards and Alyson Richman combine their familial histories to create a fictional Civil War narrative that is about two women. Stella is a light-skinned woman who was bought to be the mistress of a plantation owner. She falls in love with one of the man’s slaves, William. William, an extremely talented musician, performs for his owner, Frye, and is desperate to escape his bondage to build a better life for himself and Stella. Lily, a Jewish woman in New York City, is married to musician Jacob. They both love music, and her father is a very successful music publisher. Lily is an ardent abolitionist, as well, and completely supports her husband when he enlists to fight for the Union.

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‘Our Last Days in Barcelona’ by Chanel Cleeton is a great summer read/book club choice

Our Last Days in Barcelona by Chanel Cleeton

Fans of Chanel Cleeton’s historical fiction have gotten to know the families in her novels, and with “Our Last Days in Barcelona,” we revisit some of her characters while we meet new ones in a dual narrative that is set in mid-1930s and the early 1960s. In the earlier timeline, Alicia, the mother of the Perez sisters, has fled to Barcelona from Cuba with her young daughter to stay with her parents after finding out about her husband’s infidelity. Yet when that daughter, Isabel, travels to Barcelona in search of her sister Beatriz in 1964, she sees a photo of her mother, herself, and an unknown man at a cafe in Barcelona. Strangely, her mother, when questioned, adamantly insists that they have never been to Barcelona. We also meet Rosa, a Perez cousin, whose own situation mirrors the personal quandaries that both Alicia and Isabel face.

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‘The Diamond Eye’ by Kate Quinn is a thrilling historical fiction based on a truly heroic Russian female sniper during WWII

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn’s latest historical fiction novel, “The Diamond Eye,” is a fictionalized story of a Russian woman who became one of the most acclaimed snipers in WWII. In fact, in the author notes at the end of the book, Quinn states that while she usually explains how the fictional characters in the story relate to the real historical people, in this book “nearly every person named comes straight from the historical record.” Of course, it’s fiction. Quinn doesn’t know, and we don’t learn, exactly what transpired during those turbulent times when Germany invaded Russia. But Lyudmila Pavlichenko was a real woman, and she wrote a memoir that Quinn used to relate many of the events documented in the novel.

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