Historical Fiction Roundup: Marianne Wiggins and Jane Smiley

Yee-haw! Welcome to the American West, via two terrific historical fiction novels!

If you want a sweeping saga set in California in the first half of the twentieth century, look no further than Marianne Wiggins’ latest novel, The Properties of Thirst. This book blew me away, like a dry desert wind hurtling across the landscape. I was not expecting to be as drawn into the characters, setting, and story as I was. This is definitely a “settings” book (and that’s not usually an appeal element for me). It’s set mostly on a family ranch in a desert valley in Southern California, close enough to the growing city of Los Angeles to have the water supply be a major issue in this book. The other serious, larger-than-life treatment is historical, when a Japanese-American internment camp is constructed in the valley near the Rhodes family’s ranch. I love that the novel touches on such serious themes, and yet the main character’s name is Rocky Rhodes (which I didn’t catch until after I finished the book). Three characters share the spotlight: Rocky, who founds the ranch and passionately litigates about water rights; his daughter Sunny, who is obsessed with food and cooking; and Schiff, a Jewish lawyer from Chicago who works for the Department of the Interior and is tasked with building the internment camp. I like the adjective “sprawling” for this book; it’s huge and Western and spreads out over ideas and thoughts and emotions.

If you’re looking for something more contained, Jane Smiley’s novel A Dangerous Business will fit the bill. It’s set in Monterey, California, in 1851, when the Gold Rush crowd has moved north to the Bay Area and the cattle ranchers and farmers are trying to make a go of their new town. This is told in first-person from the point of view of Eliza, a young woman from Kalamazoo, Michigan who was pushed into an early marriage by her strict parents. Her husband, an abuser, was knifed in a bar fight two years after their arrival in the West, and Eliza becomes a sex worker to support herself. Big kudos to Smiley for staying away from the bawdy-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold trope. Eliza is a refreshingly ordinary person. She befriends Jean, who works at a brothel that caters to women and the two trade Poe stories as their favorite reading matter. When their co-workers begin to go missing, Jean and Eliza learn from Auguste Dupin, Poe’s detective, about observation and reasoning so they can protect themselves and other women. I really liked this a lot. It’s super feminist in a very matter-of-fact way. It’s also set well in its period of history, with echoes of the Gold Rush and foreshadowing the American Civil War.

Other historical fiction novels set in the United States include:

Moonrise Over New Jessup by Jamila Minnicks

A Fine Imitation by Amber Brock

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy by Jamie Ford

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