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Five of the Best Literary Historical Novels

recommended by Paul Carlucci

The Voyageur by Paul Carlucci

out 18 april

The Voyageur
by Paul Carlucci


Writers approach historical fiction from many different angles, explains the novelist Paul Carlucci—whose new, evocative novel is set in colonial-era Canada. Here, he recommends five of his favourite literary historical novels that manipulate form, character and setting in interesting ways while simultaneously summoning the atmosphere of the past.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

The Voyageur by Paul Carlucci

out 18 april

The Voyageur
by Paul Carlucci

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You’ve chosen five literary historical novels—how did you settle on these books? What were you looking for?

I wanted a list that would show the full breadth of the genre. Before I got into historical fiction, I thought of it as kind of stodgy, maybe a little dry. Of course, that isn’t true. It’s just the impression I had as a younger reader. With this list, I wanted to show how historical fiction can dovetail with other genres—ghost stories, Westerns, horror. I mean, Westerns are almost entirely historical fiction, whether they are set in North America or Australia. And I also wanted to look at a few books where the setting is purely for atmosphere. Basically, with my selection of five books, I wanted to show how nimble this genre is.

Your own historical novel, The Voyageur, is largely set in 1830s Canada. In it, a young stock boy follows a fur trader into the wilderness. What drew you to this particular period?

The Voyageur is loosely based on a real story. In a nutshell, there was a young fur trader named Alexis St Martin who was accidentally shot in the stomach at a trading post on Mackinac Island in Michigan Territory. There was a surgeon on the island, William Beaumont, who treated him, and his wound healed into a fistula, which is when two organs fuse together, in this case the skin and the stomach, leaving him with a hole under his nipple and into his stomach. St Martin was destitute, so in exchange for money, he allowed Beaumont to conduct medical experiments on him, this at a time when the machinations of the stomach weren’t fully understood. Beaumont, like, dangled foodstuffs in and out of this hole for some time in real life—I think they conducted experiments off and on for a decade. The real Alexis lived to be about 80.

I first heard the story on a podcast. I found it fascinating and strange, and I spent quite a bit of time trying to pull a story out of it. This happened in the 1820s, and there were other events and features of that era—the early to mid-19th century—that I wanted to capture. I started reading about trading practices in Canada and the United States and the geopolitics in Europe that prompted various colonial activities in North America.

I can see that real-life history can offer a rich and strange backdrop for a book. The first literary historical novel that you’ve picked out for us is Sparrow by James Hynes, which was a bestseller last year. Could you introduce us to the ideas in the book and why you recommend it?

Sure. I just finished reading this one, and I thought it was fantastic. It’s more of a depiction of a cultural and a historical moment via characters than it is a specific event. The protagonist never really gets a firm name; he’s a slave boy in a brothel, and he’s named after various tasks that he performs, as are the other slaves. Broadly speaking, you could call it a coming-of-age story.

It’s really gorgeous and engrossing, and you can smell and feel the setting, a city on the Iberian peninsula in the dying days of the Roman Empire. Beautiful sentences just come one after another, effortlessly. And it’s also interesting because it flies in the face of a piece of conventional writing advice, which is to make your characters active, or else you’ll bore your readers. This character never really has any agency—he’s a slave. He doesn’t make any decisions for himself. But it’s still such a compelling story and such a compelling character, and I’m sure this book will be considered a classic in a few years from now. Lots of people have responded to it like I have. And yet, the protagonist is really passive! So it’s interesting—Sparrow shows how you can mess around with narrative orthodoxy, take something out but replace it with so much more. It’s a great book. I really enjoyed it.

That’s an interesting point. I suppose so many people, at so many different points in history, have had very little control over their circumstances. So if we must have characters in charge of their own destiny, then that would limit who could ever be a protagonist in a historical novel. I suppose that’s why we see so many books about the landed gentry.

Yes. And there’s a really interesting part in this book, a discussion between the cook, Focaria, which is Latin for “cook,” and this slave boy, whose name at this stage is Pusus, which is Latin for “boy.” She explains to him the ways of the world, particularly why people hit them. She goes all the way up the hierarchy, starting off with the Pope. He hits somebody, and then that person hits somebody lower than them, and off they go to hit somebody lower still, and on and on until eventually someone hits Focaria, after which she hits Pusus. She’s like, “It’s just hitting all the way down,” like that turtles-all-the-way-down expression. Everyone’s squirming under some higher power, with the hierarchy seemingly infinite as far as slaves are concerned.

I know you’ve spoken in the past on the difficulties of portraying morally dubious characters in the present publishing climate. Could you talk a little more about writing about the brutality of the past?

Yes, I had a lot of problems. The Voyageur was initially supposed to be published by a small Canadian press. About a year into the process, George Floyd was murdered. Around the same time, in Canada, there was sonar confirmation of a lot of unmarked graves around former residential school sites. The atmosphere was really charged. My publisher had always wanted to use a sensitivity reader, but initially, they said it was just to confirm cultural accuracy. For example, when I have Miigwan refer to his manitou and to Gitche Manitou—the publisher said they wanted to make sure I had stuff like that right. I did too.

But as the political atmosphere grew more intense, the editing got more and more difficult, with the publisher picking at almost everything, and when I would push back, they said we’d have to wait to see what the sensitivity reader thought, a person they hadn’t even recruited yet after almost a year. The whole thing just got more and more ridiculous, and when they finally brought in not one but two readers, both of whom were completely anonymous—I still don’t know their names—the readers couldn’t discern characterization from authorial voice, basically ascribing the traits of villainous characters to me personally. They kept on getting the characters’ races confused, and they made numerous factual errors, like saying the Algonquin are not a specific people. They even made inaccurate and kind of insulting judgments about aspects of my own identity.

“As the political atmosphere grew more intense, the editing got more and more difficult”

And they hated Miigwan, who’s Odawa, part of the broader Anishinaabe people. They didn’t have anything to say about cultural accuracy, nothing about manitous or Gitche Manitou or anything like that. One of the readers self-identified as Metis, even though the publisher told me the readers would be Anishinaabe, so because indigenous cultures are pretty different, I guess that reader just didn’t know whether I was being accurate or not. I didn’t get to see the other reader’s notes, and I don’t know what culture they come from. Either way, what bothered both of them was the Miigwan has moral complexity. He’s caught between his traditional culture and Western capitalism, and to survive, he plays fast and loose with other characters’ perceptions. Everybody in the book is stuck under this same capitalistic force and trying to gain agency within it however they can. Miigwan is just acting out the same theme. And we see stuff like that today: groups stuck between their traditions and global capitalism. They sometimes have to make compromises to survive. I was trying to make Miigwan a crystallisation of that—but the readers thought the character was appalling and super offensive. They said he couldn’t be morally complicated, only white characters could be.

Basically, I couldn’t write an indigenous character unless he was a moral role model, the kind of character you might find in children’s fiction. The publisher told me it was not a time for subtlety, actually said that, and then dropped the book. If I knew all that was coming in the first place, I would’ve declined the deal. The whole process and its fallout took years out my career.

There seems to be a kind of reckoning going on in the book publishing industry at the moment, and no one is quite sure how to proceed—especially with historical novels, which often feature flawed characters whose attitudes reflect those of their era. But perhaps I’ll hurry us on to your next historical novel recommendation, which is Kiran Millwood Hargreaves’ The Mercies. It’s set in 17th century Norway. Could you tell us more?

That’s right. This is the first book on our list based on real events: a 1617 storm in Vardø, Norway, and the witch trials that followed. The storm was pretty vicious, and it came on suddenly, killing all the area’s male population at the time. In the book, we see the surviving women take on the work of their deceased husbands, brothers, and sons, like fishing and building.

Our protagonist during this opening section is Maren, and over the course of the novel, we watch her develop a moving relationship with Ursa, the wife of the commissioner who’s sent to Vardo in the wake of the storm to restore Christian order, a mission that inspires him to target the area’s Sami people, including Maren’s sister-in-law, as well as anyone who practices Sami traditions, which the women practice alongside Christian customs.

I don’t want to give too much more away. This is a pretty stunning book. The writing is amazing, just beautiful, and the characters and themes are hugely moving. I’ve given this to a few different people in my family, and they’ve all really liked it.

It’s so richly imagined. I loved that book too. Your next recommendation was completely new to me: Ledfeather by Stephen Graham Jones. It’s set on a Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Why do you recommend this as a literary historical novel?

This is an interesting example of how historical fiction can dovetail with other genres that you might not consider it to have much of a relationship with—in this particular case, with horror. And this book has a wild experimental structure; it’s very fragmented. Part of it is a contemporary drama set on a Blackfeet reservation in Montana, as you say. This part is about a suicidal teen named Doby Saxon, who is just struggling through his life with a broken family, deceased father, substance abuse on the reserve.

That’s mixed with a braid of epistolary fiction set in the 1880s on the same reserve, where an Indian Agent, Frances Dalimpere, is participating in the colonial effort to starve the Blackfeet, and he’s writing to his wife about his activities in a way that makes him look sort of heroic.

This book is amazing. It’s got multiple time frames and points of view. It’s in the first person, the second person. It’s got the modern setting, it’s got this historical setting, and all the spaces in between. And despite its complicated structure, it’s really gripping.

In a lot of historical fiction, we see how transgressions people commit against other people can really mark a place, how people who flow from that place into the future are affected by the transgressions of the past. This book does an especially great job of making that clear.

At the same time, the epistolary sections highlight the unreliability of a lot of non-fictional historical accounts. People sometimes say that if they’re going to read something historical, they’ll just read non-fiction; there’s a sense that you can learn something hard and true from non-fiction that you can’t take from fiction. But, of course, non-fiction is also a contrivance—the result of authorial decisions. Things are left in, things are left out, there’s some emphasis here, a glossing over there, interpretations made and conclusions drawn. There’s no way to experience the past that isn’t the result of some kind of human construction, so with that in mind, the knowledge that historical fiction gives us seems a little more legitimate.

Fantastic recommendation, thanks. Next up, you’ve chosen In the Distance by Hernan Diaz. This was his debut, I believe, and it won a lot of awards when it was published in 2017.

I’ve given this book to several people in my family as well. I think it might be one of my favourite books ever, though I’ve read it only once.

The story follows the life of Hakan, a Swedish immigrant who moves to the United States with his brother in the 1800s. We see all the difficulties he endures and the compelling people he meets as he makes his way to the frontier, moving through these huge landscapes that are just astounding—the nature writing is beautiful. It’s a quiet coming-of-age story, and I love it.

Apart from its staggering beauty, this book is an interesting one to talk about because it opens the discussion to Westerns as historical fiction, which is maybe an angle we don’t fully appreciate when we talk about Westerns. Not all Westerns are historical fiction—think of the movie Hell or High Water, for example. And some are just barely historical fiction, like No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, which is set in the 1980s. But a lot of the genre’s big entries are historical fiction: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, for example, or Blood Meridian by McCarthy.

Like these books, In the Distance delivers a critically complicated depiction of colonization, a long and difficult journey across a landscape, and a cast of compelling characters so beautifully rendered that they all feel real. Its publication journey was also pretty amazing: Diaz answered an open call for submissions from Coffee House Press, an indie publisher in the States. He didn’t have an agent, and I’m pretty sure he had no prior publications, certainly no books. In the Distance went on to become a finalist for a Pulitzer. It’s a brilliant book. Amazing.

Genre boundaries are interesting, especially where they blur or overlap. I guess I’ve come to understand genres as the circles on a Venn diagram, which can interlock. And perhaps this applies too to your next literary historical novel recommendation, Dark Matter by Michelle Paver.

Sure. So this is a cool one, because it uses a historical time point—the late 1930s—primarily to create atmosphere. The main character, Jack Miller, is a lower-middle-class clerk in the government. He’s pretty bored with his job, and he links up with some more upper-class Oxford graduate types who are going on an expedition to the Arctic. He joins them as their radio man.

They go to Gruhuken, a former mine in Spitsbergen. Jack’s left alone when one of their group falls ill, and they have to take this member back to civilisation to get treatment. Jack stays with the radio in a cabin on the coast. As the darkness and isolation set in, his sanity begins to erode, and he starts having strange encounters with a ghostly figure.

He finds out from a wandering trapper that there was some pretty intense violence in the area’s past—one of the miners was abused and beaten to death by his colleagues—and things escalate from there. The ghost can be seen as literalization of how transgressions mark places, but a ghost could make that point in a contemporary setting as well. What we get from the decision to place the story in the 1930s is a kind of isolation that’s difficult to imagine in modern times. You’d have cellphone coverage. Something. Whereas this historical setting puts Jack totally off on his own.

The book is another example of how well historical fiction blends with other genres. It has zero gore or anything you would classically associate with horror in its more extreme forms. It just builds dread in a really effective way. It’s a really good, classical ghost story. To boot, the writing is beautiful.

The idea of wilderness pops up in a few of your book choices, and of course in your own. I suppose that this is something of a theme in the 18th and 19th century historical novels, especially those set in colonial North America.

Pre-industrial revolution populations were more rural. That’s where the work was. There were labour camps extracting resources from the land. And when you’re trying to make settings in a book, if you get pulled out of a major urban centre, then you’re in the wilderness. There’s no in between. They didn’t have the suburbs in the way we do now. I guess they’re a postwar phenomenon, and that’s probably true of Europe as well. Part of the myth making of North America is just how huge the land is. A lot of other places too, of course. Even now, in Canada, the bulk of our development is on the border with the States. As you go farther and farther north, you get these wider and wider tracts of land.

Almost by necessity, when writing historical fiction, you wind up having to learn and think about these areas because they’re part of the story a culture tells about itself, and you want to come at them same as you would the politics and economics of a time, even the clothes and food.

And I suppose, from a literary perspective, it’s a place where you might have your characters drawn into some kind of primal struggle.

Definitely. I had a lot of fun with it. My book starts in Montreal, then moves to the Great Lakes. It has a section on Mackinac Island, then it goes to York, which is present-day Toronto, then back to Montreal.

Whenever the characters are in these liminal wilderness places, reality really does untether a bit. The various beliefs they have, some of which are European and some of which they’ve picked up interacting with indigenous people, kind of coalesce. A Christian might be worried about werewolves—loups-garous in French—and angry gods or spirits. A lot of the characters are very quickly humbled by the size of the place around them and the fantastical creatures that it might produce. When they get back into settlements, into houses and buildings, they get a little more smug and confident again. Those fears just slip away.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

April 12, 2024

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Paul Carlucci

Paul Carlucci

The Voyageur is Paul Carlucci’s debut novel. He’s also the award-winning author of three story collections: The High-Rise in Fort FierceA Plea for Constant Motion, and The Secret Life of Fission. He lives in Ottawa, Canada, with his partner, Jess, and their dog, Hank.

Paul Carlucci

Paul Carlucci

The Voyageur is Paul Carlucci’s debut novel. He’s also the award-winning author of three story collections: The High-Rise in Fort FierceA Plea for Constant Motion, and The Secret Life of Fission. He lives in Ottawa, Canada, with his partner, Jess, and their dog, Hank.