8 Great Nonfiction History Books

I’ll be honest: Usually when I’m doing readers’ advisory, especially for reluctant readers, I overlook nonfiction. With so many great fiction books out there, it’s easy to forget that true stories are often just as riveting, if not more so. History has some stories that are as bizarre, heartbreaking, and sometimes downright horrifying as any that a fiction author could make up. Here are eight of my favorite nonfiction history books for every reader.

Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies by Marc Aronson:

Few people are without quirks, and FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover was no exception. In this biography, Aronson explores Hoover’s life and rise to power, as well as examining the Red Scare, the McCarthy hearings, and the dark side of life in 1950s America. This is a fascinating read, and its underlying questions of how far people will go for power and security make it ever more thought-provoking.

Sabotage by Neal Bascomb: As World War II raged, the Americans, Germans, and Russians raced to perfect their atomic weapons. Germany came dangerously close to winning the race, and disaster was averted by a team of young Norwegian commandos on skis. Bascomb’s signature suspenseful style lends itself beautifully to this harrowing tale of espionage and survival.

In the Shadow of Liberty by Kenneth C. Davis: This YALSA Nonfiction Award finalist examines the lives of five people who were enslaved by early Presidents of the United States. From Billy Lee, who was enslaved by George Washington as a teenager and stayed with the first President throughout his life, to Alfred Jackson, who was enslaved on Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage plantation and lived into the twentieth century, Davis examines life as an enslaved person and the peculiarities of being enslaved to some of the most powerful men in American history. Further, this book includes some staggering, little-known facts about slavery, the Presidency, and more.

Clarina Nichols: Frontier Crusader for Women’s Rights by Diane Eickhoff: Long before Susan B. Anthony, Clarina Nichols took over her ailing husband’s newspaper and used it as a platform to promote women’s rights. The newspaper led to speaking tours, and soon Nichols found herself in “Bleeding Kansas,” leading the fight on the American frontier. Descriptions of grueling and dangerous living conditions in Kansas Territory add an unusual twist to the story of the early fight for gender equality, and Eickhoff’s skillful storytelling sheds light on a little-known historical heroine.

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming: In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Russia’s imperial family lived in decadence while their subjects starved in squalor. This book follows the Romanov family from Nicholas II’s ascent to power to their deaths at the Winter Palace, from luxurious parties to political blunders, with sidebars about how the peasants were living. Additionally, Fleming explores the various conspiracy theories surrounding the fates of the Romanov children and scientific attempts to prove once and for all that there were no Romanov survivors, plus details how things changed–and remained the same–after the imperial family fell.

Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin: Marrin takes readers inside the fight for fair labor practices through the lens of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster. Along with biographies of the victims and other key players in the disaster, Marrin offers grim details about daily life in the Triangle Factory and other sweatshops as well as reminders that there are still places where sweatshop labor is the norm and history could repeat itself at any time. Along with a history lesson, this book gives modern readers a challenge to be more aware of the continuing struggle for labor rights.

The Plot to Kill Hitler by Patricia McCormick: McCormick’s biography of theologian and resistance leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers a unique perspective on life in Nazi Germany. Though Bonhoeffer had a golden opportunity to escape, he chose instead to stay and fight. His story is inspiring and thought-provoking and will leave readers wanting more.

Blizzard of Glass by Sally M. Walker: In December 1917, two ships bound for war-torn Europe, one carrying explosives and the other loaded with medical supplies, collided in the harbor in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The resulting explosion caused devastation across two towns, and the disasters just kept coming as the explosion was quickly followed by widespread fire and then a blizzard. This quick read details the explosion, devastation, and recovery efforts, with special attention paid to how Halifax’s past as a base of operations for recovery efforts following the sinking of the Titanic helped the city cope when disaster struck the town.

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