With our Historical Fiction issue out in February, the Underground team wants to share our favourite historical fiction works by Aussie authors. This list features works set across many different time periods, some set between the past and the modern day, and all brilliantly written and well worth a read!
That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott
Set in the area around what is now Albany, Western Australia, in the first decades of the 19th century, this book explores the early contact between the Aboriginal Noongar people and the first European settlers. Young Noongar man named Bobby Wabalanginy is clever, resourceful, and eager to please, and befriends the new arrivals, joining them in hunting whales, tilling the land, exploring the hinterland and establishing the colony. He is even welcomed into a prosperous local white family where he falls for the daughter, Christine, a beautiful young woman who sees no harm in their liaison. But slowly things begin to change, both by design and by accident. Not everyone is happy with how the colony is developing and stock mysteriously start to disappear; crops are destroyed; there are ‘accidents’ and injuries on both sides. The Europeans impose ever stricter rules and regulations in order to keep the peace, and Bobby’s Elders decide they must respond in kind. As a friend to everyone, Bobby is forced to take sides, having to choose between the old world and the new, his ancestors and his new friends. He is inevitably drawn into a series of events that forever change not just the colony but the future of Australia.
The Coves by David Whish-Wilson
San Francisco in 1849 is a place gripped by gold fever and full of desperate men seeking their fortune. Among them are Australian former convicts that quickly seize control in a town without masters—a town for the taking. Into this world steps an Australian boy searching for his mother; just twelve years old and all alone in a time of opportunism, loyalty and violent betrayal, Samuel Bellamy must quickly learn to become one of the Sydney Coves to survive.
Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar
In 1855 failed entrepreneur Stanton Finch moves his family from Adelaide to the remote Coorong area of Southern Australia in pursuit of his dream of becoming a farmer. The family try to make the best of their situation, the children roaming Salt Creek’s beautiful landscape, and a local Indigenous boy becomes almost part of the family. But there are many hardships, and tension grows daily between them and the Ngarrindjeri people whom they have displaced. Hester, the eldest daughter of the Finch family, takes on more responsibility as her mother struggles to cope. But as Hester’s sense of duty grows so does her yearning to escape Salt Creek and seek a new life of her own.
Shadowboxing by Tony Birch
A collection of ten linked stories in the life of a boy growing up in the 1960s in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. It captures through innocent unblinking eyes a period of decay, turmoil and change in a beautifully-rendered time capsule.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe
Siblings Ying and Lai Yue are forced by family circumstances to flee their home in China to seek their future and fortunes in Australia. Life is hard on the goldfields and they soon abandon the diggings and head to nearby Maytown. Once there, Lai Yue finds a job as a carrier on an overland expedition, while Ying finds work in a local store and strikes up a friendship with Meriem, a young white woman with her own troubled past. When a serious crime is committed, suspicion falls on all those who are considered outsiders.
The Paris Secret by Natasha Lester
In 1939 England the Penrose sisters couldn’t be more different; Skye is a daring and brash pilot, and Liberty is the one to defy her at every turn. Even if women aren’t allowed in the Royal Air Force, Skye is determined to help the war effort, and she’s thrilled when it reunites her with her childhood soulmate, Nicholas. But she’s less thrilled to learn that Nicholas is now engaged to an enigmatic Frenchwoman named Margaux Jourdan.
In Paris, 1947, designer Christian Dior unveils his glamorous first collection to a world weary of war and grief. He names his debut fragrance Miss Dior in tribute to his beloved sister, Catherine, who forged a friendship with Skye and Margaux through her work with the French Resistance.
And in the present day fashion conservator Kat Jourdan discovers a priceless collection of Dior gowns in her grandmother’s vacant cottage. She delves into the mystery of their origin, and soon begins to doubt everything she thought she knew about her beloved grandmother.
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
In 1926 Shanghai the streets are filled with debauchery. The city is helpless and in chaos in the face of a blood feud between two gangs. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love… and first betrayal. But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness; a monster in the shadows. The deaths begin to stack up and Juliette and Roma must set their grudges—and their guns—aside and work together and stop the mayhem before the whole city is consumed.
The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham
When Vince returns to Cabramatta after two years in juvie, Sonny can’t help but fantasise the numerous ways he could re-enter her life. An intoxicated grandmother and a hidden porn stash, however, was not quite the romantic reunion she envisioned. Set in a troubled suburb in south-west Sydney during the 1990s, The Coconut Children is an emotional and gritty coming-of-age story centred around two teens and their immigrant families.
The Sinkings by Amanda Curtin
This is the story of Willa, a woman living in present-day Perth, who is researching the story of Little Jock: a convict sent to Western Australia in the 1800s. The story moves between modern-day Perth and 19th-century Ireland and Scotland as Willa searches for information about Little Jock’s life and family, with his story unfolding in parallel with her research. Her connection to Little Jock begins with a hunch that he was intersex like Willa’s estranged child Imogen, later known as Darcy. Although parts of Little Jock’s story are clearly historical fiction, Willa draws threads between the hard facts of his birth, incarceration, transportation and death to create a complex tapestry of famine, prison, family, travel, secrets and hardship.
The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers by Kerri Turner
This work is inspired by true events, particularly that of the 1917 Russian Revolution. It follows a few dancers from the prestigious Romanov’s Imperial Russian Ballet, chronicling their experiences as the country turns against its royal family and thrusts those associated with them into danger. Turner’s experience and knowledge as a ballet dancer certainly shows itself in this book, and the writing is stunning. Her latest novel, Daughter of Victory Lights, is also a historical fiction work, about a woman who served her country in world war II and is unwilling to give up the independence she gained from the experience.
A Stranger in my Street by Deborah Burrows
It’s January 1943, US troops are permanently docked in Perth city, and women are having the time of their lives. The American soldiers have money, good manners, smart tailored uniforms, and accents like film stars, and young women across the city are being swept off their feet, pushing social boundaries in ways they’ve never been privy to before. Everyone is having the time of their lives, except for Meg Eaton, for whom the war brought only heartache by stealing her love over a year ago. Until, in the middle of a Perth heat-wave, she meets her lost lover’s brother, Tom, standing over a dead body in her neighbour’s backyard.
The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan
Set in rural Tasmania during the 1920’s to 1990’s, sisters Ida and Nora come into conflict over their view on motherhood. Ida who desires nothing more than children, struggles to understand her sister who, embittered by the loss of career, battles the expectation that motherhood should be all-encompassing. A story of how women judge other women and push their expectations upon one another. This is a compelling read, always priming you for the next confrontation, but you may need a few days to process it all after you’ve finished!
Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett
The reader follows the life of a young woman named Mary Davidson who, after the death of her mother, must support her family and her father’s whaling crew. Mary’s coming of age story begins in 1908 in the coastal town of Eden, NSW, where Australia’s dying whaling industry is under strain with the impending world war. Rush Oh! beautifully encapsulates our Australian history of whaling in Mary’s raw and honest sideline point of view.
And of course good historical fiction isn’t limited to works for adults! The following is a selection of YA, middle-grade and children’s historical fiction works that the team have come across and loved:
Alfred’s War by Rachel Bin Salleh
This story follows Alfred, an Indigenous veteran who served in The Great War (now known as World War One), who now, as an old man, must find work where he can. Albert’s life during the war is shown in beautiful double page spread illustrations that give a glimpse into the brutality and destruction of war. Rather than writing about the trauma Alfred suffered, glimpses of the horror Alfred witnessed are illustrated in evocative dark colours. The post-traumatic stress disorder Alfred suffers from, due to his time in the war, is humanely shown through the revelation that on some days he cannot get out of bed. Alfred represents numerous Indigenous servicemen who were not recognised for their service during the war: they are the forgotten soldiers. At the end of the book, a brief account is included of what happened to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans after the war. This includes several facts such as: only in recent years have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans been acknowledged for their service and sacrifice. Alfred’s War is a striking book that leaves a haunting impression, and is an engrossing read for children learning about Australian veterans.
Gracie and the Emperor by Errol Broome
“As long as Gracie could remember, she had been told stories of Napoleon Bonaparte, who would stop at nothing to rule the world. Now defeated, the most famous and dreaded man alive has been banished to the very island where she lives.” Published in 2005, this is not a new book, but it very cleverly explores a well-known historical figure from the point of view of a young girl.
The Chicken’s Curse by Frances Watts
Set in Europe during the reign of Caesar, Felix and Livia must reach Rome in time to rescue Livia’s brother, but along the way many obstacles hinder their mission … is it the curse of the sacred chicken that they abandoned during their journey? A brilliant read that hooks you in from the start.
The Grandest Bookshop in the World by Amelia Mellor
Set in a magnificent bookshop in Melbourne in 1893 where magic and mystery fill every page, I was hooked from the start. The novel follows Pearl and her sibling Vally as they tackle seven deadly tasks from the mysterious Obscurosmith.