10 Poignant Novels Set Amidst Major Events of the 20th Century

From world wars to social movements, the events of the 20th century did a lot to shape the world as we know it today. The books listed here take a personal look at those pivotal hundred years through the eyes of characters ranging from young children living through life-changing tragedies to married couples dealing with the aftermath of major wars. This video was made with Ezvid Wikimaker.

Historical Fiction Set in the 20th Century: Our 10 Picks

Title Author
1. Wallflower Holly-Jane Rahlens
2. Fruit of the Drunken Tree Ingrid Rojas Contreras
3. Rooftops of Tehran Mahbod Seraji
4. Those Who Are Loved Victoria Hislop
5. The Ghost Daughter Maureen O'Leary
6. The Lost Family Jenna Blum
7. Who Is Vera Kelly? Rosalie Knecht
8. The Melody of Secrets Jeffrey Stepakoff
9. Prague Spring Simon Mawer
10. The Letter Writer Dan Fesperman

8 Great Films From the 20th Century

  1. Citizen Kane (1941)
  2. The Godfather (1972)
  3. City Lights (1931)
  4. Schindler's List (1993)
  5. Casablanca (1942)
  6. Psycho (1960)
  7. Pulp Fiction (1994)
  8. 12 Angry Men (1957)

Progressives During the Turn of the Century

In Depth

A fair amount of historical fiction takes place in the distant past, but it's not necessary to reach back so far to find compelling stories. From world wars to civil unrest, natural disasters to youth movements, the last hundred years alone contain events that make for powerful narrative backdrops. Here, in no particular order, are ten novels that tell moving stories set amidst some of the 20th century's most significant moments.

Starting us off at #1 is "Wallflower" by Holly-Jane Rahlens. It's 1989, and the Berlin Wall has just come down. Shy sixteen-year-old New Yorker Molly Lenzfeld, the daughter of a German-Jewish woman who escaped from the Nazis, is spending her Thanksgiving traveling to the East Berlin home where her mother was born. En route, she meets gregarious nineteen-year-old Mick Maier, and love immediately sparks between them. As they venture into the German capital's vast underground world, they discover the wonders of romance and history.

At #2 we get "Fruit of the Drunken Tree" by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. Notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar is wreaking havoc in the streets of 1990s Bogota, but seven-year-old Chula and her sister, who live in a gated community, are comfortably sheltered from the terror. When the girls' mother hires live-in maid Petrona, a young woman from the city's guerrilla-occupied projects, Chula grows fascinated with the housekeeper's mysterious behavior. The two become wrapped up in each other's lives, and must make difficult choices as their families struggle to stay afloat amidst the turmoil.

Notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar is wreaking havoc in the streets of 1990s Bogota, but seven-year-old Chula and her sister, who live in a gated community, are comfortably sheltered from the terror.

For #3 we have "Rooftops of Tehran" by Mahbod Seraji. On the roof of his home in Iran's capital, seventeen-year-old Pasha spends the summer of 1973 hanging out with his best friend Ahmed. Meanwhile, he's harboring a crush on his neighbor Zari, who's been betrothed to his radical mentor since birth. Pasha finds bliss when he steals some time away with her, but it doesn't last long. After he unknowingly acts as an agent for the Shah's secret police, violent repercussions shatter his routine, and he learns the harsh truth of living under a dictatorship.

At #4 is "Those Who Are Loved" by Victoria Hislop. In Nazi-occupied Greece, fifteen-year-old Themis struggles with a politically polarized family and a famine that claims the lives of her friends. Driven to acts of resistance, she joins the Communist army in the ensuing civil war, but is eventually imprisoned on the islands of Makronisos and Trikeri. There, she encounters another prisoner whose life becomes intimately and unpredictably entangled with hers.

For #5 we get "The Ghost Daughter" by Maureen O'Leary. Angel Kelley is buried beneath the rubble of a building destroyed by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Nearby, in Silicon Valley, Reese Camden loses her husband in an accident. As Angel is rescued, detective Laura Redleaf recognizes Angel's mother, Judith, from an unsolved case dating years back. As Laura uncovers the truth, all four women will have to come to terms with their troubled pasts and uncertain futures.

As Angel is rescued, detective Laura Redleaf recognizes Angel's mother, Judith, from an unsolved case dating years back.

Coming in at #6 is "The Lost Family" by Jenna Blum. Everything seems to be going well for Peter Rashkin. The debonair owner and head chef of Manhattan restaurant Masha's, he is the most eligible bachelor in the city. But behind the swanky job, Peter, a holocaust survivor, is consumed by the guilt of having made it out of Auschwitz while his wife and two daughters lost their lives. Peter is taken off-guard when beautiful young model June shows up at the restaurant, and a passionate affair begins. They decide to get married, but will Peter be able to overcome his trauma?

At #7 we find "Who is Vera Kelly?" by Rosalie Knecht. Vera Kelly is working the night shift at a radio station in 1962 Greenwich Village, barely making rent while trying to move on from her troubled youth. When her sharp wit and technical prowess catch the attention of a CIA recruiter, she is whisked away to Argentina, where she finds herself acting as an informant in a group of student activists. As the local government falls apart and she is stranded in the wake of a coup, Vera must resort to drastic measures to survive.

For #8 we come to "The Melody of Secrets" by Jeffrey Stepakoff. Fifteen years after the end of World War II, German violinist Maria has settled down in Alabama with her husband, a rocket scientist working for the U.S. space program. Her life is content, until she gets a visitor from her past: James Cooper, an American fighter pilot who took refuge in Maria's cottage when his plane was shot down during the war. Now a test pilot for the Air Force, Cooper is offered a job as an astronaut, but he learns secrets about the program that could upend Maria's life.

Fifteen years after the end of World War II, German violinist Maria has settled down in Alabama with her husband, a rocket scientist working for the U.S. space program.

At #9 is "Prague Spring" by Simon Mawer. Oxford students and close friends Eleanor and James are hitchhiking across Europe during the turbulent summer of 1968. They decide to visit Czechoslovakia, unaware of the revolts and looming Soviet invasion that will soon shake the nation. While they journey through the capital city, First Secretary of the British embassy in Prague, Sam Wareham, is keeping an eye on political developments and learning about the country's youth culture from a Czech student he befriends. But what will happen to these characters when the Red Army crosses the border?

Finally, at #10 we get "The Letter Writer" by Dan Fesperman. Woodrow Cain thought he'd left his tumultuous past behind him in North Carolina for a new life in New York City, but it's clear more trouble awaits when he steps off the train to see the Normandie ocean liner ablaze on the Hudson. Taking a job with the N.Y.P.D., he meets the worldly and enigmatic Danziger, a letter writer for European immigrants who might be able to help him identify a corpse that washed up in the same river. As Cain and Danziger dig deeper into their investigation, they unearth a possibly deadly web of corruption.