When reading for pleasure, many people have a tendency to avoid historical non-fiction or as most people call it, history. Just the words “historical non-fiction” might make your eyes glaze over as you think of days spent in the classroom writing down dates and regurgitating them for an exam. It doesn’t have to be that way though.
Much like that one teacher you had who could bring a subject to life, in the right hands, a fact-based story can be an entertaining, thrilling and exciting tale that you can’t put down. I’ve recently come across two such books that will definitely be worth your limited reading time.
The first is The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South by Alex Heard. Far from a boring listing of “the facts”, this book is essentially a historical mystery. The author attempts to find out the truth concerning the trial and eventual execution of Willie McGee on the charge of rape in 1940s Mississippi. Heard tracks down many surviving participants and witnesses to the events and pieces together a story that is as intriguing for what is not known as for what is. It seems that almost everyone involved in the case has an agenda, whether they are aware of it or not, and tries to shape the facts to fit their preconceived ideas. In the end, the author wisely leaves it up to the reader to decide who and what to believe.
A similar, and just as riveting, approach is used in the book Berlin at War by Roger Moorhouse. From the title, you might think the book is about Hitler or the German army during World War II. In fact, it is a great piece of social history that puts the reader in the shoes of the citizens of Berlin as their city went from the height of Nazi power to a barren heap of rubble in under 10 years. The author excels at exploring and describing events that affected the average city dweller. Instead of explaining the blackouts in terms of aerial bombardment strategy, for example, he describes the very real effects of increased traffic accidents, crime and luminescent paint that living in the dark created for those on the ground.
So, try not to shy away from stories that just happen to be based on facts. History is all in the telling.