Good slice of life historical fiction? Not too grim.
September 29, 2016 10:34 AM   Subscribe

My favorite book is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I want to find other slice-of-life historical fiction in which to immerse myself!

My favorite things about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are all the little vivid details of everyday life - food, clothes, jobs, shopping, neighbors, family. It also manages to be gritty and realistic while not being completely grim. What other books would I like? Early 20th Century or late 19th Century urban settings are cool just because they're lively, but I'm open to any setting or time period - I just like lots of detail. I'm also open to children's books (big fan of All-of-a-Kind Family etc.).

Thanks in advance for your suggestions!
posted by Knicke to Writing & Language (35 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Caddie Woodlawn is fun, detail-rich historical fiction about a girl on the Wisconsin frontier (I found it much more interesting than the Little House books.)

Catherine Called Birdy is historical fiction about a girl in the household of a minor English lord c 1000 AD, also quite detailed and vivid and fun.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:41 AM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Give Cold Sassy Tree a try. Also check out We Took to the Woods. It's not fiction; it's a real-life account, but I really enjoyed it. Maybe you will too.
posted by cleverevans at 10:47 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo. Chinese immigrant family in 1970s London.

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. Farming community in early to mid 20th Century Kentucky. It reads like a memoir of an elderly woman looking back over her lifetime.

When the de La Cruz Family Danced by Donna Miscolta. Filipino extended family in SoCal and Manilla.
posted by valannc at 10:48 AM on September 29, 2016

Check out Betty Smith's other books! They aren't as good, really, but they keep that same feel. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also my favorite and I will be marking this question as a favorite to check out the suggestion. I also really enjoying Alfred Kazin's A Walker in the City for a similar slice of life.
posted by stefnet at 11:03 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you can find a copy of it, try "Anything can Happen" by George Papashvily.

It's a semi-autobiographical (semi-fictionalized) story about the immigrant experience in the 1920's and 1930's. Papashvily came to the US from Georgia and, like most immigrants, spent the first few years here in NYC having entered at Ellis Island.

It's played as comedy, though there are a few serious parts. It was eventually made into a movie, which I haven't seen.

It's episodic and quite light-hearted, and the title comes from someone saying, "In America, anything can happen."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:04 AM on September 29, 2016

I just read and recommend Amor Towles's A Gentleman in Moscow, which might have what you're looking for. Deals with serious issues but with a light touch.
posted by ferret branca at 11:07 AM on September 29, 2016

I found The Fountain Overflows to be quite evocative of its period. It's an odd duck of a book and goes to some strange places but I really liked it.
posted by selfnoise at 11:15 AM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" and its quasi sequels, "Arrow of God" and "No Longer at Ease."

"Marjorie Morningstar" also fits this criteria.
posted by Melismata at 11:21 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Theophilus North by Thornton Wilder gives a good picture of life in Newport RI when it was the summer home of the very wealthy.

You might also try the works of EL Doctorow, especially Ragtime, which are rich in historical detail.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:24 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy is one of my favourites. It's set in Vancouver's Chinatown in the 1930s and '40s, and is really more like three novellas - each one told by one of the young siblings of the Chen family. There's a sequel, All That Matters, about the fourth sibling in the family, and I haven't read it yet but have heard it's quite good.
posted by northernish at 11:25 AM on September 29, 2016

Just because I'm not a huge reader, but the two books I read in 5th grade fit here: Where The Red Fern Grows (maybe too epistolary?) and Little Britches, which is Pioneer-ish.
posted by rhizome at 11:35 AM on September 29, 2016

You would probably like books by Kevin Baker

Dreamland which takes place around turn of the 20th Century Coney Island.
Paradise Alley about NYC during the Civil War.
Striver's Row about post war WWII Harlem.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky might fit your bill too.
posted by brookeb at 11:54 AM on September 29, 2016

The Boston Girl Addie is the spirited daughter of an immigrant Jewish family, born in 1900 to parents who were unprepared for America and its effect on their three daughters.

The Paris Wife Hemingway and his first wife during their years in Jazz Age Paris.

The Kitchen House Story of life on a plantation in the US south as told by a white slave and a black slave.

In the Shadow of the Banyan A 7 year old's point of view of Khmer Rouge regime in the Cambodian killing fields between 1975 and 1979 (grim but the writing is beautiful).

The Nightingale Two sisters during WWII in France and their war efforts ( a little more grim but inspiring)
posted by maxg94 at 11:56 AM on September 29, 2016

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg is pretty great. It's a fictionalized biography of real life NYC icon Mazie Phillips, the proprietress of The Venice theater, known as much for her salty, boozy, bawdy persona as for her ceaseless charity to the homeless men of her borough. You learn a lot about the human side of the Great Depression, while also getting a fascinating picture of an unusual woman. It's due to be a Helena Bonham Carter tv miniseries soon as well.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:57 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hild, by Nicola Griffith. It's intensely immersive, set in 5th c. Yorkshire.
posted by kalimac at 12:04 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you haven't read LM Montgomery, that will keep you occupied for a while. Everyone knows Anne of Green Gables, but the Emily trilogy is actually my favorite - it's a bit darker and the third book especially, when she's an adult, is not really for children.

The last in the Anne of Green Gables series, Rilla of Ingleside, is set during World War I and talks a lot about how the war affects daily life in rural Canada, especially for the women who stay behind. It's one of my favorite of her books.
posted by something something at 12:05 PM on September 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

I Lived on Butterfly Hill and The War That Saved My Life are recently read favorites of mine.
posted by Riverine at 12:11 PM on September 29, 2016

As always, I highly recommend "... And Ladies of the Club" by Helen Hooven Santmyer.

It's the best book ever, chock full of social, economic, and political history. It covers the years 1868 to 1932 or '33 -- the book is very, very long. The author wrote it over the course of her life, so what the protagonist, Anne, feels at age whatever was written by the author at around the same age. And the book is wonderful! I have always wanted to discuss it. I should start a FanFare for it.

An earlier question asked for titles concerning women's friendships, and this covers that as well. The two main female characters were best friends all of their long lives.

The author's Herbs and Apples is also good.
posted by jgirl at 12:53 PM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

I also loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and so I think you'd love Bronx Primitive - it's a memoir, but very similar thematically and in period setting.
posted by Miko at 12:57 PM on September 29, 2016

The Elena Ferrante Neapolitan series, definitely!
posted by greta simone at 1:20 PM on September 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

The Betsy-Tacy books.
posted by brujita at 1:28 PM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Good Earth and Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck are great (and accurate - she spent almost all of the first 40 years of her life in China) depictions of daily life in late 19th/early 20th century China. The Good Earth is probably a little darker of the two, mostly because it deals with poor farmers instead of a wealthier family.

She wrote many other books, but these are the two I've read.
posted by castlebravo at 1:30 PM on September 29, 2016

My Antonia by Willa Cather is by far my favorite book in this vein.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:13 PM on September 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Henry Roth's Call It Sleep is worth a look. (Everything he wrote also falls into the same category, and while not nearly as good, they're still very good.)

Also, though most of it wasn't historical fiction when written, most of Steinbeck's books might meet your requirements. For example, To a God Unknown and In Dubious Battle have a lot of interesting slice-of-life detail, if I remember correctly.
posted by eotvos at 2:40 PM on September 29, 2016

I agree with stefnet above--check out Betty Smith's three other novels. Especially Maggie-Now--I love that one nearly as much as A Tree Grows In Brooklyn! Totally makes you feel as though you're living in WWI-era New York City.
posted by bookmammal at 3:08 PM on September 29, 2016

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 3:53 PM on September 29, 2016

The House by the Medlar Tree.
posted by BibiRose at 6:03 PM on September 29, 2016

Seconding Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart". It's one of my favorite books—I try to always have a copy on hand to give away.
posted by she's not there at 8:02 PM on September 29, 2016

Run With The Horseman by Ferrol Sams -- growing up in Georgia in the 1920s. He wrote a couple sequels, all pretty interesting. And if you want more Southern Bildungsroman from the same era there's always Thomas Wolfe, but he's so unfashionable, nobody reads him anymore, unfortunately.
posted by Rash at 9:50 PM on September 29, 2016

Second the recommendations for anything by Pearl Buck or Willa Cather. I have read most of Buck and pretty much all of Cather, and they're brilliant. For a similar genre to Cather's, if slightly more overblown, you might try Sarah Orne Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs, The White Heron, or A Country Doctor.

Bo Caldwell wrote two great books based on her family's experiences as Westerners in China - The Distant Land of My Father and City of Tranquil Light (based on the life of her grandparents).

There's also Mrs. Mike, a favorite of my younger years, about a young woman who moves to northern Canada. Tisha is an actual fictionalized account of another young woman who went up to Alaska to teach school. I Heard the Owl Call My Name is the story of a young Anglican priest who goes to a remote location, also in Canada.

Ann Rinaldi is a YA novelist who wrote a TON of historical novels, usually about young girls, set in turning points of American history.
posted by dancing_angel at 10:46 PM on September 29, 2016

Heaven to Betsy! Shirtwaists and onion sandwiches galore!
I also like Ballet Shoes for this although for a much younger audience (tbf I still read this once a year).
posted by like_neon at 1:45 AM on September 30, 2016

I like Fifth Chinese Daughter. It's biographical, but a very interesting look at life at that time for a Chinese family living in San Francisco.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 2:34 AM on September 30, 2016

Response by poster: So many great suggestions, guys! I can't mark any as best answer without reading 'em, but there's a lot here that I haven't read that look great...and those I have already read, I enjoyed, so right on the money as well. Thanks all!
posted by Knicke at 10:20 AM on September 30, 2016

This may be like 90 degrees off of your request, but: The Unprejudiced Palate by Angelo Pellegrini is the true account of an Italian immigrant in post-WWII California and the gardens he plants. He talks about food and how life is different now in the U.S. compare to Italy and how no one appreciates the Jerusalem artichoke. :7) I really like it.

Goodreads on The Unprejudiced Palate.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:32 AM on September 30, 2016

It's nonfiction, but A London Child of the 1870s by Molly Hughes is a charming autobiography of a happy childhood. Hughes has written 3 more volumes, and they get progressively less lighthearted, but the first one is not at all grim.
posted by Quietgal at 5:49 PM on October 2, 2016

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