We don't need to remind The Archive's readers of the importance of casting an eye back at the end of an era. As this decades draws to a close, we're looking back on the most recent year's contributions to the greatest history books.
Three of our writers have contributed their personal best history books of 2019 to create this list of books we think are certainly worth your time. These books will take you from 16th-century Angola to 21st-century Ireland, and untold destinations between. Get out your pen and paper—you'll definitely be adding the best 2019 history books to your reading list.
A Woman of No Importance
In this book by Sonia Purnell, new research sheds light on the magnificent and secret life of a World War II heroine. Virginia Hall, a Baltimore socialite who fought her way into the Special Operations Executive, was considered the most dangerous of all Allied spies by the Gestapo in 1942. She was a leading force in the French Resistance—establishing spy networks, spearheading guerilla campaigns, and saving lives. Hall defied death time and time again, her determination decimating any and all adversity she faced to come together now in this thrilling biographical account.
Midnight in Chernobyl
Thanks to the success of HBO’s mini-series Chernobyl, the nuclear disaster is back in the forefront of the public consciousness. But before the show had gone on the air, author Adam Higginbotham had already released this vital and heavily-researched “untold story” of the event. Named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times and as a finalist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, this riveting look at the facts—and the myths—surrounding one of the most destructive disasters in human history pulls back the curtain and shows us what led up to the disaster, what was done to contain it, and what it means for us today.
First: Sandra Day O'Connor
This biography tells the remarkable triumphs and struggles of America’s first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. From the period of her life where she couldn’t get a foot in the door at law firms due to her gender, to the corruption she stared down in the Arizona Court of Appeals, O’Connor’s story is full of courage, confidence, and intelligence. She tore through glass ceilings in the twenty-five year tenure she held on the Supreme Court, all while battling cancer and supporting a husband with Alzheimer’s. Evan Thomas’s work paints a complete picture of O’Connor—a student, a wife, a vessel of justice, and a powerful leader.
The Season: A Social History of the Debutante
Coming from a debutante family herself, author Kristen Richardson opted not to debut—but then curiosity got the better of her. So was born this centuries-spanning look at how the culture of debutantes, their rituals and seasons, have shaped not just our ideas about marriage and femininity, but society itself, in the United States, Britain and all over the world. As debutantes past and present speak in their own words—through letters, diary entries, and interviews—we get a look inside an important but all-too-often overlooked part of our culture.
The Story of Britain
Roy Strong first wrote this authoritative history of Britain in 1996. This year, he revisited and updated his masterpiece, beginning from the earliest days of Celtic culture and continuing all the way into Brexit. Strong, the former director of London's National Portrait Galley and the V&A, is an invigorating and deeply-educated narrator. Perfect for British neophytes and obsessives alike, The Story of Britain traces the past to illuminate the present.
Hymns of the Republic
Hymns of the Republic looks at the final year of the Civil War from unique angles. Author S.C. Gwynne takes readers from the beginning of Ulysses S. Grant’s command of the Union armies to Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Gwynne’s insights include an account of the thousands of black soldiers fighting for the north, as well as the medical contributions of Clara Barton. This book captures the dramatic violence of the war’s fourth year, from Missouri’s wild guerilla war to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Related: 19 Essential Civil War Books
In 1931, nine young African-American boys were accused of raping two white women on a train. In reality, the boys—ranging from age 13 to 20—had been forced off the train after a group of white teens had told them it was a "white man's train". After the boys jumped off, two women disembarked at the next station in Paint Rock, Alabama, and claimed that the boys had raped them. Over the course of many trials, including two in front of the Supreme Court, all nine were convicted of the crime at least once, despite one of the women eventually admitting that she had made up the story. In this chilling recounting, Brimner uncovers the human tragedy behind the sentences and how such a miscarriage of justice could occur.
Many of the year’s best history books look at the past through the lens of a seemingly small thing. Sarah Milov’s The Cigarette is no exception. Chosen by Smithsonian as one of the best history books of 2019, “The Cigarette restores politics to its rightful place in the tale of tobacco’s rise and fall”, as it examines how tobacco went from the “quintessential American product” to its current state. As similar battle lines are drawn up around vaping right now, it’s a book with as much to say to our present moment as about the political, cultural, and corporate history of the United States.
In this book, Dan Jones—author of the New York Times best selling book The Templars—expands the scope of the war over Holy Lands in fascinating and enlightening ways. Jones unveils this history from multiple perspectives, capturing pride, horror, victory, loss, faith, power, and conquest. He also proposes a longer time frame for the Holy Wars, beginning with the eighth century relations between the Christians and the Muslims before winding through history to the imprints left on today’s society. With a broadened geographical frame, Jones also charts the journeys of “enemies of the Church” from Spain to the Baltic states.
How to Hide an Empire
Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the history of the 50 States—but we may be less familiar with America’s semi-secret history of colonialism and empire-building, which has spanned islands, atolls, and archipelagos. Chosen as one of the best books of 2019 by the Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, and NPR, this riveting exploration of the history—and implications—of the American Empire shows us vital (and sometimes hidden) moments of American history, cast in a new light.
They Were Her Property
Historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers dives into the social and economic roles that white women played in the American slave trade. As women typically inherited slaves more often than they inherited land, human trafficking became their primary source of individual wealth. Not only did these women actively participate and profit from the slave market, but they also carried out slave management in a way that was similarly brutal to the techniques employed by white men. In a topic where discussion often downplays the presence of white women, Jones-Rogers highlights the active ways in which women of the time supported one of America’s greatest atrocities.
When you think of a rule-breaking romantic poet, Lord Byron is usually the figure that springs to mind. But Letitia Elizabeth Landon, born in 1802, was just as scandalous and talented. Landon, who used the pen name L.E.L., paved the way for Byron. In this fascinating biography, Lucasta Miller reinvigorates Landon's legend, bringing the vivacious woman back to life.
The Ghosts of Eden Park
More than just a true crime book, The Ghosts of Eden Park is a portrait of a moment in American history, as told through the lens of the rise and fall of George Remus, the most successful bootlegger of the Roaring 20s. From the dizzying highs, during which he controlled 35% of the liquor in the United States and hosted extravagant parties with diamond jewelry and new cars as party favors, to the lows of his trial for bootlegging and the murder of his own wife, author Karen Abbott brings to light a story in the shadows. Meanwhile, she makes the case that Remus was a partial inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in this riveting true story of the Jazz Age.
The Ship of Dreams
Previously unpublished sources, deck plans, journal entries, and artifacts stand as the framework for The Ship of Dreams, which details the socio-economic landscape of six first-class passengers aboard the Titanic. Author Gareth Russell brings attention to the unique nuances of the Edwardian era, such as the British class system, the rising movie industry, and the Jewish-American immigrant experience. With both broad views of the backgrounds of the passengers as well as detailed accounts of their individual tragedies and triumphs, Russell sculpts a vivid and gripping look at the early 20th century.
Related: 11 Captivating Titanic Books
When Brooklyn Was Queer
Brooklyn was long thought of as Manhattan's podunk little sibling–cheaper, lower-class, and filled with immigrants. Although this shifted in the late 20th century, as hipsters took over Williamsburg, Brooklyn certainly never had the cultural—or queer—cachet of The City. In this fascinating history of the borough, Hugh Ryan resurrects the queer history of Brooklyn, from Mabel Hampton's experiences in Coney Island among the freakshows, to Walt Whitman cruising the waterfront, to World War II, when gay locales and spies collided. When Brooklyn Was Queer manages to compact a century's worth of shifting cultural tides into 300 fascinating pages.
Monster, She Wrote
From Frankenstein to The Haunting of Hill House, some of the most legendary, groundbreaking, and terrifying tales of all time have been penned by women writers, who are all-too-often neglected in history books. Complete with curated reading lists to point you to some of their most spine-chilling stories, this book examines the role of women pioneers in horror and speculative fiction, from the famous to the infamous to the unjustly forgotten.
Handprints on Hubble
This autobiography from the first American woman to walk in space details the work she put in to make the revolutionary Hubble Space Telescope possible, as well as her journey to become one of the first six women to join NASA’s space corp. Kathryn Sullivan talks about her start in oceanography, and moves on to discuss the tools created specifically to maintain Hubble in space. From the earth-shattering feeling of spacecraft liftoff to the solemn hiatus of the space program post-Challenger, Sullivan weaves a tale of personal history, groundbreaking science, and incredible discovery.
The Boundless Sea
They cover more than half of the planet’s surface; they've have shaped almost every aspect of human history. They’re the oceans, and in this magnificent work of history on the grandest scale, David Abulafia charts how humans have interacted with the oceans, and how the oceans have shaped our worldview, from the earliest excursions in hand-carved canoes to modern ocean liners plying the waves. At the Financial Times, where it was selected as one of the best history books of 2019, Tony Barber called The Boundless Sea, “nothing less than a history of humanity written from the perspective of the oceans.”
They Called Us Enemy
In this captivating graphic memoir, George Takei, his co-writers Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott and artist Harmony Becker tell the story of Takei’s childhood within Japanese internment camps. At four years old, the future actor was one of many American citizens of Japanese descent to be sent off to “relocation centers” at the behest of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1942 Executive Order. Takei spent years under the watchful eyes of armed guards and behind the stifling boundaries of barbed wire, growing beneath the shadow of legalized racism. His book explores his parents’ complex struggles and the larger issue of facing a world that was set against him.
The Lady from the Black Lagoon
She was one of Disney’s first female animators and created one of the most famous monsters in the history of film. Yet for years, no one even knew whether Milicent Patrick was alive or dead. In this fascinating detective story, author Mallory O’Meara explores the life and career of the woman who designed the gill-man in Creature from the Black Lagoon, only to have credit stolen by a male colleague. It’s a story that simultaneously sheds light on a forgotten chapter of Hollywood history, and shows us how sadly little has changed in the years since.
A harrowing examination of how Ireland's Troubles impacted a country and a family, Keefe's Say Nothing is sure to occupy your thoughts long after you turn the final page. For outsiders, getting a handle on The Troubles can seem impossible—sure, it's Protestants vs Catholics, but the shades of gray make understanding the conflict a difficult task. Keefe's clever framing, that of the McConvilles' plight, allows the reader a way inside the decades-long struggle. By its end, Say Nothing will have you feeling that you've known Jean McConville, Dolours Price, and Gerry Adams your whole life.
Njinga of Angola
Linda M. Heywood illuminates the history of a cunning 17th-century African queen in this delightful biography. Heywood spent nearly a decade compiling research on this legendary world leader, learning from missionary accounts, letters, and colonial records. Her writing expertly reconciles the brilliant military strategies of Njinga with the personal sacrifices she made as she fought against colonialism. Peeling away the layers of sensationalism that have followed Njinga throughout the years, Njinga of Angola delivers a straight-forward and thorough account of this underappreciated ruler’s reign of power.
Featured image from cover of "They Called Us Enemy" by George Takei