Wendy McLeod MacKnight recommends 3 novels to captivate fans of historical fiction
This interview originally aired on March 26, 2022.
Wendy McLeod MacKnight is a Fredericton-based author known for her children's books, including The Frame-Up and The Copycat. When she isn't writing for kids, McLeod MacKnight likes reading historical fiction.
She spoke with Shelagh Rogers about three historical novels she recently enjoyed: Looking for Jane by Heather Marshall, The Perishing by Natashia Deón and The Singing Forest by Judith McCormack.
Looking for Jane by Heather Marshall
"The book weaves together the story of three different women, Angela Creighton, Dr. Evelyn Taylor and Nancy Mitchell, whose lives are all shaped by pregnancies — both unwanted and wanted — and their fight to have a choice about whether or not to bring a child into the world, which for many people has always been a big issue.
"The title of the book actually refers to an illegal underground abortion network in Toronto, known only by its whispered code name, Jane. And the author does a great job of grounding the story in not only the lives of these three particular characters, but by including cameos by real-life individuals involved at the time, like Dr. Henry Morgentaler and Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
I found this a profound and moving book because it really is a reminder of how the access to reproductive rights and abortion is still an issue in many provinces.
"The timelines basically go from the first unwanted pregnancy of the early 1960s, right up until the characters all find each other again in the 1990s. So much of it takes place in the 1970s and 1980s when this was a frontline battle for women in Canada to try to have reproductive rights. A lot of times we forget how far we've come, and also how far we need to go. I enjoyed revisiting that and getting some more information than perhaps I even had at the time.
"I found this a profound and moving book because it really is a reminder of how the access to reproductive rights and abortion is still an issue in many provinces, including my own, unfortunately. You really feel for all of the characters involved."
The Perishing by Natashia Deón
"I was intrigued by this from the moment that I heard about it because the description is, 'A Black immortal in 1930s Los Angeles must recover the memory of her past in order to discover who she truly is.' And so I was like, 'Well, that's a great concept. Who wouldn't want to read about that?'
"What really surprised me about the book was that it wasn't at all what I was expecting. It feels like a lot of times we're living in the Marvel Universe. This is a much more subtler examination of what that would be like. The stunning descriptions and the world-building of 1930s Los Angeles are just amazing. You really feel like you're there.
The stunning descriptions and the world-building of 1930s Los Angeles are just amazing. You really feel like you're there.
"The main character is a young woman named Lou, who knows she carries a secret, but she doesn't know what that secret is. She's haunted by familiar faces and memories of other times and places. She becomes an obituary writer for a Los Angeles newspaper — a job which she's very good at, which is kind of ironic for somebody who's lived many lives. As the book continues, we begin to suspect that she's being hunted.
"The neat thing, though, is you go back and forth in time. It's not just Lou in the 1930s — it's a boy named Charlie who's Lou in a previous life earlier in the 20th century; it's a woman named Sarah in the 22nd century who's going through legal battles.
"So we're really feeling a tremendous pressure all the way through the book because you feel like things are going to go bad for Lou and you don't know how it's going to end — and how she's going to end up as Sarah in the future. It's a neat book — I really recommend it."
The Singing Forest by Judith McCormack
"I think I may have saved the best for last. I just found this book so beautifully written, even despite the fact that it's at times very horrifying and upsetting. [Judith McCormack] does a really masterful job of weaving a story from present-day Toronto and then going back to pre-World War II Belarus.
"The premise of the story is very familiar to lots of us who've lived through atrocities in the last few hundred years. A mass grave is discovered, filled with thousands of victims murdered by Stalin's police. Our main character Leah Jarvis, a Jewish lawyer in Toronto in present day, becomes part of a team that's trying to work to deport a suspected war criminal, Stefan Drozd.
I just found this book so beautifully written, even despite the fact that it's at times very horrifying and upsetting.
"We go back and forth between these two characters. We go back with Drozd to the 1930s and [read about] all of the abuse and neglect that he has gone through. The neat thing is, while McCormack helps us understand perhaps how Drozd goes on his path to brutality, she never lets him off the hook.
"And that counterbalances so perfectly with Leah, because she's had similar challenges — and from her own perseverance, her own values and the help of an eccentric extended family member, she never loses herself. So that idea that people can go through tough times and can still maintain their dignity and their sense of self is such a strong theme that it's just so beautifully done."
Wendy McLeod MacKnight's comments have been edited for length and clarity.