My Favorite Narrative Nonfiction

Fiction will always be my first love, but for the last several years I’ve been reading more and more creative nonfiction: stories so gripping you can’t put them down, that are completely true and impeccably researched. I admire the tremendous talent of the storymakers behind these books, who must be at once sensitive interviewers, painstaking researchers, and masterful writers who can bring the past to life and tell it with speed and suspense without losing any subtlety. Here are some of my favorites (and I hope you’ll tell me yours).

enduranceEndurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

This is the book that started my love affair with historical adventure books. The story of how Ernest Shackleton and his entire crew of twenty-seven men survived eighteen months marooned in Antarctica is so unbelievable, it should be fiction. I promise Endurance will blow your mind with its account of the resourcefulness and determination of the human spirit.

wediealoneWe Die Alone: A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance
by David Howarth

When a team of commandos landed in occupied Norway to organize the Norwegian resistance, they were betrayed and ambushed by the Nazis. Only one man survived, badly wounded. This is the story of Jan Baalsrud, who trekked through the arctic to safety, and of the villagers who risked their lives to save him.

thesmallwomanThe Small Woman by Alan Burgess

This is the sweeping epic of the bold, unstoppable Gladys Aylward, who ventured to China as a Christian missionary and who changed the lives of everyone she met, including the hundred homeless children she shepherded on a twelve-day journey over the mountains to safety when the Japanese invaded in 1938.

theboysintheboatThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

I’m cajoling everyone I know to read this book. Joe Rantz is the truest kind of hero; a virtual orphan, growing up on the edge of starvation, he became part of the extraordinary crew rowing team who went to Berlin in 1936 to show the world what the American West was made of.

Honorable Mentions: Unbroken: A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

What narrative nonfiction books are on your to-read list, or which ones have you read and loved? Let me know so I can add them to my list!

 

 

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Iron-Willed Isabel

isabel_i_of_castile-2I just finished another Isabel I biography: Isabella of Castile: The First Renaissance Queen by Nancy Rubin. What a fantastic, fast-paced work! This painstakingly researched 400-page historical biography of a five hundred-years-dead queen is as difficult to put down as The Hunger Games (but unlike Katniss Everdeen, this tough-as-nails female protagonist is completely real).

No time for blogging right now, but I wanted to share a quick anecdote that illustrates the bravery, tenacity, and determined decision-making that characterized Isabel’s reign. The following is summarized from Nancy Rubin:

During the Portuguese War Queen Isabel placed her daughter, Princess Isabel, in the safe keeping of her trusted friend Beatriz de Bobadilla. Beatriz was the wife of Andrés de Cabrera, the converso governor of Segovia, under whose rule the city was growing restless during the war.

On 1 August 1476 Isabel was awakened by a messenger from Cabrera. Segovia had revolted, and the life of the young princess was threatened. Fearing for her daughter’s life, the queen reacted “with much spirit” and determined to leave for Segovia at once. Without waiting for the royal army, Isabel set out for Segovia accompanied only by Cardinal Mendoza, the Count of Benavente, and Beatriz. Isabel and her three companions rode twenty-four hours without stopping, a long sixty-mile ride over mountainous terrain, and arrived at dawn.

Outside the city the prelate warned Isabel not to enter. The gate was barricaded by hostile Segovians who, he warned, would surely resort to new violence. Isabel coolly replied, “Tell those caballeros and citizens of Segovia that I am Queen of Castile and this city is mine for my father left it to me and I do not need any laws of conditions set for me to enter what is mine. I shall enter by the gate I want.”

The queen and her companions entered the city, and despite their hostility the angry crowds did not hurt them as they rode into the square of the alcazár. They crossed the drawbridge and entered the courtyard beneath the tower where the young princess was imprisoned. Her companions begged her to close the gates against the angry mob, but Isabel loudly announced that all who wanted should enter the castle.

Facing the angry crowd Isabel said, “My vassals and servants, tell me what you desire for if it is for the good of my city and my kingdom, I want it too.” The mob was surprised. They had expected a fight, not for the queen to entertain their complaints. Hearing their grievances against Cabrera, Isabel announced that she would act as governor herself until she appointed someone new. “What you want I want,” Isabel said. “Therefore climb now those towers and those walls and push off all [Cabrera’s] men. Because I want to deliver it [the castle] to the custody of one of my servants, one who keeps my alleigance and who keeps the honor of you all.”

“Viva la Reina!” the crowd shouted. The queen restored the castle to her command, and with five-year-old Princess Isabel in her arms rode to the palace.There she assured the Segovians that they “would no longer be troubled by [Cabrera]” because she was going to thoroughly investigate him. She then asked the citizens to send representatives to discuss their grievances.

A case was presented, but the pacified Segovians conceded that abuses had really been “committed by his officials.” As a converso, hated for his wealth and influence, Cabrera had been a scapegoat for those who lusted after his position. Isabel knew “that this scandal had been incited by some nobles and rich citizens” and that Cabrera was actually a very shrewd administrator and fair governor. She thus commanded Cabrera be restored to his authority as governor of the city and the castle, and this time the Segovians did not protest. She left the city in peace and her daughter in safety, and returned to her duties at the war front.

From Rubin, Nancy. Isabella of Castile: The First Renaissance Queen (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 152-153.