Maybe it's the popularity of
Hamilton, or the overwhelming air of political tension in America, or the fact that the U.S. president refuses to condemn white supremacy, but "revolution" has been on our minds for a while now. We may not be able to singlehandedly overthrow the government tomorrow, or to spend every moment of every day protesting, but we can read. Arming ourselves with knowledge about history, both American and global, is absolutely crucial if we're going to survive these four years and move forward as a country. Here are a few fictional books about real revolutions, because sometimes fiction does the best job of telling the truth.
Of course, if you're looking for some straight up historical facts and figures, there's a plethora of
nonfiction books about political revolutions out there as well. Not to sound like your high school social studies teacher, but primary sources are pretty much invaluable when it comes to unpacking history. Novels, however, have the unique ability to drop you directly into the action. Novels make it easier to empathize with the characters, to understand what drives a country to revolution, and to see the real-life impact of politics face to face.
So here are a few novels that show us the courage, brutality, and truth of real revolutions:
'Les Misérables' by Victor Hugo
No, it's not actually about
the French Revolution, but Les Misérables is in fact about a French revolution, as well as the extreme economic inequality that led people to revolt in the Paris Uprising of 1832. Back in the day, Victor Hugo was highly controversial for his socialist opinions and his belief that convicts and sex workers deserve basic human rights. His call for social change and political revolution is, unfortunately, all too relevant to America today. Click here to buy.
'Burger's Daughter' by Nadine Gordimer
Rosa Burger has lost both of her parents to political revolution. Now, as the daughter of Afrikaner Marxists, she feels it is her duty to carry on their work in opposing apartheid in South Africa—but she must face her own ambivalence towards social justice, as well as the bigotry embedded in even the most "well meaning whites."
Burger's Daughter is a beautifully written, unflinching book that looks at the discomfort and racism that existed within as well as without the anti-apartheid movement. Click here to buy.
'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens
Yes, you can probably recite the first line of this book (say it with me now:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."), but did you know it's actually about the French Revolution? The main French Revolution, that is. Dickens' classic work sets a love story on the bloodstained streets of Paris during the height of the Reign of Terror, weaving the political and the personal in this epic drama. Click here to buy.
'Magic Seeds' by V.S. Naipaul
Magic Seeds is technically a sequel to another Naipaul novel, but it can easily be read on its own. It tells the story of Willie Chandran, a man who has reached middle age without having any direction in life. So, naturally, he joins an underground group of guerrilla revolutionaries. Naipaul takes us from fraught revolutionary conflict in India to gentile middle class life in England as Willie struggles to make sense of his own fractured identity and that of his country. Click here to buy.
'Boxers & Saints' by Gene Luen Yang
Gene Luen Yang uses two excellent, interconnected graphic novels to tell both sides of the Boxer Rebellion: on the one side we have Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy who loses his village to Westerners and turns to traditional Chinese gods to give him strength in fighting back. On the other side there is Vibiana, a young girl taken in by Christian missionaries, who draws her strength from visions of Joan of Arc. Together, they create one complex, nuanced story of faith and revolution.
Click here to buy.
'Animal Farm' by George Orwell
Animal Farm may not be a literal interpretation of the Russian Revolution, but it's not a very subtle allegory. Yeah, sure, it's about pigs and horses... but come on. George Orwell manages to tell the story of Russia's communist revolution, and the subsequent corruption of the communist government, through barnyard animals, and his brilliant metaphors are just as potent now as ever. Click here to buy.
'The Death of Artemio Cruz' by Carlos Fuentes
Artemio Cruz is, as the title suggests, on his deathbed. As he dies, however, he re-lives his time fighting in the Mexican Revolution as a young, idealistic revolutionary... and then slowly growing into the a member of the 1% he wanted so desperately to overthrow.
The Death of Artemio Cruz is widely considered a masterpiece of Mexican literature, fraught with the complexities of idealism and hypocrisy. Click here to buy.
'The Sympathizer' by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The narrator of
The Sympathizer is a communist double agent. As a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain, he has a foot in two worlds, he is a "man of two minds." Viet Thanh Nguyen brilliantly explores two sides of a devastating revolution and war through his "two-faced" protagonist, as he brings his complicated "sympathies" with him from Vietnam to America. Click here to buy.
'Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress' by Dai Sijie
During China's Cultural Revolution, two boys are exiled to a small mountain village for "re-education." Trapped in this remote new home, the boys befriend a young seamstress, and discover a hidden cache of Western classics. Through reading and romance, all three young people come to terms with their own beliefs and desires, and what they have lost in the revolution.
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'City of Love and Ashes' by Yusuf Idris
In Cairo of the 1950s, against the backdrop of British occupation, two young revolutionaries are falling in love. Hamza and Fawziya have big dreams of Egyptian independence. But is there any room for personal attachments when national identity is on the line?
City of Love and Ashes explores love and idealism amid violence, and the toll of deadly occupation on one city. Click here to buy.