As a chronic overthinker, I spend a lot of time and mental energy asking, “What if?” Therefore, it is surprising that I haven’t really ventured into what is basically a What If genre. That’s the point of Read Harder though – branching out. Alternate history novels describe a re-imagined world in which an element of history is changed. DBRL’s catalog has a long list of alternate history novels to satisfy this Read Harder task, and I would like to highlight a few.
“The Only Harmless Great Thing” is unlike anything I’ve ever read. It imagines a combination between “The Radium Girls” and Topsy the Elephant, and I have to concur with my colleague The Gentleman that it can be hard to avoid the allure of a glowing elephant. The language in this book is remarkable. The prose reads so much like poetry in the sense that it is rhythmic and loaded with unexpected but shrewd imagery. In only 92 pages, Bolander sent me to a dictionary (okay, Google) four times. Though short, the books delves into the matriarchal social workings of the elephants and their clash with human greed and class struggles in a way that is compelling and heartbreaking.
Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” follows Cora, a slave attempting to escape the antebellum South. The main historically reimagined aspect of this novel is that the Underground Railroad is just that – a literal underground train system. With a vindictive slave catcher on her heels, Cora flees across different states, each with their own unique methods of perpetuating racism. This scathing indictment of slavery digs into the social complexities of oppressive power structures and the multitude of ways in which racism can manifest.
Stephen King’s “11/22/63” centers around a high school English teacher named Jake whose friend, Al, divulges to him that his diner storeroom is a portal to 1958. Al had intended to use the portal to stop the Kennedy assassination by killing Lee Harvey Oswald, but he is dying of cancer. Jake takes up Al’s mission, transporting himself to 1958. He assumes a new identity, under which he falls in love and does his best to rewrite history. At 849 pages, this is not a quick read, but this Sci-Fi thriller has a lot to offer history buffs and Stephen King fans alike.
Imagining what could have happened offers a lot of insight into what actually did. Many alternate history books suggest that a small change in the past could have a massive effect on the future. Bearing in mind that our present is the future’s past, alternate history offers us the opportunity to consider the effects we could be having.
If you need help finding a book for any of the Read Harder 2019 categories grab one off of our display on the second floor of the Columbia Public Library.