Novels about real people lend depth, complexity to their histories 

Stephanie Dray’s new historical fiction title “Becoming Madam Secretary” has Frances Perkins, the U.S. secretary of labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as its protagonist. (Book cover courtesy Berkley/Perkins photo courtesy The Frances Perkins Center)

A time-honored tradition among novelists—anchoring objects of their creative imaginings in or around real historical figures—is being honored once again this spring with the March 12 publication of “Becoming Madam Secretary” (Berkley, $29, 528 pages) by Stephanie Dray.

Arriving just in time for the observation of Women’s History Month, the novel settles for its protagonist on the early 20th-century social activist who became the first female member of a presidential cabinet, Frances Perkins, appointed the secretary of labor by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. Serving a full 12 years in that capacity, longer than any other labor secretary, she helped FDR pull the country out of the Great Depression and became known as the “architect of the New Deal.”

Before she accepted the job, she gave the president a long laundry list of the projects he would have to support with her, and they included a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, abolition of child labor, direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief and Social Security.

There was plenty of true grist in the woman’s life for author Dray to grind into the novel: Perkins used her position as labor secretary to rescue European Jews from the Nazis, for one thing, and she had a passionate romance with the man who became her husband but was eventually institutionalized for mental problems, for another.

Dray is a specialist in historical fiction. A previous novel, “My Dear Hamilton,” revolved around founding father Alexander as seen through the perspective of his long-suffering wife Elizabeth. For her new novel, she threw herself into intense, time-consuming research, poring through 5,000 pages of oral history Perkins left behind, reading papers she had written, scouring hundreds of newspaper articles, listening to recordings of her voice and interviewing those who knew her, including a grandson. “All of this so I could paint a vivid picture of this extraordinary woman whose programs transformed our nation,” Dray told her publicists.

A tremendous amount of research of a different sort also went into George Saunders’ Booker Prize-winning 2017 novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which plumbs the psyche of our 16th president as he simultaneously mourns the lost lives of his own treasured child and those of the many sons killed in a nation wracked by war.

The idea for the book occurred to Saunders when he read newspaper accounts from the Civil War era about the bereft president’s night-time visits to the crypt that held the body of his young son Willie, a victim of typhoid. Though wild invention is a hallmark of the novel, populated as it is by the disembodied spirits of fictional characters inhabiting the same cemetery, Saunders anchors it with historically accurate quotations from the period, many taken from scholarly books on Lincoln. In an interview with the Rolland Center for Lincoln Research, Saunders described his method: “I chose the books by a process of voracious serendipity: Any time I saw or heard about a Lincoln book or a Civil War book, I’d go to the index and see if Willie was mentioned … and I’d write down whatever I found. I imagined my brain as a silo, and the job was just: Put as much as possible in there so that, at the moment of invention, I would have a solid basis.”

It’s hard to name a historical figure who has inspired as many fictional treatments as Abraham Lincoln.  (Google it for a long list!) Not even Saunders’  book has tread so far afield and taken so many liberties as Seth Grahame-Smith’s action-horror mashup “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter,” perhaps, but Gore Vidal wrote “Lincoln: A Novel” in 2000; Stephen L. Carter’s “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln” from 2012 is an alternate history that imagines him surviving the assassination attempt; and Jerome Charyn’s “I Am Abraham” is, as its title implies, written in the first person.

“The House of Lincoln” is latest in a line of numerous novels about the iconic American president. (Courtesy Sourcebooks) 

The most recent literary foray into Lincoln’s life is the June 2023 release of “The House of Lincoln” by Nancy Horan, who fictionalized architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s illicit amorous adventures in 2007’s “Loving Frank.” Set in Springfield, Illinois, where the future president lived for 27 years and launched his political career, the novel is told from the viewpoints of the members of three different families who interacted with him. An amusing tidbit about the book is that its cover bears a picture of Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, which, as an absent-minded country lawyer, he used as a briefcase to store letters, papers and court documents.

Other novels about famed or infamous people considered literary works of art include Joyce Carol Oates’ weighty, 700-page-plus exploration of the life of Marilyn Monroe, “Blonde” (2001); Colm Tóibín’s paean to author Henry James “The Master” (2004); and Karen Joy Fowler’s work about the entire theatrical family of the Lincoln assassin, “Booth,” which made the Booker Prize long list in 2022.


Irish writer Colum McCann will be in San Francisco promoting his new book “American Mother.” (Courtesy Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times)

Author alert: A three-day celebration tagged The Look of the Irish Arts & Writers Festival, from March 22-24 at the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco, culminates with author Colum McCann featured in conversation with writer/filmmaker Kelly Candaele at 7:30 p.m. March 24.

McCann, who won the National Book Award for 2009’s “Let the Great World Spin,” has published seven other novels, including “Transatlantic” (2013) and “Aperigon” (2020), the story of two men, a Palestinian and an Israeli, whose daughters were killed in the Middle East conflict. McCann’s new book, coming out March 5, is nonfiction. “American Mother” (Etruscan Press, $25.99, 256 pages) recounts the experiences of Diane Foley, who was brought face to face in 2021 with the ISIS terrorist who participated in the beheading of her journalist son Jim in Syria seven years earlier.

Tickets to the event, $25, are available through, and signed copies of McCann’s book will be available for purchase.

(Courtesy Knopf)

A posthumous delight: A recently uncovered work by the Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez will be published this month. His two sons, a decade after his death at age 87, have decided that, against his wishes, the final novel the Colombian author was working on while struggling with dementia should see the light of day.

“Until August” (Knopf, $22, 144 pages) comes out on March 12, and from its description from the publishers, it sounds like a quintessential book from the author of “100 Years of Solitude” and “Love in the Time of Cholera”:

“Sitting alone beside the languorous blue waters of the lagoon, Ana Magdalena Bach contemplates the men at the hotel bar. She has been happily married for twenty-seven years and has no reason to escape the life she has made with her husband and children. And yet, every August, she travels by ferry here to the island where her mother is buried, and for one night takes a new lover.”

Ewan McGregor plays Count Rostov in the adaptation of Amor Towles’ best-selling “A Gentleman in Moscow.” (Courtesy Jason Bell/Showtime/Paramount +)

Page to screen: At long last, the TV miniseries based on Amor Towles’ runaway best-seller, 2016’s “A Gentleman in Moscow,” is ready to air. The eight-episode series, starring Ewan McGregor as Count Alexander Rostov and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Anna Urbanova, will drop on Paramount + on March 29 and Paramount+ with Showtime two days later. The premise of the show and book: A Russian nobleman is forcibly confined by the Bolsheviks to live in the Hotel Metropol for decades. Although Kenneth Branagh was announced to produce and star, he was replaced by McGregor in 2018. Fine by us – McGregor seems perfectly suited to fill the polished shoes of the ultra-urbane Count.

Hooked on Books is a monthly column by Sue Gilmore on current literary buzz and can’t-miss upcoming book events. Look for it here every last Thursday of the month.

Leave a Reply

The Exedra comments section is an essential part of the site. The goal of our comments policy is to help ensure it is a vibrant yet civil space. To participate, we ask that Exedra commenters please provide a first and last name. Please note that comments expressing congratulations or condolences may be published without full names. (View our full Comments Policy.)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *