The end of the year is a good time to take stock of our past. It’s also the time every “best books of the year” list comes out. In honor of this happy convergence, here are some of the best books of the year in the field of history.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold (333 pages) Hallie Rubenhold is a noted social historian who wrote the books that inspired the hit Hulu show Harlots, and this is her best work yet. For the first time in 100 years, the lives of the women have been taken as seriously as the manner of their deaths. Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888. The person responsible was never identified, but the character created by the press to fill that gap has become far more famous than any of these five women. For more than a century, newspapers have been keen to tell us that “the Ripper” preyed on prostitutes. This is untrue and has prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told. Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, revealing a world not just of Dickens and Queen Victoria, but of poverty, homelessness and rampant misogyny. They died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time—but their greatest misfortune was to be born a woman.
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe(441 pages) This groundbreaking book tells the stories of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, centered on the disappearance of one woman. One night in December 1972, Jean McConville, a mother of ten, was abducted from her home in Belfast and never seen alive again. Her disappearance would haunt her orphaned children, the perpetrators of the brutal crime and a whole society in Northern Ireland for decades.Through the unsolved case of Jean McConville’s abduction, Patrick Radden Keefe tells the larger story of the Troubles, investigating Dolours Price, the first woman to join the IRA, who bombed the Old Bailey; Gerry Adams, the politician who helped end the fighting but denied his IRA past; and Brendan Hughes, an IRA commander who broke their code of silence. Winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Writing in 2019.
Before and after : the incredible real-life stories of orphans who survived the Tennessee Children’s Home Society by Judy Pace Christie and Lisa Wingate (292 pages) This book examines the true stories behind Lisa Wingate’s celebrated novel Before We Were Yours, about the Tennessee Children’s Home Society scandal. From the 1920s through the early 1950s, Georgia Tann operated an adoption agency in Memphis called the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. But this was no traditional orphanage: Tann’s agency traded in babies and toddlers who had been kidnapped from poor rural families, born to single mothers, or stolen from hospital wards with the help of bribed nurses. Adoption records were falsified or intentionally destroyed, with the result that most of the 5000 children “processed” through the Society never had a way to search for their birth families or find any surviving siblings. The book culminates with the first-ever reunion of Georgia Tann’s victims, now gray-haired and nostalgic for the lost years, yet full of joy over their newly found, better-late-than-never brothers, sisters, and cousins.