I grew up reading and rereading Elswyth Thane’s Williamsburg series, not exactly romance fiction, but with all the matches from Tibby and Julian in Colonial America through six more books to their descendants in World War II England, the series certainly qualifies as fiction with a strong romance element. I didn’t really think about moving to a different genre when I moved from reading Thane, Janet Holt Giles, Elisabeth Ogilvie, and other weavers of American-set historical fiction to reading American-set romance fiction.
For years, American historicals were a regular part of my romance reading. But LaVyrle Spencer and Maggie Osborne retired, Pamela Morsi and Susan Wiggs moved to women’s fiction and contemporary romance (or some hybrid of the two), and Lorraine Heath and Laura Lee Guhrke joined the European historical-writing crowd. These days, except for Frontier/Westerns, which remain strong with frequent contributions from writers such as Jo Goodman, Cheryl St. John, Jodi Thomas, and Kaki Warner, it is rare that I read an American historical that gives me the feeling that I’ve found a gem to add to my collection. But with the boundaries of the American historical expanding into the World War II era and beyond, I have hope that American historicals, from Colonial America settings to the 1960s, will find again a place on monthly lists of available romance novels.
In the meantime, I’ll keep rereading my top ten favorite American historical romance novels (listed in order of publication since I can’t decide which ones I love most).
1. Morning Glory (1990) by LaVyrle Spencer
Among Spencer fans, this one is often cited as the top favorite. With Will Parker, a drifter and ex-con, as hero, and Ellie Dinsmore, a pregnant widow many of the good citizens of Whitney consider mad, as heroine, it offers unconventional protagonists. These two lonely outsiders enter a marriage of convenience in a small Georgia town in the 1940s and capture the reader’s interest and affection in their story about finding a place to belong. Morning Glory’s continued popularity is confirmed by its ranking as #25 on the 2013 Top 100 poll at All About Romance.
2. Crooked Hearts (1994) by Patricia Gaffney
Grace Russell and Reuben Jones are indeed a matched pair, both bright but beleaguered con artists who, after some initial conflict, join forces to tangle with a laughably stereotypical Chinese villain. The meet scene in which Grace is a nun and Reuben is a blind Spanish aristocrat is rib-tickling funny and so visually rich that the reader seems to see these characters. I’ve read thousands of romances, but this one remains unique, more like a successful screwball comedy from the Golden Age of that film genre than a standard romance. It’s a read that is just unadulterated fun with Gaffney’s deft touch with prose as a bonus.
3. Conor’s Way (1996) by Laura Lee Guhrke
The attraction of opposites is a cherished trope in romance, and it reaches a superlative degree in this book. Conor Branigan and Olivia Maitland are the very antithesis of one another. He is a stubborn Irish Catholic immigrant with a grim, heartbreaking past, a foul mouth, and a taste for gambling, who boxes as a way to deal with the nightmares that haunt him. She is the quietly courageous last leaf of a once wealthy, prominent family of Southern aristocrats in Callersville, Louisiana. Add a complex, credible villain and kids who serve a purpose greater that cuteness, and you have a compelling, post-Civil War story that is among Guhrke’s best work.
4. Always to Remember (1996) by Lorraine Heath
I could have filled almost half this list with Lorraine Heath novels. Her Texas trilogy (Texas Destiny, Texas Glory, Texas Splendor) ranks with the best series in romance fiction, but Always to Remember edged out Texas Destiny because I don’t believe Clayton Holland, the hero of ATR, has an equal. Clayton is a hero who is tortured physically when he is sent to prison because he refuses to bear arms in the Civil War and tortured emotionally after the war by family, former friends, and neighbors (including the heroine) who hate him for living when their loved ones perished in the war. This is one of the great tearjerkers of all time, but it still manages to be uplifting and romantic.
5. Simple Jess (1996) by Pamela Morsi
Jesse Best is handsome, hardworking, and kind, but because he was almost strangled by the umbilical cord when he was born, his mind works more slowly and less conventionally than most. His family loves him and recognizes his abilities are greater than his disability, but the people in his early twentieth-century Ozark farming community only see him as a simple-minded lackwit. Widow Althea Winslow certainly doesn’t see Jess as husband material when she strikes a bargain with him: her husband’s dogs in exchange for Jess’s help on her farm. She soon discovers that simplicity can be powerful and that Jess is more man than her persistent suitors. This is another one-of-a-kind-story, one that earns a special place in the reader’s heart and memory.
6. The Outsider (1997) by Penelope Williamson
Rachel Yoder lives a contented life on her Montana ranch, practicing her Plain faith, tending to her sheep, and caring for her ten-year-old son who reminds her of her beloved late husband. One day she stumbles upon Johnny Cain, a gunslinger near death, and nurses him back to health. Part of the wonder of this book is that it takes so many Western stereotypes—the pure-hearted heroine, the tortured hero who believes in nothing, the conflict between the sheep farmers and the cattle ranchers—and renders them fresh and persuasive. The relationship between Rachel and Johnny is multi-dimensional, and the love scenes, without graphic details, are sensual and romantic. And every character from the ten-year-old to the villain is presented with complexities and vulnerabilities.
7. I Do, I Do, I Do (2000) by Maggie Osborne
Juliette March, an heiress from California, Clara Klaus, an innkeeper from Oregon, and Zoe Wilder, a coal miner’s daughter from Washington, three apparently very different women, have more in common than any of them want. They are all married to Frenchman Jean Jacques Villette. When they join forces to track their husband to Alaska, they discover new truths about themselves, new bonds with one another, and new men who offer true love rather than lies and deception. This is a delightfully amusing story with one of the funniest love scenes ever and Osborne’s splendid gift for creating unforgettable characters.
8. The Charm School (2001) by Susan Wiggs
How do I love this book? Let me count the ways. It’s an ugly duckling tale about two people who are outsiders in the worlds into which they are born: an intelligent, exceptionally well-educated Bostonian heroine (Isadora Peabody) and a hero who is a Southern abolitionist (Ryan Calhoun). A significant part of the story takes place on board the ship of which Ryan is captain (the Silver Swan, endearingly obvious symbolism). Isadora and Ryan don’t just fight and fall in lust. They learn to like one another. They have real conversations and laugh together. The book is a bit of a romp, but it’s a romp with substance, the best kind. If ten reasons aren’t enough, there is the wonderful dialogue with lines like these:
He dove beneath the water and surfaced in front of her, so close she could see the way the myriad droplets magnified his pores. “You are absurd. Absurdly adorable. Isa-dorable. I wish I could make love to you.”
She watched his face, his mouth, mesmerized. “I think you already are.”
9. Open Country (2010) by KaKi Warner
Warner earned a spot on my auto-buy list with her debut novel, Pieces of the Sky, the first book in her Blood Rose trilogy, but the second book, Open Country, is even better. It is another example of a book that is packed with well-worn plot devices: a heroine fleeing in fear for the two children in her care, a brave hero who is struck with amnesia, a hasty marriage with a secret motive. Yet there is nothing clichéd about nurse Molly McFarlane and her late sister’s two children or about Hank Wilkins, partner in Wilkins Cattle & Mining. The setting in New Mexico in more than mere backdrop, and the tale is a heart-winning mix of humor and genuine pathos.
10. The Sleeping Night (2012) by Barbara Samuel
One of the reasons In the Midnight Rain by Barbara Samuel writing as Ruth Wind is one of my all-time favorite novels is the complex portrait it paints of race relations in the South. In last year’s The Sleeping Night, Samuel offers an even more detailed look at life in racially segregated Gideon, Texas, in the 1940s. The center of the book is an interracial love story that spans decades between Angel Corey, the white daughter of a general store owner whose customer base is the black population of Gideon, and Isaiah High, the son of a black man who knows too well the dangers his son’s friendship with Angel holds. Few authors pack the emotional punch of Samuel, and she is at her best in this story that shows faith tested, love enduring, and the mix of good and evil, self-interest and selflessness, hatred and hope that are somehow unique to this historical moment and common to human experience.
+Check out more reading recommendation lists:
- 10 Contemporary Romance Novels You Should Read
- 10 Regency Romances You Should Read
- 10 Erotic Romance Novels You Should Read
- 10 Paranormal Romance Novels You Should Read
- When Historical Goes Hot: Best in Erotic Historical Romance
- 10 Fantasy Novels You Must Read
- Top 5 Sex Scenes in Contemporary Romance
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.