Top 10 American Historicals: An Opinionated Opinion

Morning Glory by LaVyrle SpencerI 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 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.

Crooked Hearts by Patricia Gaffney2. Crooked Hearts 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 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.

Always to Remember by Lorraine Heath4. Always to Remember 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 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.

The Outsider by Penelope Williamson6. The Outsider 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 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.

The Charm School by Susan Wiggs8. The Charm School 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 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.

The Sleeping Night by Barbara Samuel10. The Sleeping Night 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.


Learn more about or order a copy of the books mentioned in this post:

Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer

Crooked Hearts by Patricia Gaffney
Conor’s Way by Laura Lee Guhrke
Always to Remember by Lorraine Heath
The Outsider by Penelope Williamson
I Do, I Do, I Do by Maggie Osborne
The Charm School by Susan Wiggs
Open Country by KaKi Warner
The Sleeping Night by Barbara Samuel

+Check out more reading recommendation lists:


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.

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Donna Bailey
1. donnarb60
I have to see Outlander by Diana Gabaldon on any must read list, not to mention the rest of the series. :)
Carmen Pinzon
2. bungluna
Pamela Morsi and Maggie Osborne are the two authors who epitomize American Historicals for me.

I have a loathe/hate relationship with Rosemary Rogers, who nevertheless wrote what, for me, are the forebearers of ARs.

That said, "Sweeter, Savage Love" by Sandra Hill would definitelly have had a place on my top 10 list!
3. Janga
@donnarb60, I know Gabaldon's books are greatly loved by many in the romance community, but I've never been able to get through the first book. Thus, I could not include the series on my list, although I concede its place in romance history. These "opinionated opinions" offer totally subjective views of key books within subgenres. I think the points we disagree on are the ones that make such discussions most interesting.
4. Janga
@bumgluna, I applaud anyone who appreciates Morsi and Osbourne., and I agree that Rogers is historically significant. Obviously I'm less convinced that her books would persuade a reader unfamiliar with American historicals that they are the equal of more popular subgenres. I'm off to check on the Hill. I've never read it.
Carmen Pinzon
5. bungluna
@Janga - it's very funny, imo.

Another author who wrote funny ARs is Jude Devereux. I loved them, at the time, but I'm afraid they have not withstood the test of time for me.
lady trudy
6. lady trudy
I would like to nominate Rosanne Bittner's Outlaw Hearts and Thunder on the Plains - both American romances that stand the test of time, well written and solid historicals and very romantic.
7. Kareni
Of your list, I've only read Morning Glory. Clearly I have some more reading to do! Thanks for the list, Janga.
Anna Bowling
8. AnnaBowling
I miss Spencer, Osborne, Williamson and Morsi terribly and would love to see more American historicals. America is relatively young, but still has a rich history. Shirl Henke's westerns are definitely worth the read and make excellent use of the varied backgrounds one might find on the frontier. Pamela Clare's American Revolution era historicals are rich in period detail and compelling characters. Heather Graham, aka Shannon Drake has done some wonderful Civil War romances as well as her famed American Women trilogy. Here's to more American historicals yet to come.
lady trudy
9. redheadedjen
I just read Shadow Patriots by Lucia St Clair Robson and while more historical fiction but has romance. It was on my favorites this year. Made laugh and cry.
Plum Cala
10. frangipiani
Thank you for this list! Having read Spencer's, Heath's and Morsi's listed novels, alternately cried and laughed for all of them, and then read everything all over again, I am almost sure I'll enjoy the other books as well!
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