March: a novel by Geraldine Brooks
In this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Mr. March, the absent father in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, comes alive through a combination of correspondence and diary entries. Captain John March (a stand-in for the real-life Bronson Alcott) is an abolitionist clergyman who becomes a Union army chaplain during the Civil War. Although his letters to Marmee, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are optimistic, the reality of his situation is grim. As he witnesses firsthand the horrors of war, survives serious illness, and is unexpectedly reunited with a woman from his past, March finds himself irrevocably changed by his experiences.
Ransom by David Malouf
After Achilles slays Trojan warrior Hector to avenge the death of his beloved companion, Patroclus, the Greek hero ties his fallen adversary's body to his chariot and spends 11 days dragging the corpse around the walls of Troy. Hector's grief-stricken father, King Priam, braves the enemy camp in order to ransom his son's body back from Achilles, who refuses to either return it or give it a proper burial. Although the "cinematic vividness" (Publishers Weekly) of Ransom's prose differs from the more contemporary idiom of Barry Unsworth's The Songs of the Kings, both novels are inspired by events depicted in Homer's Iliad and focus on the human dimension of the epic tale.
My Jim: a novel by Nancy Rawles
While Huckleberry Finn and runaway slave Jim were rafting down the Mississippi River, Jim's wife Sadie, the mother of his two children, remained in slavery. In My Jim, Sadie tells her story, beginning with the history of her relationship with Jim and describing what happened to her and their family after he left. The dialect-rich style of Sadie's first-person narrative may appeal to readers who enjoyed Ernest J. Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. For another retelling of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that examines issues of race and family relationships, try Jon Clinch's Finn, which focuses on "Pap" Finn, Huck's infamous father.
Hester: the missing years of The Scarlet Letter: a novel by Paula Reed
At the end of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, the author reveals that Hester Prynne and her child, Pearl, left Puritan Boston to travel abroad. In Hester, novelist Paula Reed sends the pair to England, where Hester hopes that Pearl, whose reputation suffers as a result of her mother's transgressions, will have better prospects. But Hester soon attracts the notice of Oliver Cromwell, who wishes to take advantage of Hester's ability to detect the sins of others--which puts both mother and daughter in a dangerous position. For another perspective on these classic literary characters, check out Deborah Noyes' interpretation of Pearl in Angel and Apostle.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Originally published in 1966, Jean Rhys' postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre tells the story of the first Mrs. Rochester, the "madwoman in the attic" who ended her days sequestered in Thornfield Hall. Born in British-controlled Jamaica, high-spirited Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway contends with her mother's mental illness and her brother's untimely death before embarking on an arranged marriage to an Englishman. As their relationship disintegrates, Antoinette--dubbed "Bertha" by her husband--begins to fall apart.