The story of Henri “Papillon” Charrière’s imprisonment and multiple escape attempts would have made for an implausible novel—as a memoir, it is riveting. In the 1930s, Charrière was convicted of murder and sentenced to hard labor in the penal colony on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. The book recounts his life in detail—the voyage to the colony, his friends and enemies, his escape attempts, adventures during his brief stints of freedom, solitary confinement, and the inhumane grind of daily life in a French prison. It’s no spoiler to say that he survived, but the lengths he went to in order to create a normal life are astounding, and made me hold my breath in anticipation.
Read if you enjoyed: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
The Return of Martin Guerre is the true story of a fascinating historical legal case. The judge who presided over the trial in 16th-century France kept good notes, which later served as the basis for Davis’ book. The story, which has also been adapted as a movie, centers on the uncertain identity of Martin Guerre, a young man who abandons his wife and village. Ten years later, a man shows up claiming to be him. But in a time before photographs, before fingerprints, before ID cards, how can they be sure? This is a bizarre, moving story, and at only 162 pages, an easy foray into European history.
Read if you enjoyed: Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain