Top 10 novels on rural America – The Guardian

I was in my early 20s when I first read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. It was a summer day on my family’s mountain acreage in rural northern Idaho. I wandered up into the woods and settled down on some brown pine needles. My back against a tree, my sister’s goats grazing around me, I read the narrator’s description of her Idaho town, “chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere”.

It was a perfect distillation of the way I had always felt: living in the country meant living on the outskirts of history. At the same time, I also felt distinctly, and with a kind of country melancholy, that it was in places like these – quiet, wild, often very poor – that some of the most profound moments of US history had occurred. I have always loved fiction about rural life for that reason. It was books such as Where the Red Fern Grows and Anne of Green Gables and The Red Pony that most informed my childhood sense of myself, and cultivated in me a love of fiction about rural life.

In writing my own novel Idaho, there was no separating the soul of the landscape and the souls of my characters. They were an intricate part of one another. It is a story about coping with unthinkable loss and tragedy, but even more so, I hope readers will see it as a story about love and grace and compassion and redemption. This combination of danger and beauty, hostility and hope is how I think of country life, too. Here are 10 of my favourite rural American novels, though I must note that I changed this list a dozen times and feel a twinge of sadness for all of the beautiful novels that I was not able to include.

1. A Mercy by Toni Morrison
In this haunting story set in rural Virginia in the 1680s, the land teems with the heartaches of its people. It is a beautiful and poisonous land where “the glittering eyes of an elk could easily be a demon”. Four female voices call out from these pages – a white widow and grieving mother fallen sick, a Native American indentured servant, a strange once-shipwrecked girl named Sorrow, and a young slave named Florens, who yearns for the mother who gave her up to save her.

2. Winter in the Blood by James Welch
“The fence hummed in the sun behind my back as I climbed up to the highway. My right eye was swollen up, but I couldn’t remember how or why, just the white man, loose with his wife and buying drinks, his raging tongue a flame above the music and my eyes.” So opens this perfect novel about a young man on the Blackfoot reservation in Montana grieving for his dead brother and father, and also for a way of life.

3. Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Lila, a quiet drifter, is searching for her beloved kidnapper-turned-mother-turned-maybe-murderer, a woman named Doll. Lila lives in a shed in the fields of Iowa, slowly learning to read the Bible. A courtship begins not only between her and the preacher John Ames, but also between her and Christianity, which welcomes Lila but condemns Doll, a dilemma at the heart of this story. A deeply humane novel, every sentence pure poetry.

4. The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
It may be strange that in a list of rural American novels, I am including a Canadian short-story collection, but I would be remiss if I didn’t list Nobel prize winner Alice Munro, my favourite author and greatest influence. No one writes rural like Munro; each of these stories contains a novel’s worth of depth and secrecy and humanity. Each story reveals, through perfect specificity, a universal feeling that transcends the borders of both geography and genre.

5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
I keep returning to this singular masterpiece about the Joad family, who, after losing their Oklahoma homestead during the Great Depression, make the harrowing journey toward their desperate dream of California. It is a novel about a single family, but is also a novel about injustice and a transformed US. The final and shocking image in “the whispering barn” is one of the strangest and yet most moving moments in literature I’ve ever encountered.

An adaptation of The Grapes Of Wrath at the Chichester festival theatre.



An adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath at the Chichester festival theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

6. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Told in raw and perfect language, in 15 distinct and memorable voices, this is an honest, mystifying, painful story about a family’s promise to their dying mother that they would transport her body across the rivers and rough countryside of Mississippi to the place of her birth, to be buried. The characters who live are utterly alive, their motives complicated and often secret. Even their deceased mother, heavy in a casket that her family nearly loses a few times on their difficult journey, is a living force to be reckoned with.

7. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
A children’s novel that I somehow missed when I was a child. It’s about a boy named Sam who believes that there is a version of his life that is more real, and more his own, than the version he is living. To find it, he abandons the city for the wilderness, where he makes his home inside a large hollowed-out tree. I was moved by the brilliant simplicity of the story, the adamant belief that the simpler a life is, the more real.

8. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
This is an amazing novel, rendered in an unforgettable voice that is both poetic and real. Set in a rural Mississippi town 12 days before Hurricane Katrina, it is about siblings bonding together to survive their poverty and their pain, in a place that is about to turn against them, swiftly and furiously and for ever.

9. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
I find in this book’s pages the same intense quiet that I find in Munro’s work. It’s about boyhood, guilt, friendship, memory and the solitude of adolescence. When a man is shot on a farm in rural Illinois, an unlikely and restrained friendship is formed between the teenage narrator and the son of the man’s killer.

10. LaRose by Louise Erdrich
A man hunting for a deer accidentally shoots the young son of his best friend. In keeping with the old ways of the Ojibwe, he convinces his wife to adhere to an ancient custom: to give the grieving family their own son as a consolation. LaRose, the little boy who passes from one family to another, is caught between two sets of parents, now both bereft. The novel also goes back in time, follows the lives of the families that came before. I didn’t have the book with me when I was writing this, so I asked my mother to read part of it over the phone to me. She read a passage about the quiet passing of tuberculosis, from the cloud of white breath that rises one cold night from the mouth of a sleeping child, and is breathed in by another sleeping beside her. My mom’s voice filled with tears as she read it. “Are you OK?” I asked. After a moment, she said: “Yes. It’s just a very, very good book.”

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