I can remember thinking in high school, Why are so many books set in the city? I was born and raised in a rural area where cows outnumbered humans, and had such a difficult time fully relating to the idea of life on the crowded streets of the Big Apple or London; these were places I’d never been, and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have pizza delivered to the door (our closest option: Pizza Hut, 27 miles away) or to spend thirty minutes traversing a few city blocks (you could get from one side of town to the other in 3 minutes, if you hit the stoplights just right).
Obviously, I didn’t give up on these titles; part of the joy in reading is, for this little reader on the prairie, “traveling” to other times or places that differ significantly from my own life. That being said, there’s just something about rural literature that I adore — the homey feel I get when I read about an old dirt road leading to nowhere under a canopy of trees, the not-so-anonymous vibes of small-town crime, the intimate knowing between neighbors who’ve team-raised half the kids in the community.
In honor of this love affair with rural America, I give to thee: A List of Renee’s Favorite Rural Reads.
- The Line That Held Us by David Joy. Published by Putnam Books, August 2018. If you’re in the market for something gritty, something utterly compelling, something sofrigginmindblowinglyEXCELLENT that you can’t put it down, look no further. I picked this one for my August BOTM selection and just got around to reading it in September and I still haven’t stopped thinking about this glorious work of fiction. (Or recommending it to, like, everyone.)
- Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache Series. Published by Minotaur Books, 1990 – present. I’m only three books in (Still Life, A Fatal Grace, and The Cruelest Month), but these cozy mysteries do not disappoint. Nestled in the teeny town of Three Pines in Quebec, Canada, the book isn’t *technically* rural; however, the small-town vibes are terrifically reminiscent of the upbringing of anyone who’s been part of a community of a couple hundred. Everyone in Three Pines knows everyone else, all are quick to welcome — and assess — newcomers, and the small-town feel is utterly endearing.
- Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell. Published in 1933. This satirical work of fiction examines a family of sharecroppers in Georgia during the Great Depression. The narrative is centralized on a family of poor white farmers — the Lesters — who are struggling to survive in an era that no longer needs all hands on deck to cultivate, plant, and harvest cotton. The Lesters are ignorant, depraved, and some of the most darkly-comical characters I’ve ever read. Often repulsive and darkly hysterical*, this tragic portrait of 1930s America depicts rural life in an unfathomable time.
- Descent by Tim Johnston. Published by Algonquin, 2015. Nestled in among the Rocky Mountains, Descent takes readers to the dark places that exist in the shadows between family members. The Courtland family heads off on a family vacation prior to the eldest daughter’s departure to college. What should be relaxing and rehabilitating ends in despair when the daughter disappears without a trace on an early morning run. This novel isn’t purely set in the countryside — there are some forays into the city as family members search for their missing daughter and sister; but much of the novel takes place within the wooded mountains or rural areas outside the city, at times both blissfully lonesome and achingly void.
- The High Divide by Lin Enger. Published by Algonquin, 2014. This western novel features the Pope family, living on the prairie of Minnesota in 1886 and newly abandoned by Ulysses, father and husband. Leaving without a word of explanation and hardly a farewell, Ulysses leaves his two sons and wife reeling: where could he have possibly gone? It doesn’t take long for the boys to set off after him, truly a wild goose chase in an era unprivileged with cell phones and social media. This work of historical fiction offers spectacular views of the prairieland and Midwest of more than a century ago and I am here for it.
- The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Published by Little, Brown, 2012. If you read my review of this spectacularly charming work of fairy-tale-esque fiction last winter, you’ll already know I was utterly captivated by Ivey’s lonesome Alaskan couple, childless and increasingly individual as the months pass by. When the pair builds a snow child on a whim during the first snowfall of the season, things take a turn for the better and the couple soon discovers an orphaned girl, roaming about the woods. Is she a manifestation of their snow child? Is she the product of homesteaders, long dead and gone? And more importantly — is she theirs to love forever? Surrounded by nothing by the breathtaking and brutally remote Alaskan wilderness, The Snow Child is a perfect read for those seeking a rural setting . . . and better still, it’s ideal for these chilly and snowy winter days.
- Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. A simple, but evocative novel in which several ordinary characters — a father raising two sons alone, two solitary bachelors dwelling together, a pregnant teenager thrown out by her mother, and a compassionate schoolteacher — are strung together in an unembellished by heartwarming manner. Set in the plains east of Denver, the novel is a portrait of the simplicity and community that comes with life in rural America.
And here’s a peek at a few titles I haven’t read yet, but am highly anticipating due to their rural vibes!
- A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed. Published by Tin House, 2018. An unconventionally wrought story about a young boy growing up near a river in the Midwest, sans parents. The book is told in glossary-style, a list of informative vignettes about various subjects the boy encounters in his lifetime. The book promises to be a coming-of-age tale, and you all know how I feel about those. 🙂
- The Worst Hard Time (nonfiction) by Timothy Egan. Published by Mariner Books, 2006. This work of nonfiction is mostly focused on the area I now occupy: the vast — and unforgiving — southwest region of Kansas. A portrait of the dust storms and utter calamity that devastated the Midwest in the 1930s, The Worst Hard Time is “the story of those who stayed and survived — those who, now in their eighties and nineties, will soon carry their memories to the grave . . . “. I’m particularly interested in this title as my grandfather-in-law has often imparted memories of his own upbringing during the Dirty Thirties, an era which is unfathomable to most of us today.
- Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich. Published by Putnam, 2015. Now this one — this book is what I’m all about, friends. Have you ever watched Lawless, the movie about a moonshine-making family in the hills of Appalachia during the Prohibition era? I have. Seven times. I’ll probably watch it again tonight, now that it’s on my mind. Anyway — Bull Mountain seems to fall in line a bit with the rowdy gang of vigilantes in Lawless. The novel features a family history of down-home mobsters running moonshine, pot, and meth across state lines, with virtually no legal consequences. This is all well and good until one of the sons — Clayton — decides to become a law-man and separate himself from his family of criminals . . . until the federal government steps in and Clayton is forced to reconsider where his loyalties truly lie. I have high hopes for this one, my friends. HIGH.
Got any other great rural reading suggestions for me? Drop ’em below in the comments! I’m always on the lookout for books that bring life to the places tucked away in forgotten valleys or between mountain towns or left untouched among the prairie grasses of the Midwest. After all, home is where the heart is; and once you’ve loved the country, your home will never change.
*I read Tobacco Road in college in a course titled “Literature of the South.” My classmates were deeply disturbed that I (& my darkly humorous professor) found the book “funny” at times. I’d like to clarify that this isn’t a “OMGLOL” book, but rather, a book that one has to laugh at here and there in order not to weep at the sheer depravity of the characters featured. And honestly, it is funny sometimes. It’s satire.