7 Books to Read if You Love a Rural Vibe

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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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. 

The Neighbor (Part 1)

A woman sits on the edge of her cracked-cement porch. It is evening, after eight, and the sky has grown dim as the promise of day fades into muted blues. There is nothing in her hands; usually, she grips her cell phone like a life raft to the world Beyond. Tonight, her hands are clasped loosely, elbows propped on ample thighs, eyes boring into the nothingness that looms on the horizon. Two houses down, a child shrieks with ecstasy — his father is teasing him on the front lawn, his mother looking onward with approval; a Proctor & Gamble advertisement in the flesh.

The woman doesn’t bat an eye at the startling squeals. She doesn’t budge an inch, either, when a mower roars to life across the street. She is impervious to sound; maybe to life.

The garage door at her house gapes in a nighttime yawn: the man has not returned. He’s a phantom: we rarely see him, and when we do, it is as though he only exists when the man looks you straight in the eye. At all other times, he is a silent wisp, ethereally gliding about in the background. We don’t know the man at all.

We watch the woman, sometimes. Usually at night, when she’s put the children to bed. When it’s temperate, she moseys out to the porch to stare blankly at whatever fantasy smothers the reality before her. When it’s not, she idles in the front room, every light glaring at full force in the house, even the ones in the basement. We watch her absently grasp the remote, but her face remains unembellished by the glow of the television. She picks up a few items from the floor — probably stray children’s socks and colorful wooden blocks and discarded Cheerios — only to move the things elsewhere in the front room.

Most of us draw the shades in the evening, in search for a bit of privacy; but not the woman.

She leaves them gaping into the night, lets the dark seep into the house in its familiar prowl, until the lights from her house gleam brightest on the block.

***

At dusk, the garage door is still agape. We rub crust from the corners of our eyes, dash our coffee with possibly-sour milk from the back corner of the fridge, and grumble about our Monday agendas. Perhaps the Sandman dosed us extra heavy last night, or perhaps we’ve become immune to caffeine; either way, none of us notice the heavy boards nailed to the insides of the window frames.

It’s gone ten o’clock when the whispering begins. It starts with a text:

Did you see the Garbler place this a.m.?

And then the flood begins; a practically community-wide group chat devoted to unearthing the truth.

No — but I heard the house is all boarded up! WTF?

It’s from THE INSIDE. I just know that woman is holding her kids hostage…

LOL right?! She’s always been a bit unhinged.

I always thought she seemed nice…a little sad, maybe, but not violent.

That’s what’cha get for thinkin’, June.

GUYS. Back to the issue at hand: who’s gonna knock on her door and find out what’s going on?

The silence is characteristic of small towns: we want to know our neighbors’ business, but we damn sure don’t want to know it from their mouths. Most certainly not when that business involves five-inch nails and two-by-fours. Especially not when it involves the woman.

There are several minutes of silence, several dot-dot-dots hovering in the group message, several collective moments of held breath and nervous chuckles — How could they seriously expect me to knock on her door? I don’t even know the woman! — before the ping comes through.

***

She knows they’re whispering this morning. She can sense their fear, can feel its vibration on the air that is curling up from the gap beneath the back door. People are always suspicious of unknown women.

The boards are an ominous addition to her living room; they’re a pale fir, which shouldn’t seem looming, but the absence of light makes the woman shudder. She can hear nothing beyond the walls of her house; truthfully, nothing more than ten inches from where she sits. The boards have blanketed all sound.

It’s only a matter of time, she reminds herself. Only a matter of time before someone comes knocking.

Outside, the sun continues its ascent.