ARTS & CULTURE

24 Books That Will Help You Understand America

Buckle up for a literary road trip through the nation’s heartland.

08/18/2017 05:46 EDT | Updated 10/27/2017 08:48 EDT
Ji Sub Jeong

At a troubled moment in American history, the necessity of listening to each other’s stories has become strikingly clear. Whether city-dwellers or rural populations, coastal or heartland; no matter the race, gender identity, creed or sexual orientation; the experiences of each American matter.

Staying in touch with disparate parts of such a large nation can be daunting, and in recent months many of us have been considering how to puncture our bubbles. For news organizations, that means committing to covering regional and local news stories around the country. For politicians, it might mean listening tours. For those Americans who aren’t about to take off for a meandering road trip across the nation, diversifying our reading is one simple, yet valuable, way to expand our understanding of ourselves and each other.

Studies have suggested that reading literary fiction can increase empathy. Literary nonfiction may carry similar effects, by offering carefully observed portraits of human frailties and societal change, and it can certainly build a broader base of knowledge about the realities faced by Americans. To coincide with HuffPost’s Listen To America bus tour, we’re inviting you to join us on a reading tour as well: 24 stops in America’s heartland, 24 books ― both fiction and non-fiction ― that offer profound insight into those places and the nation as a whole.

Ready to read through our country? Here we go:

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1. St. Louis, Missouri: The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen’s breakout novel makes a fitting beginning to this literary road trip through the Heartland. The author grew up in a suburb of St. Louis, and the book’s setting, a fictional Midwestern suburb called St. Jude, has been recognized as a veiled copy of his own hometown. Like Franzen, the three adult children of the Lambert family have dispersed to the East Coast in search of a more stimulating life than their parents had, but as the novel commences they are returning home for the holidays and taking stock of how their adventurous coastal lives have gone embarrassingly wrong. The Corrections doesn’t flatter St. Louis (er, St. Jude), but neither does it glamorize the lives of those who escape to bustling coastal metropolitan areas.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

2. Little Rock, Arkansas: Warriors Don’t Cry, Melba Pattillo Beals

When Melba Pattillo was 16, she was chosen as one of nine black students who would integrate Central High School in Little Rock. When they began at Central, white students and parents met them with a flood of hatred and abuse. The Arkansas governor, Orval Faubus, sent the National Guard to prevent them from even entering the school. President Dwight Eisenhower eventually ordered federal troops to ensure the Little Rock Nine would be admitted to the school. This is one of the most iconic moments in American civil rights history, but it was more than a moment. The nine students suffered physical attacks ― Pattillo had acid flung into her eyes in one horrific incident ― and intimidation from other students long after the integration had been enacted. Pattillo, who later became a reporter, reflected on those years in this searing memoir.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

3. Oxford, Mississippi: Light in August, William Faulkner

One of Oxford’s most venerable sons, William Faulkner wrote novels that were deeply of his home region. He was fascinated by the South’s ongoing legacy of slavery and anti-black racism, and several of his brilliant novels grappled with the immense psychological and physical suffering caused by slavery and the racist structures that replaced it. He also examines the slipperiness of those racial divides in a society where many white slaveowners raped women they held in bondage and parented children of mixed-race heritage. Light in August dissects these dynamics through the character of Joe Christmas, an orphan who believes he has some African American blood, though he appears white. The novel examines the trauma born from this deeply ingrained hatred, and reveals how the judicial and law enforcement systems can be deployed to protect white supremacy. Given the ascendance of Black Lives Matter, it’s clear that the latter problem is not just a historical one, but a present-day reality.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

4. Memphis, Tennessee: A Summons to Memphis, Peter Taylor

The peculiar customs and social order of the white South ― particularly Nashville, where the Carver family once lived, and Memphis, where they moved following the patriarch’s betrayal by a business partner ― take center stage in Peter Taylor’s Pulitzer-winning novel. The Carver children, resentful of the abrupt change in their social situation, grow into middle age in a state of arrested development, unmarried and perpetually grasping back toward their youth. When their aging father decides to remarry, they come together to attempt to block the marriage and maintain their remaining inheritance. In a New York Times review at the time, Marilynne Robinson praised the novel for refusing to imbue the fading social order of the antebellum South with an unwarranted varnish of humanity and dignity, writing of his “perfect indifference to the blandishments of this tradition.” Instead, the novel examines the surprising durability of a social system rooted in selfishness, violence, greed and pseudo-aristocratic tradition.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

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5. Birmingham, Alabama: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg

Set in a hamlet outside Birmingham, Fried Green Tomatoes is a sweet and salty intergenerational portrait of small town Southern life in the 20th century. That doesn’t mean Flagg played it safe: She takes on anti-black racism, a lesbian love story between the two women who run the Whistle Stop Cafe, and domestic violence. The novel also explores the devastation inflicted on areas that are bypassed by economic progress; when the rail yard in Whistle Stop closes, the community withers. It’s a dilemma that many towns in America are still confronting today, as the industries they relied upon move elsewhere or dry up, leaving once-vibrant communities impoverished.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

6. Fort Benning, Georgia: Fort Benning Blues, Mark Busby

A base that houses over 100,000 military personnel, civilians and family, Fort Benning has a well-established place in American military history. Tens of thousands of service members and recruits pass through training there each year. But with a growing divide between the minority who volunteer for armed service and the rest of the nation’s citizenry, it’s an environment unfamiliar to many Americans. Mark Busby’s novel plunges readers not only into the day-to-day of basic training at Fort Benning, but back into a time when only the most privileged young men were safe from military service: the Vietnam War.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

7. Asheville, North Carolina: A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash

Set in rural Appalachia near Asheville, A Land More Kind Than Home springs from Wiley Cash’s own experience growing up in a Southern Baptist church in North Carolina. The debut novel deals with a faith healing gone wrong in an evangelical church and the grim consequences for a community under the thrall of a charismatic, snake-charming minister. Cash looks closely at how the overpowering influence of Christian churches in America can allow charlatans to exploit vulnerable people and permit people to ignore or overlook real danger in their midst.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

8. Charlottesville, Virginia: Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, David W. Blight

In the aftermath of the racist and violent demonstrations conducted by neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and other far-right hate groups in Charlottesville, which were nominally organized in protest of the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, a long-simmering conversation about the value of Confederate monuments has exploded. The Charlottesville city council voted earlier this year to remove the statue of Lee and to rename the park in which it stands. Significant scholarship suggests that the monuments ― mostly erected in the 1920s, at the height of the KKK and lynch mobs ― were part of a concerted effort to solidify the dominance of white Southerners over black Southerners. Blight’s book is one compelling examination of the post-Civil War myth-building that diminished the central importance of slavery in motivating the conflict, and that built up Confederate veterans and generals like Lee as nobly defeated men of good character. The long campaign to redeem the Confederate cause, and to separate it from the stigma of white supremacy, proves to have been itself in service of white supremacy.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

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9. Charleston, West Virginia: Strange as This Weather Has Been, Ann Pancake

Ann Pancake’s 2007 novel paints a picture of West Virginia’s coal mining communities, from the constant threat of economic collapse to the environmental ravages. The book follows a family of six, who live a precarious existence, working in the mines and building their lives amid a despoiled landscape. Far from using coal miners as a handy talisman in political debate, Pancake’s nuanced depiction of life amid the strip mines sheds light on the thorny dilemmas faced by people who work there, where economic need and personal well-being can prove impossible to reconcile.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

10. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: American Rust, Philipp Meyer

Two young men from Buell, a fictional steel town in Pennsylvania, nurture great ambitions but struggle against the gravitational force of their own crumbling city. Philipp Meyer draws readers into the hopelessness of life in a dying Rust Belt town, where the industry that once sustained life has contracted and left people aimless and desperate. American Rust is a portrait of a grim reality that shapes how many Americans today, left behind by the globalizing economy, think about and see the world. It’s also worth remembering, however, that Pittsburgh has been a relatively rare success story. After the painful erosion of its steel industry left the city in decline, Pittsburgh poured resources into restructuring its economy around entrepreneurship, education, service work and other non-industrial fields ― offering an imperfect but hopeful vision of how Rust Belt communities could be reborn.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

11. Akron, Ohio: The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Any tour of the American Heartland would be incomplete without Toni Morrison. An Ohio native, she set several of her iconic novels, including Beloved, in her home state. Her first book, The Bluest Eye, depicts an underprivileged young black girl living in the white-dominated town of Lorain, who has become convinced that she’d be beautiful and lovable if, instead of dark skin and eyes, she had white skin and blue eyes. Morrison lays bare the psychic trauma suffered by black people in communities, and a society at large, where black skin and features are seen as lesser.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

12. Detroit, Michigan: The Turner House, Angela Flournoy

After living in their Detroit home for generations, a family discovers, in the midst of a national economic crisis, that their mortgage is wildly underwater. Angela Flournoy’s novel grapples with Detroit’s long, troubled history, which has seen the city wracked by racial turmoil, devastated by the decline of the automotive industry and gutted by white flight and loss of resources; on a more granular level, it tells the story of an American family’s history of struggle, survival and hope against the odds. Flournoy paints a more generous, human picture of a city dogged by racist assumptions and an apocalyptic reputation.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

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13. Fort Wayne, Indiana: A Girl of the Limberlost, Gene Stratton-Porter

Cornfields, soy fields, alfalfa fields ― Indiana has long been seen as an agricultural plain. But to make it a lucrative farming state, much of the land had to be deforested, leaving behind devastated habitats. The Limberlost, a wetland in northern Indiana, was mostly destroyed by drainage, logging and oil production. Gene Stratton-Porter, an early 20th-century naturalist and novelist, captured the fading beauty of the swamp in books like A Girl of the Limberlost, a novel about a smart, ambitious girl who lives in the dwindling wetland with her mother and pays for school by collecting local moth specimens to sell to naturalists. The book isn’t exactly an environmentalist tract, but it makes the case nonetheless: It celebrates the beauty and richness of the swampland, while showing how easily economic forces push landowners to strip it away.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

14. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond

One of the hardest-hit, and slowest to recover, large cities in America during the housing crisis: Milwaukee. In his highly regarded book Evicted, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond follows a handful of impoverished families battling to stay in their homes under precarious and soul-crushing circumstances, as well as two landlords trying to collect on rent. In the process, he reveals how broken low-income housing policy can make it difficult for people to escape the ravages of poverty.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

15. Des Moines, Iowa: Home, Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is rightly known as the bard of Iowa. Without romanticizing the state, she vividly depicts its ruthless beauty and its homespun values. In Home, one of a trio of linked novels including her acclaimed Gilead, she follows the grown children of an Iowan preacher who have returned home as he lays dying. One, a lonely but devoted daughter, has always hewn to duty; the other, a profligate son who once abandoned a local girl he impregnated, resists his father’s morality. Though it sounds like a simple pedagogical tale, Robinson offers a complicated view of small-town religious values, racial divides and cosmopolitan defection.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

16. Kansas City, Missouri: Mrs. Bridge, Evan S. Connell

The 1950s, thanks to the economic boom following World War II, often stands in for a broader idea of America’s best days: The suburbs overflowed with traditional nuclear families made up of stay-at-home moms in circle skirts making the kids lemonade and dads going off to work carrying briefcases.  Of course, that era was not golden for everyone ― after all, the Civil Rights movement was burgeoning at the same time, and for good reason ― and some observers, like Evan S. Connell, saw cracks in the idyllic facade even then. His classic 1959 novel Mrs. Bridge satirized the conventional suburban values espoused by its titular character, and gently pulls aside the veil of propriety to reveal her own closely-held dissatisfaction and aimlessness.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

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17. Lincoln, Nebraska: O Pioneers!, Willa Cather

A century after her heyday, the novelist from the Nebraska frontier remains unchallenged as the literary voice of the state. In her classic O Pioneers!, she celebrates the grit and determination of a family of Swedish-American immigrants who battle the elements and isolation to keep their family farm afloat. To modern eyes, Willa Cather’s tacit acceptance of the settler movement that displaced countless Native American tribes is troubling, but the tale serves as a potent reminder that the white families of the Heartland, so often cast as “real Americans,” were once immigrants themselves.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

18. Casper, Wyoming: Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx’s work celebrates the stark, lonely beauty of Wyoming, but she also examines the ugliness that can hide amid the mountains. Her most famous story, “Brokeback Mountain,” is included in this collection. (Notably, another of the most acclaimed works of literature from Wyoming, “The Laramie Project” by Moisés Kaufman, also deals with anti-gay hatred.) Ranchers and cowboys scrabble for existence amid a barren landscape; deprivation breeds desperation, which breeds violence. In this brutal world, she sees little space for compassion or open-mindedness.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

19. Livingston, Montana: This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, Ivan Doig

Ivan Doig’s acclaimed memoir recounted his childhood and youth growing up in Western Montana. After his mother’s death when he was merely 6 years old, he’s raised by his father, who scrapes out a living at ever-changing ranch jobs, and his mother’s mother. Though, by the time the memoir ends, he’s left to study journalism at Northwestern and start his own career, Doig’s book is most lauded for how vividly he captured daily life in rural Montana, the grit and struggle of ranching, and the glories of the land where he was born and raised.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

20. Provo, Utah: When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka

During World War II, when Japanese Americans were rounded up and held in internment camps by the federal government, some of them ended up in the arid plains of Utah. In Julie Otsuka’s acclaimed novel, a Japanese-American family ― mother, father, son and daughter ― are sent from California to a detention center in Topaz, Utah. The book speaks in each family member’s voice to tell the story of their trip to and time in the camp and how they recovered from the experience after release. Otsuka’s book immerses readers in a shameful chapter of American history we’d often prefer to forget.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

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21. Tucson, Arizona: The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, Luis Alberto Urrea

As thunderous chants of “Build the wall” have proven, anxiety over Mexico’s proximity has the power to shift tides in American politics. But in the midst of rhetoric about drug mules and gang members, what is the real story of undocumented immigration from our southern neighbor? Often, it’s a story of desperation, immense suffering, constant fear and even death ― a horror show only exacerbated by punitive political efforts, Luis Alberto Urrea argues, to crack down on illegal immigration. In his acclaimed 2004 account The Devil’s Highway, he puts this story into human terms, telling the story of 26 men who tried to cross the desert into Arizona in 2001. The punishing journey left 14 of the men dead ― an all-too-common outcome of the dangerous border crossings risked by Mexican immigrants.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

22. Albuquerque, New Mexico: Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko

It’s impossible to understand the fabric of America without listening to the Native Americans who lived here long before European explorers “discovered” the continent ― and who were then decimated by disease, forced assimilation and outright violence. In her masterful debut novel, Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo writer, depicts the intersecting traumas of a World War II veteran, Tayo, who returns to his home on the Laguna Pueblo reservation to recuperate from a war that left him feeling exploited and mentally shattered. Tayo seeks comfort in alcohol, then in reconnecting with his heritage. Silko honors the power of her tribe’s culture, but also paints a grim picture of how Native people have been alternately used, abused and ignored by the white American power structure.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

23. Odessa, Texas: Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, And A Dream, H.G. Bissinger

Odessa was made famous by H.G. Bissinger’s colorful nonfiction work Friday Night Lights, which recounts the Permian High School football team’s quest for the 1988 Texas state championship, and by the hit movie and TV show based on it. He paints a picture not just of the team, but of the town that revolves around it: football-obsessed, oil-fueled and plagued by racial tensions. Friday Night Lights offers a glimpse into communities where high school football is more than a sport, but the glue holding everyone together.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

24. New Orleans, Louisiana: Katrina: After the Flood, Gary Rivlin

Once upon a time, this tour might have ended more cheerfully, with John Kennedy Toole’s weird and wonderful novel A Confederacy of Dunces. (Do consider reading it.) But in talking about New Orleans today, it’s impossible to sidestep Hurricane Katrina, the horrifying consequences the storm and the mishandled aftermath, had for the city. Gary Rivlin’s sweeping book assesses the damage wreaked by the storm, the immediate reaction and the efforts to rebuild the city, and in the process he unsparingly confronts the racism that undergirded a slow-footed and even callous response by the U.S. government.

Buy it on Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

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