The amazing variation of lifestyles in the United States make for fascinating literary portraits of the people, families and groups living in this country. Compiled here are ten amazing books, both fiction and nonfiction, that explore deeply the culture and beliefs of our nation.
South of Superior: An eye-opening book, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, that offers subtle explanations for why people make the choices that they do, and why we often find ourselves unable to escape our pasts.
Shotgun Lovesongs: A moving portrait of the relationships between four men who all grew up in the same small Wisconsin town, and of what holds them there and what drives them away.
Rock Springs: In ten stories all set in the American West, author Richard Ford employs carefully sculpted prose to explore the themes of loneliness and hope that permeate the lives of people who live there.
A Thousand Acres: Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is unexpectedly fast-paced and shocking. Set on a family farm in Iowa, the exclusion of the youngest daughter from the will sets off a chain of events that bring long-suppressed truths and emotions to the surface. Also try Smiley’s most recent book, Some Luck, for another fantastic American family drama.
Pulphead: Essays: Author John Jeremiah Sullivan takes readers on a whirlwind tour of America’s cultural landscape, describing unique aspects of popular culture and drawing forgotten and unknown groups and areas into the light.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café: Fannie Flagg’s classic novel takes place simultaneously in the 1980s and 1920s, and has been beloved since its initial publication in 1987. Fried Green Tomatoes is he story of the famous Whistle Stop Café, operational from the 1920s-1960s and the amazing cast of characters that kept it operational, as well as of modern-day woman, Evelyn, who is inspired to change her life after hearing stories about the Whistle Stop Café from a woman living at the nursing home where she visits her mother-in-law weekly. Many of Flagg’s other books are also hilarious and heartwarming portrayals of life in the South.
Winesburg, Ohio has been touted as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time. Before Richard Ford, there was Sherwood Anderson, who wrote Winesburg, Ohio in 1919 and, with it, evoked “with lyrical simplicity quiet moments of epiphany in the lives of ordinary men and women.”
The English Major: Jim Harrison tells a unique version of the American road trip story through the eyes of protagonist Cliff, a divorced sixty-something ex-teacher who has just lost his share of the family farm. His adventures take him on a whirlwind tour of America, on a personal mission to rename all the states with names he feels are better suited.
Prodigal Summer: Barbara Kingsolver’s 2000 book is set in rural Appalachia, and delves deeply into three separate storylines that gradually merge together with Kingsolver’s expert grace.
East of Eden: Described as Steinbeck's magnum opus, the sprawling novel follows the destinies of two families in the Salinas Valley in California whose lives mirror the fall of Adam and Eve and rivalry between Cain and Abel. Even those who typically don’t enjoy Steinbeck have a soft spot for East of Eden and its intensely developed characters and faster-paced action.
Want more Americana? Check out this list for tons more books, both classics and lesser-knowns, on traditional and non-traditional American culture.