Happy 4th of July! In honor of our country’s birth, I’ve put together a list of my five favorite American literature works. I’m not typically an American lit. person—I like European literature better—but there are definitely some American books I’ve read and loved. If you’re looking for ways to think about our country this July, here are my top five favorites.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
This book is quickly becoming a modern classic, thanks in part to the 2011 film. The movie is a fairly good adaptation, but there are certain aspects of a book that just don’t translate well to film. One is narration. The Help is written from the perspectives of several different women, and the changing points of view bring a richness to the story that wouldn’t be there were a single narrator.
Besides the obvious themes of racial injustice and feminism, what I loved about this book was its discussion of friendship. Women from different backgrounds come together to tell their story, and despite the challenges, grow to become friends. It’s through the challenges that they learn to support each other and to look beyond social status to see that they are, as Anne of Green Gables would say, kindred spirits. And after all, it’s that understanding of other humans that’s at the heart of racial justice.
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
I had to read this novel for a college class entitled “Literature and the Environment.” Doesn’t sound thrilling, does it? Nonetheless, when I read Jayber Crow, I instantly fell in love. The book doesn’t talk about America on a grand scale like The Help, but its quiet reflections on justice, neighborliness and the environment speak to what it means to be American and to love our country. It’s also a deep well of fodder for thinking about other topics such as age, family and ethics. All of Wendell Berry’s novels are a treasure, and many of them discuss American issues in this quiet way—Jayber Crow just happens to be my favorite.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
This is another book that speaks primarily of racial injustice, but unlike The Help, this novel is for children. It follows the story of a black family living in the South in the early 20th century, and chronicles the racial difficulties, not only of the adults, but of the kids as well. I read it when I was 10 or 11, and it was one of the first times I really became aware of the racial struggle in our country. This would be a perfect book to read and discuss with your kids to start helping them think through America’s rocky racial history, as well as how it applies to us today.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
I have quite a few English major friends who would place East of Eden in their top 5 favorite books of all time. While I’m not one of them, I have a healthy respect for Steinbeck’s works. East of Eden looks not only at broad American culture, but specifically at class and wealth within California society, which is near and dear to my heart as a Southern California girl. The book is also a good place to think about other topics such as morality, good and evil and family relationships.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
When I picked up this book as a sophomore in high school, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It took me two summers to slog through the 900+ page novel, and I hated it almost every step of the way. While I wouldn’t read it a second time, I’m glad I persevered to read it once. Mitchell gives a glimpse into the other side of the Civil War story—the losing side. The famous saying is that history is written by the victors, and that’s true of most Civil War literature. Through Gone with the Wind, I got a glimpse into what it was like for my ancestors (yes, I had ancestors who fought as Confederates) to lose their entire way of life within the span of a few short years.
What are your favorite American books? Post a comment!