The third world-building post will be in two weeks. It’s coming, never fear. But apropos of the piece at The Passive Voice/Wall Street Journal, and the never-ending debate about “what is real literature” and why should everyone read it, I started wondering…
Rather than “the Great American Novel” with all the literary weight that seems to freight the idea, what if we talked about “the Great American Stories?”
What are the books that capture the American experience and that serve as touchstones for why we are the way we are? Or that best describe the story of the USA, and that also happen to be great stories?
I’d toss out a few, off the top of my head, that I’ve read and can vouch for. They are West and Midwest heavy, just because that’s what I’ve been interested in and had access to:
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. They are classics for a darn good reason.
Holling C. Holling’s Tree in the Trail and Seabird. The first is about the Santa Fe trail, the other about ships and sailing.
The first four or five Sackett novels by Louis L’Amour. Also The Lonesome Gods, which is about making and remaking yourself in a new world, and what happens to those who can’t.
Irving Stone Men to Match my Mountains about the opening up the mines in Nevada and California.
Stanley Vestal The Missouri is non-fiction but reads like fiction and tells the story of that river. Heck, anything by Vestal.
Hamlin Garland A Son of the Middle Border about breaking a farm in the Dakotas, moving away from the prairie, and then returning.
The first three-quarters of Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. It is a story about the Scandinavians who settled Minnesota. The end plunges into grey goo, but the first three-quarters of the book are great.
Vardis Fisher Mountain Man It tells the story of an unnamed trapper in the Rocky Mountains. It drags in spots, but overall is a really neat story. The protagonist isn’t a fan of Indians. He has good reasons.
Willa Cather’s O, Pioneers and Death Comes for the Archbishop The latter is heavily tilted in the main character’s favor, to the point of bending history, but reads well.
Mark Twain Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin.
Robert Frost’s early poems about farming and farm life. Once he gets away from the dirt, I don’t love him as much.
OK, he’s Canadian, but Robert Service’s poems about Alaska and the Yukon. “The Cremation of Sam Magee” alone is worth the price of admission.
What other books would add that capture the story of America in great stories?