Last week we published a list of some of our favorite rural books to help get you through a tough February. But as temperatures gradually raise and the sun comes out, we believe that reading a great book, inside or outside, hasn’t lost its appeal.
Here are eight more rural books recommended by our colleagues at the Center for Rural Strategies and the Daily Yonder.
Want to read these books (and hundreds of thousands of others) without breaking the bank? Check out Overdrive.com, which offers ebooks and audiobooks for free, through local and regional public libraries around the country!
Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina
Recommended by Marty Newell, Chief Operating Officer of the Center for Rural Strategies
I tend to stick to a few genres when I read fiction. Mysteries, historical fiction, and sports tend to be the top of the list. My nonfiction reading might be politics, history, or Appalachian studies.
One of my favorite novels, by one of my favorite authors, pulls in several of these themes. Denis Giardina’s Storming Heaven is set in my home territory of the Appalachian coalfields where Kentucky butts up against West Virginia. The book tells a story of the mine wars from the early 20th century. New immigrants, black folks from the Deep South, and locals pull together to organize the mines, riff on their music/cultures, and play some baseball. The storytelling is spectacular as with all of Giardina’s work but this book especially takes me back home. I see my eight-year-old self walking the railroad tracks and across the trestle to get to the ball field below the house in Harlan County. I might be going to watch a game between teams from a couple of the coal camps on Clover Fork or to play (badly) for the Highsplint Little League team myself.
Access Storming Heaven on Overdrive.
Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
Recommended by Dee Davis, publisher of the Daily Yonder and President of the Center for Rural Strategies
Another rural book that I love is Carpentaria, by Alexis Wright, an indigenous writer from Queensland, Australia. My friends at Feral Arts in Queensland gave me the book on tape. It changed my horizons. This novel has sturdy plotlines of nefarious wheeler dealers shoving around hard-working blokes, struggling remote communities, and miners, fishermen, healers. But Ms. Wright also shares characters who talk to frogs, depend on ghosts, and negotiate the Bay of Carpentaria with stories, music, and old knowledge. This is a deep and worthy story. Great power. Great fun.
Access Carpentaria on Overdrive.
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
Recommended by Caroline Carlson, digital editor of the Daily Yonder
Although I believe it’s important to select reading material that interrogates the grittier realities of life, this summer while visiting my parents (under the safest conditions we could devise), I took All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot off a side table and failed to put it back down. The book, a 1972 amalgamation of several short volumes originally published in the UK, describes the adventures of a veterinary surgeon, living and working in the English countryside. While some aspects of the book have a distinctly British flavor, its underlying themes—of rural community, and the centrality of animal husbandry in rural places, not to mention its vivid descriptions of long drives along country roads—strike familiar chords here at home. Or they do for someone who learned to drive a 1996 Geo Prizm over the rolling hills of Wisconsin’s Driftless region, at least.
I suspect All Creatures served as a sort of balm when it landed in my hands amidst the turmoil of a global pandemic and a racial justice reckoning. Its setting is bucolic, its characters gently quirky. No wonder it’s inspired two films and three television series. In any case, if you’re looking to lose yourself in a charming depiction of country living, I recommend this collection of prose from Herriot (which happens to be a nom de plume!).
Access All Creatures Great and Small on Overdrive.
The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball
Recommended by Chris Poore, marketing consultant for the Center for Rural Strategies
In looking back to remember why I loved Kristin Kimball’s book, The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food and Love, I found an online critic’s quote from the book and knew it just couldn’t be right: “Satisfaction comes from trying hard things and then going on to the next hard thing, regardless of the outcome. What mattered was whether or not you were moving in a direction you thought was right.”
I checked my copy of the book, and it turns out Kimball did cite that aphorism. But the Goodreads critic left out the next sentence, the best part, which sums up Kimball’s approach to everything: “Sounds fishy to me.” Kimball, a New York freelancer, recounts packing up her single life, and her New York City lifestyle, and heading to rural Essex, New York, to live with and then marry a farmer. Her big-city, wide-eyed view of animal husbandry, husbands, food, plants and mud is touching and, unlike many farming and relationship books, useful and brutally truthful. It’s also beautifully written.
Goodreads users have categorized The Dirty Life under Farming and Romance. They definitely got that right. Farming, in Kimball’s portrait of it, is hard. But so is anything you love, as fishy as that, too, might sound.
Access The Dirty Life on Overdrive.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Recommended by Anya Slepyan, reporting fellow with the Daily Yonder.
Told from the front porch of Janie Crawford’s home, Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of a woman’s journey of self-discovery as she navigates the gender, racial, and class dynamics of Florida in the early 20th century. Hurston was a novelist, anthropologist, and folklorist, and she brought her characters and their community to life through the tales (tall and otherwise) they tell one another. Gossip about lovers old and new, contests of hyperbole among friends, and ever-escalating anecdotes of the goings on of the town mule form the backdrop of Janie’s story. And of course, Hurston’s lyrical writing is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever read.
Access Their Eyes Were Watching God on Overdrive.
Clay’s Quilt by Silas House
Recommended by Tracy Staley, contributor to the Daily Yonder
When I moved from Kentucky to Dayton, Ohio, in 2004, I arrived to a gray, icy cold city. Surviving January in Dayton, Ohio, requires a knowledge of spring, summer, and fall in Dayton, Ohio. I didn’t yet have it. For the first time, I was homesick. I had heard of Silas House’s debut novel Clay’s Quilt. Walking through the stacks at Dayton Metro Library, I noticed the book, or maybe it noticed me. I devoured it. Clay Sizemore, his aunt Easter and other kin, their emotions and dialogue were so real to me I could hear and feel them in the room. In the span of one novel, I was home. Sixteen years later, still in Dayton and happily so, I read Clay’s Quilt with the same affection and comfort. Clay’s Quilt is part of a trilogy of novels by House, along with A Parchment of Leaves and Coal Tattoo.
Access Clay’s Quilt on Overdrive.
Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn
Recommended by Tim Marema, editor of the Daily Yonder.
People who think the 2005 biopic “Walk the Line” is the final word on country-music legend Johnny Cash will get both affirmation and a reality check in Robert Hilburn’s biography Johnny Cash: The Life (2013). Hilburn tells a much richer story than Hollywood or Cash himself could. Cash’s imperfections only gave me more respect for the Man in Black as an artist, humanitarian, and American. Rural American music and culture are as central to Hilburn’s book as the boom-chucka rhythm is to Cash’s songs.
Access Johnny Cash: The Life on Overdrive.
Sleepovers by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
Recommended by Olivia Weeks, reporting fellow with the Daily Yonder.
Sleepovers by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips was a timely release for the summer of 2020. Muggy with stagnation, this collection of 24 short stories gestures at the Southern Gothic tradition while displaying an idleness that feels distinctly current. Told from many perspectives (which vary from an attention-seeking coonhound pup to a suicidal farmhand with a baby on the way), these stories depict one gritty North Carolina community the way I talk about my hometown to friends from college: in short bursts, stopping to describe the connections between recurring characters until the whole place seems alive and claustrophobic with interpersonal history—if not with actual people. The author’s debut is grotesque, affecting, and deeply human. It’s a must-read for anyone else who might be moved to tears by a particularly artful description of the sound a Grizzly can makes when snapped by a long-time user.
Access Sleepovers on Overdrive.
What’s on Your Bookshelf? Add Your Rural Reading Recommendations
Help us build out a virtual bookshelf full of great rural stories. Use the form below to share your recommendations and we may highlight your selection in future Daily Yonder coverage.