We’ll go ahead and say it—this has been a rough February. Between extreme winter weather, continued social distancing, and the day-to-day trials and tribulations of life during a pandemic, we could all use a break. Since many of us are stuck exploring the Great Indoors, we thought now would be a great time to share some of our favorite rural books.
Whether novels, memoirs, essays, or biographies, we fell in love with these stories of rural people and places. In their pages we’ve found tragedy and humor, hard times and hope, and a bit of wisdom to boot. We hope you’ll enjoy them as much as we have. And as ever, once you’ve checked out our rural book recommendations, you can add your own suggestions at the bottom of this article.
If you’re concerned about breaking the budget on books or you can’t make it to your library, worry not. Check out Overdrive.com, which offers ebooks and audiobooks for free, through local and regional public libraries around the country!
Without further ado, here are our rural reading recommendations.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
Recommended by Whitney Kimball Coe, coordinator of the Rural Assembly
In troubled times I reach for stories with a moral compass. These last years, I keep coming back to News of the World by Paulette Jiles. It’s a western, sort-of, played out across rural Texas, just a few years after the Civil War. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels from frontier town to frontier town, reading from the latest newspapers to packed saloons, theaters, and stables. Before long, he’s joined by a ten year-old girl whom he must bring safely home. There are gunfights and rampant lawlessness, deep injustices and profound grief, but News is a hymn of praise, too. In Captain Kidd’s newspaper readings, there is celebration of the vastness of the wide world, even as the more local one is steeped in chaos. And there is mercy in the tenderness of relationships forged over time and across miles of wilderness. I sure hope the movie does this small but mighty story justice.
Access News of the World on Overdrive.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Recommended by Olivia Weeks, reporting fellow with the Daily Yonder
Bennett’s 2020 novel tells the story of twins who escape their fictional, ‘colored’ hometown for New Orleans. In Mallard, Louisiana, light skin is prized above all; colorism dominates the local ethos and families seek marriages that optimize for Caucasian features. Desiree and Stella, descendants of the town’s founder, are white-passing sisters whose lives diverge dramatically when Stella decides to live as a white woman—a choice she sees as her only chance at prosperity in the 1950s South—and Desiree decides to marry “the darkest man she could find.”
The story spans three generations and much of the United States. Bennett toys with easy definitions of race and easy narratives about the geography of racism. It’s a novel about coming home and avoiding home and the pieces of one’s identity that must be hidden away when performing either task. The Vanishing Half is thought-provoking and complicated, but it’s also a page-turner. I couldn’t put it down.
Access The Vanishing Half on Overdrive.
Overstory: Zero by Robert Heilman
Recommended by Jan Pytalski, associate editor of the Daily Yonder
Overstory: Zero is one of those books that opens up an entire new world to its reader. In this case it’s the world of logging and loggers. The author was in the industry himself, eking a living out of contracting logging jobs in and around Douglas County, Oregon. Heilman’s life was one of an outsider on the inside. His work didn’t necessarily agree with his politics, and in Oregon, where timber is like coal in Appalachia, your environmental leanings can be a problem. But what I appreciated the most about the book was its tenderness, moments of family life, of homesteading and perseverance. Heilman loves the landscape he lives in. He dedicated his life and writing work to creating a better community, one that cares a little more about one another and maybe even listens from time to time.
The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow
Recommended by Teresa Collins, operations coordinator for the Daily Yonder and the Center for Rural Strategies
One of my favorite books about the rural experience is The Dollmaker, written in 1954 by Harriette Arnow. The 600-page book tells the story of the Nevels family from eastern Kentucky who makes the decision to leave home for work and the promise of an easier life in Detroit during the depression.
I first became aware of it in the mid-80s when I was taking an off-campus college class about Appalachian literature and culture. I was in my late twenties, and my classmates were mostly in their late sixties to early seventies. Those classmates included my paternal grandparents, my mother-in-law, her sister, and a few of their friends. They had all lived through the depression and had their own stories to tell. My grandparents had moved from eastern Kentucky to Detroit during the war like the Nevels family in the book. My grandfather went first to get a job and get settled in, then sent money back home for my grandmother and their kids to join him. She travelled by train with five young children. She was in her mid-twenties at the time. They lived there for a couple of years, then returned home to Kentucky.
Learning their story and reading the book solidified for me the notion that you don’t know who you are if you don’t know where you’ve been.
Access The Dollmaker on Overdrive.
Peter the Great: His Life & World by Robert K. Massie
Recommended by Dee Davis, publisher of the Daily Yonder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies
Here’s [one of] two exceptional rural books that are not The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Absalom, Absalom. The first is Peter the Great: His Life and World by a Kentucky native we lost last year, Robert K. Massie. The book was recommended to me by novelists James Still and Gurney Norman. Both said it was the best. No argument here. Though much of this history takes place in court in Moscow and later in St. Petersburg, ruling the expanse of Russia at the turn of the 18th Century likely would have been the world’s biggest rural job. Peter, who spent his boyhood in exile above the Arctic Circle, drew on his rural training to modernize Mother Russia and ultimately reorder the world. And in the way that books about the sea or about outer space can be understood as rural, so is the history of Russian war and diplomacy in 1720, of taxes on beards, of four shots of vodka before a traveler is allowed to remove his winter coat, of a cold that freezes the water vapor in your mouth so your words can be seen as they leave your tongue, of an inquisitive young Czar who travels the world disguised as a gunnery sergeant or a boat hand, and of the building of a modern European capital in a frozen wilderness.
Access Peter the Great: His Life and World on Overdrive.
Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
Recommended by Joel Cohen, multimedia producer for the Daily Yonder and the Center for Rural Strategies
Most of my adult reading is either mystery or biographies and none came to mind as particularly rural. So, I went back and thought about the books that made a difference to me as a kid. Without question, Winnie-the-Pooh made the greatest impression on me in my early years of listening to and then reading stories. The original book is a collection of short stories narrated to Christopher Robin (A.A. Milne’s son’s name) about Winnie the Pooh, and his adventures with his friends in and around the 100 Aker Wood. The characters of Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Rabbit, Kanga and Baby Roo all had such unique personalities you could easily find part of yourself in each. The stories were just on the edge of reality for a kid. Getting into mischief with your friends, but really never getting in trouble, if anything only a mild scolding from Christopher Robin or Owl. And the illustrations were so great: a map of the 100 Aker Wood, denoting where everyone lived, or Pooh getting his head caught in a honey jar, or the whole gang trying to get Pooh out of Rabbit’s hole. The drawings were as if a kid had done them, but then again they were too good for a kid. Confusing for a six-year-old. There were lessons in the stories, but they were so much fun and filled with whimsy it never felt like there were. I passed on my love of Pooh to my kids and hope they’ll do the same for theirs when the time comes.
Access Winnie-the-Pooh on Overdrive.
Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward
Recommended by Olivia Weeks, reporting fellow with the Daily Yonder
Though Ward is better known for her novels (she’s a winner of the 2011 and 2017 National Book Award in Fiction), her own story is equally moving. After going away to college, Ward, raised in DeLisle, Mississippi, ventures home from Stanford often, the trips never without incident. The author weaves her own life story and family history with the tragic deaths of five young black men: her brother, her cousin, and three friends, all of whom died long before their time. Men We Reaped is a standout in the genre of political memoir and a telling portrait of generational trauma. Ward’s storytelling powers are as clear here as they are in her fiction: her characters are crisp and her scene setting on the DeLisle Bayou is vivid. This book covers a lot of ground, all of it muddy and heartbreaking.
Access Men We Reaped: A Memoir on Overdrive.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Recommended by Adam B. Giorgi, digital strategist for the Daily Yonder
It’s always great when a book comes to you at exactly the right time. So it was when I picked up Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Fresh out of graduate school, I read most of the novel while aboard Greyhound Buses traveling the Upper Midwest, visiting friends, pondering professional pursuits, and doing some general purpose soul searching. As I watched the miles drift by, occasionally struck by some roadside attraction or intriguing turnoff, the characters of Gods were charting very similar paths, even driving some of the same roads. Much of the story takes place in a small Wisconsin town called Lakeside, and its most pivotal moments hinge on the real-life rural attraction, the House on the Rock. Gaiman’s story finds much of the magic and mystery of America off the beaten path, in old tucked away spots full of hidden meaning just under the surface. In an early chapter, protagonist Shadow drives to Chicago for an important business meeting. Meanwhile, my Greyhound Bus also took me to Chicago for a business meeting, with one Dee Davis. Now, I’m not saying the publisher of the Daily Yonder is secretly one of the Old Gods walking among us, but American Gods did give me some new theories about the magic and mystery of rural America, and the unique power of those who tell its stories.
Access American Gods 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.