Virginia. The state I now live in, and the state where this whole reading adventure began. As I mention in the About page for this Andrea Reads America project, my husband and I have moved many times: from Georgia to Maryland, to Florida and Maine, to Minnesota, and finally, to Virginia. Each time we relocated, I researched our new home not in welcome bureaus or newcomer guides, but through fiction. Well-set novels taught me about the land and its people, its culture, its history, and its idiosyncrasies.
After our family moved from Minnesota to Virginia in 2012, I read several novels set here, including Adriana Trigiani’s entire Big Stone Gap series, David Baldacci’s Wish You Well, and Tara Conklin’s The House Girl with my Virginia-based book club. Then, as now, I tried to read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and abandoned it.
It was settling in Virginia — settling someplace for the first time in our married lives — that made me start reading my way across the US. We were putting down roots, and I still had wanderlust. Now, 6 years later, I’ve almost completed the reading journey. It was nice to come (almost) full circle and read this state again, now that I live here and know it well.
Novel: The Known World
Author: Edward P. Jones
Setting: 1840s and 50s Virginia
Set in fictitious Manchester County in Virginia in the 1840s and 1850s, The Known World is about a black slave owner, his slaves, and the world of slavery in Virginia. Shockingly, black slave owners are not fictitious — it did actually happen, though it was rare. The Known World explores what that was like for the owner, his slaves, and his former slave parents who saved for years to free him from slavery. As if slavery weren’t awful enough already, the betrayal of “owning your own” was immense.
The book jumps around a lot in time and sometimes it was hard to keep track of the characters. Overall it was an eye-opening glimpse into a world that would have never occurred to me existed.
Novel: Flowers in the Attic
Author: V.C. Andrews, born Portsmouth, VA
Setting: 1970s mansion in the Virginia mountains
I first read Flowers in the Attic in middle or high school, and it seemed so forbidden at the time. Now that I’ve read it again, I see why! Children locked hidden in an attic while their widowed mother waits for her rich father to die so she can inherit his wealth, an adolescent brother and sister developing sexually with only each other to turn their attention to, a wicked grandmother who only sees sin, not love, in the world. And all set against the backdrop of Virginia mountains a short train ride to Charlottesville, the children bearing the beauty of the seasons from behind windows, never to be outdoors, only seeing the sun and stars and leaves and flowers through glass.
At points it was terrible to read, not because of the story but because of the writing — so! many! exclamation! points! — but it was still a page-turner in its twisted terrible way.
Novel: Wish You Well
Author: David Baldacci, born Richmond, VA
Setting: 1940s southwest Virginia: coal country
Set in the Appalachian mountains of southwest Virginia, Wish You Well is fiction that pulls from Baldacci’s childhood experiences in that region. It is an account of a 1940s family whose lives are isolated from any world off the mountain, who do not earn money to provide for themselves, but who work the land to survive.
Baldacci nailed the dialect – he wrote it masterfully, so that you can hear the characters’ speech, without the dialect being distracting or tiring. And he captured a way of life on the mountain that most of us will never know. Somehow, though, there wasn’t enough depth for me. Or maybe complexity. I can’t pinpoint what it was that had my mind wandering at times, or that kept me from getting truly engaged, but Wish You Well is worth a shot if you want to disappear into the mountains for a while, and particularly if you are interested in the coal mining issues currently going on in the Appalachians (blowing up the mountains to empty them of their coal and then abandon them, piles of rubble, barren and stripped of life).
Novel: Big Stone Gap
Author: Adriana Trigiani, born and raised in VA
Setting: 1990s Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia
The Big Stone Gap series is a fun, beach or poolside race-through-the-story and the characters type of read. While there are certainly tensions and conflict, the overall memory I have of these books is that they were lighthearted, and I loved the characters. The scenery is lovely as well. I’m pretty sure I read the entire series like a chain smoker smokes cigarettes, lighting the beginning of one off the end of another, in the space of a couple of weeks.