In November of 2013, I committed to reading three books set in each of the 50 United States, plus the District of Columbia, for a grand total of 153 works of fiction. I didn’t set a time limit for myself, and now, six years later, I have completed my literary tour of the US. As you can see from the title of this post, I read a few more than 153 books.Read more
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.
To me, Texas is Lonesome Dove. The novel didn’t land the way Larry McMurtry had intended — as an anti-Western critiquing the misogyny and racism of the Western mythology. Instead it ended up being one of the greatest Westerns of all time. When asked by Mother Jones “You felt that Lonesome Dove was misinterpreted, that you’d intended it as an anti-Western. In what sense?”, McMurtry responded, “Would you like your menfolk to be that way? The Western myth is a heroic myth, and yet settling the West was not heroic.” This makes me love Lonesome Dove all that much more, and is probably the reason it’s the only Western that has ever resonated with me, other than True Grit.
I was eager to read other Texas books in addition to Lonesome Dove, and especially stories by Katherine Anne Porter and something, anything, by Cormac McCarthy. I attempted McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and just could not get into it, but I adored Katherine Anne Porter.
Novel: Lonesome Dove
Author: Larry McMurtry, born Wichita, Texas 1936
Setting: 1860s Texas to Montana
If you don’t care for Westerns, you might not like this book. But then again, if you don’t care for Westerns, you might love it. I have no interest in Westerns. But I love Lonesome Dove.
It ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living. I doubt it matters where you die, but it matters where you live.
Perhaps the reason Lonesome Dove has become one of the most popular Westerns of all time is precisely because it is so unlike all the others in its subtle criticism of how the West was “won.” Perhaps the depth of the characters, and the treatment of all sides of the stories — from the impossible position for women in those times to the unjustness of stealing natives’ land — resonates with readers and that’s why it was such a success.
I think we spent our best years fighting on the wrong side.
I’ve read this book so many times, I’ve lost count. It is one of my top five favorite books: for setting, characters, dialogue, depth, humor, emotion. I love these characters like friends. Each time I read the book I am grateful for how long it is because it means I’ll get to spend more time with them. Each time, even though the story is set on the page as it always has been and always will be, I also hope they’ll make different decisions in the end.
Book: Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
Author: Gloria Anzaldúa, born Rio Grande Valley, TX 1942
Setting: 1970s-80s Texas
Written in the 1980s in a mixture of Spanish and English, where neither is translated to the other, Anzaldúa’s La Frontera is a true blending: of Mexican, Indio, and white; of feminine and feminist; of Chicana and lesbian rejected by the race she defends against whites who denigrate it.
Anzaldúa breaks all the rules of her race. She is different, queer, rejects the macho debasement of women by Chicano/Latino men. This differentness is not part of the culture she was raised in, and she aims to change that. She argues that it is the blended people, the people of mixed race, who are the future. They will be more adaptable, malleable, are accepting and inclusive, because they aren’t just one type.
We need this to keep from annihilating ourselves.
The future will belong to the mestiza. Because the future depends on the straddling of two or more cultures.
Passionate and written by a women with a mastery of multiple languages, Borderlands/La Frontera gave me a new appreciation of what it means to be intersectional and how many things are stacked against you if you are woman, of color, or gay. And when you’re all three? You don’t fit anywhere. You are excluded everywhere. You have forge your own way, and the strength that requires is humbling.
Book: The Old Order: Stories of the South
Author: Katherine Anne Porter, born Indian Creek, Texas, 1890
Setting: mostly Texas
I’ve been looking forward to Texas for a long time so I could read Katherine Anne Porter. I’d heard so much about her, and she didn’t disappoint. I love these short stories. They center primarily around a white Grandmother and her now free but formerly her slave, Aunt Nannie. At first the stories seemed painfully dated, with “good white folk” talking blithely about slaves and “Negroes” as if whites are doing them a favor and the black people in the stories are happy in their station, like in Gone With the Wind. These first stories made me feel all messed up inside because the writing and the stories are so good, but I can’t take the racism.
Then I came to a story from a black character’s point of view, and I realized oh, Porter gets it. She’s Doing Something here. She very powerfully shows the difference between white views of their black servants (that they’re friends and well-treated and they want to be doing what they’re doing) and the blacks’ views (get me out of this house so I can rest, get me to nighttime so I can rest, give me freedom to do what I want instead of doing the whites’ bidding).
Something that struck me in Porter’s stories is that each one contained one powerful visual scene that’s stuck with me, whether the grandmother riding her horse with her perfect erect posture, the whip with holes in it that pulled off discs of slaves’ flesh when they were lashed with it, the frightening clown swinging from the trapeze at the circus, or Aunt Nannie sitting on her porch smoking her corncob pipe.