Every road trip (hell, every trip) needs a great book or two to go with it. While I tend to grab whatever books I’m reading plus the next two on my list, it’s a lot of fun to find books with themes or scenes that echo the place you’re going. Sometimes excerpts might even influence the sites you visit or the experiences you seek out while in a given location.
I’ve put together four lists of books that represent regions in the U.S. and how you might split up sections of a road trip across the country. The lists are in no particular order and are not definitive, as a list of thirteen books could never be conclusive. They should serve as an introduction to the posts I’ve lined up over the next several weeks about the road trip I took through the South last June.
So, before we dive in, let’s get the quintessential road trip books out of the way:
The most obvious choice, this thinly-veiled autobiography traverses the country in prose as flippantly direct and meandering as the trip itself.
This novel leads through the back streets and forgotten roads to through the U.S. to land on the doorsteps of equally forgotten towns. If you’re looking for a real American experience that not everyone talks about, but almost everyone feels, then this is it.
Region One: The South
The novel that caused an entire town to disown the author is not-so-loosely drawn from Wolfe’s experience growing up in a boarding house run by his mother. His overarching theme, even in beautiful and welcoming Asheville, NC, is that once you leave home you can never really go back again.
This “non-fiction novel” chronicles the murder of a male prostitute in Savannah by rearranging the timeline of events and telling them as though they were a part of a novel rather than true events. The work brings Savannah’s infamous Squares, Bonaventure Cemetery, and numerous statues to life.
A nostalgic choice more than anything, the innocent and untainted outlook of children is meant to inspire readers of all ages. The plot is as beautiful as it is tragic and its whole is nothing short of poignant.
A poor family in rural Mississippi struggles to get the matriarch’s body to her hometown in which she so desperately wanted to be buried. It’s Faulkner’s connection to the setting, and his moving description of it, that keep this novel from spiraling into the depressive state in which it treads.
Everyone should read this novel. Its surface plot, easy to read with an accessible vocabulary, is moving and pertinent to the human condition. Set in (mostly) rural Georgia, it tracks Celie, a poor, uneducated African-American in the 1930s, from her difficult childhood through her equally difficult early adulthood and the fulfillment of self-love.
This debut novel follows John Singer and four acquaintances he makes in 1930s Georgia. Every person in this novel is different, well-developed, and most importantly, struggling with something in their lives.
Written from multiple viewpoints, this novel is set during the Great Depression and all of its economic uncertainty weighs heavily on the plot’s theme and characters. Harry Morgan, the novel’s central character, starts out as a fishing boat captain in Key West who must take on illegal activities and the smuggling of contraband between Cuba and Florida in order to support his family.
The string that binds Brown’s collection of short stories is made of love gone wrong in various shades that have been stitched, re-stitched, and worn by humans the world over. These particular collections are threaded by flawed men – womanizing, boozing, pick your poison – in the backwoods of Mississippi, in rundown bars and rusted-out trucks.
The characters and some plot devices are familiar these days, with all of the vampire options out there, but what separates this one (aside from good writing) is the connection it draws between their condition and the Southern Gothic of New Orleans. There’s no better setting for such a story of darkness, loss, the desire and eventual disdain for immortality.
This short story collection centers on violent acts that cause many of the protagonists to come to terms with either themselves or their surroundings – at least for a moment. The entirety of the collection serves as a reminder that epiphanies aren’t forever.
If you’re going through the South, hopefully you’ve decided to visit a few of the plantations dedicated to showing the horrors of slavery (and not just the plantations that look pretty in a photograph), as well as museums and preserved markets. Morrison’s novel concerns the aftermath of slavery, being subjected to it and raised within it, and how repressing its memory leads to dissociation and a fragmented identity. The entirety of the plot is difficult, nuanced, and necessary. Morrison facilitates an understanding of American history that can never really be understood.
This semi-autobiographical novel, set in South Carolina, confronts the abuse the protagonist endures from those are supposed to love her most. It’s noted for exploring the relationships between mothers and their children as well as the faults within a society that allow (not to be confused with cause or condone) such behavior to occur.
Directly in the path of Hurricane Katrina, this novel sets ordinary people (and one’s dog) – poor, suffering, pregnant, loving, absent, abusive, sexual – against extraordinary obstacles and doesn’t allow them to buckle underneath them. Suffering isn’t ennobling, it’s endured; family bonds and interdependencies, especially within poor families are explored in their honesty, not for show. It’s at turns heartbreaking and hard to read (thanks to a particular scene) but also poignant and somehow hopeful. That’s the beauty of Ward’s novel.
Lists for the Northeast, the Midwest, and the West will be popping up over the next few days.
– M. Ray Hall