Travel the United States—from California to Florida—through these essential novels, memoirs, and mysteries.
Thanks to the Virus That Shall Not Be Named, many of us are traveling closer to home these days—if we’re traveling at all. Whether you have a trip on the books (see what we did there?) or are solely traveling via literature, here are 10 novels, memoirs, and mysteries that will introduce you to surprising pockets of the United States.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
Lyrical and packed with myth, Sharks in the Time of Saviors follows Noa Flores, the middle child of a Hawaiian family, who is believed to be favored by the gods. After he’s saved by a shark during a boat tour—an act that nods to an ancient Hawaiian legend—Noa begins to demonstrate powers of healing. As Noa’s new abilities become a focal point of the family’s life, his older brother and younger sister must face life in his shadow.
Eventually, each child leaves for the mainland, aiming to forge their own path, separate from their family and Hawai’i. But, of course, the islands never really leave them—and ultimately, they must face their past. Told in chapters that alternate between each member of the Flores family, Kawai Strong Washburn’s debut novel is a supernatural saga that’s impossible to put down.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Mabel and Jack are two struggling, childless homesteaders in 1920s Alaska. One snowy winter day, the couple creates a snow child outside their home, inspired by a fairy tale that Mabel read as a young girl. Soon after, a girl, Faina, comes into their lives—the snow child come to life, or so Mabel believes. What unspools from that moment, as Mabel and Jack come to understand Faina and where she came from, is a story both about the beauty and harshness of the Alaskan wilderness and the power of survival and hope. The Snow Child was Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel and went on to be a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
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There are so many wonderful, iconic books about California. But this romp of a novel takes us to the Great Recession–era San Francisco, where an unemployed web designer, Clay Jannon, finds work in a puzzling 24-hour bookstore that seems to function more as a library. Clay quickly discovers that some of the books customers borrow are written in unintelligible code and pulls together a team of technologists to help him crack it. Technology—the specifics of it, as well our relationship to it—imbues the novel with a modern feel, but the Scooby gang quest to solve the mystery is as classic as it gets.
My Ántonia by Willa Cather
Told through the perspective of her childhood friend, Jim Burden, My Ántonia—considered one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century—follows the titular character from her childhood on the plains of Nebraska to Denver, back to Nebraska’s cornfields. Though Cather published the novel in 1918, its focus on Ántonia’s journey—a symbol of the country’s pioneering spirit, as well as the immigrant families who carved lives on the prairies—is as fresh and relatable as ever.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
Yes, this is a YA novel. But Benjamin Alire Saenz’s meaty (359 pages) book presents universal struggles: making peace with who we are, understanding our families, charting our own paths. It revolves around two lonely Mexican-American teens growing up in El Paso, Texas. Aristotle, or Ari, has a distant father and a brother in prison. When he meets Dante, an artist, at the local pool, they seem unlikely candidates for friends. As their friendship deepens—and Ari becomes aware of his attraction to Dante—the two are led into a poignant exploration of sexuality, family, and identity.
Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country: Traveling Through the Land of My Ancestors by Louise Erdrich
Born in Little Falls, Minnesota, to a German-American father and a half-French, half-Ojibwe mother, Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. (Ojibwe and Chippewa are used synonymously.) As an author, she’s best known for fiction that incorporates her Native American heritage. In Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country Erdrich is her own subject as she explores Lake of the Woods in Minnesota and Ontario with her then-18-month-old daughter.
Replete with shimmering lakes and sunshine, it’s at once a travel memoir and meditation on history and mythology. As a writer, Erdrich marvels at the small stuff, and that small stuff imbues the book with a sense of wonder over the natural world: the beauty of cattails rising out of deep water, glossy otters lolling on rocks, and shadows stretching long on a beach.
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
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This expansive memoir from Sarah M. Broom—a 2019 National Book Award winner—shines a light on the New Orleans far beyond the booze and beads of Bourbon Street. Broom’s mother, Ivory Mae, bought a shotgun home in 1961, at a time of great promise for the Broom family. But as the years go by, the family—and the house—morph. Broom weaves the reality of New Orleans East, where the Yellow House is, with her forays into the New Orleans most tourists encounter. She threads it all with her familial history and her own desire to leave the city behind. Each chapter takes us further into the ways that home retains its grip on us, long after we’ve left—and even long after that home has disappeared.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
At its core, Transcendent Kingdom is about a young woman—Gifty, a successful scientist—and her relationship with her mother, who struggles with depression. But it’s threaded with the themes of race, immigration, and belonging—also themes in Yaa Gyasi’s award-winning debut novel, Homegoing. As Gifty copes with her mother’s latest episode, she reflects on her childhood in Huntsville, Alabama—her family’s relationship with the city, her brother’s struggles with opioids—and the long shadows cast by the past. Ultimately, though, this is Gifty’s story and a powerful one about the choices we all make.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
A novel of childhood and heartbreak, adulthood and trauma, Another Brooklyn takes readers to 1970s Brooklyn. August, an Ivy League–educated anthropologist who studies death around the world, is our protagonist. She returns home to Brooklyn to bury her father. Through a series of vignettes that feel part dream and part memory, we return to her girlhood, when she first moved to the neighborhood following the death of her mother and falls under the spell of Sylvia, Gigi, and Angela. Eventually, the four girls become friends, a tight, tumultuous bond that, for a moment, makes August feel whole.
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Epic in scope, lush in detail, tragic through and through, Swamplandia! is gorgeous and gutting. The novel—a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction—centers on 13-year-old Ava BigTree, who lives with her family on an island-slash-theme park in the Florida Everglades. Once renowned for their ’gator wrangling—especially Ava’s mother, Hilola—the family has been ruined by a bigger, more modern theme park on the mainland. When Hilola dies, her passing sets off a chain of events that splinters the family, forcing the children out into the world in various disturbing and mystical ways.
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