Five Small Town American Novels I’ve Read

I’ve long had a weakness for American small town novels. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s the idea of a small canvas onto which universal human traits are projected together with a curious nostalgia for a country where I’ve spent quite a few holidays but never felt I’d entirely got to know. Hard to pick from the Cover image for Plainsong by Kent Haruf many I’ve read but I’ve gone for the ones which leapt instantly to mind. Here then are five novels set in small American towns all with links to reviews on this blog.

Kent Haruf, one of my favourite authors, is a shining example of a writer who explores the universal against a small town backdrop. All six of his novels are set in Holt, Colorado. Plainsong isn’t the first in the Holt series – there’s no need to read them in order – but I’ve chosen it because it’s the first Haruf novel I read. It’s about a mere handful of characters: Tom Guthrie bringing up his two young sons alone; Victoria Roubideaux, a pregnant teenager kicked out by her mother and taken in by the elderly Macpheron twins, and Maggie Jones who introduces the twins to Victoria. Haruf’s writing is so quietly compassionate, his characters so simply yet sharply drawn that Holt comes vividly to life, entirely convincing in its prosaic sometimes heroic daily life. I’ve yet to meet a reader who’s visited Holt and not fallen in love with it. If you haven’t read Haruf’s writing yet, please do.

Similarly appealing, although a little more bleak, Ron Rash’s small town novels are set in the Appalachians. My favourite, Above the Waterfall,  sees local Cover image for Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash sheriff Les Clary all set for retirement, faced with a case which will see him repaying a childhood debt in a most unorthodox fashion after the town’s river is poisoned killing the trout stock provided for the resort owned by his old schoolmate. Fingers are pointed at Gerald, known for trespassing on resort land but Becky, the park ranger with whom Gerald has formed a close bond, springs to his defence, determined to convince Les of his innocence. Rash punctuates Les’ plain, unadorned narrative, from which the occasional vivid image sings out, with Becky’s word pictures, often expressed in language which pays tribute to her favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Above the Waterfall is a mature work: beautifully executed, compassionate yet unflinching in its portrayal of human frailties.

Cover image for Shotgun Lovesongs by Nicolas Butler Set in small town Wisconsin, Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs follows four friends on the cusp of middle-age who’ve known each other since they were eight-years-old, sharing a bond almost closer than family. Lee is a successful musician, Kip a savvy Chicago stockbroker recently moved back to Little Wing, Henry has taken over his family’s farm while Ronny struggles with health problems. Their stories unfold in a series of flashbacks played out against the lives they lead now, triggered by their reunion at Kip’s wedding. Butler’s quietly lyrical descriptions of the landscape can only be described as romantic: he writes like a man in love with Wisconsin. A gorgeous, tender novel which retains enough grittiness to steer well clear of the sentimental while wringing your heart.

Elizabeth Wetmore’s Valentine embodies a more emphatic grittiness. Set in West Texas, it explores the fallout of a rape Cover image for Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore through the voices of the women of Odessa, caught up in the ‘70s oil boom.  Fourteen-year-old Gloria kicks against small town conventions, rowing with her Mexican mother. On Valentine’s Day, she’s raped by an oil worker who invites her into his truck and drives her off into the desert. Next morning, Gloria drags herself to the nearest house where Mary Rose is first shocked then angered by what she sees. Through the months between Dale Strickland’s arrest and his August trial, Mary Rose will be outcast by the town and subjected to a stream of vitriolic phone calls accusing her of betraying the preacher’s son locked up for attacking a Mexican girl. Wetmore builds a picture of this dirt poor town through the interlocking lives of its women and girls. It’s a gripping, immersive novel, hard to read at times but immensely rewarding.

Cover image for Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout Elizabeth Strout’s view of small town live through the lens of the often irascible but essentially warm-hearted Olive Kitteridge is altogether more soothing. Much as I loved her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, Olive’s second outing, Olive, Again is my favourite of the two. It takes the same form as the original, comprising thirteen closely-knit short stories in which Olive is often the central character, sometimes a co-star and occasionally a bit-player. Ordinary everyday day life is filled with events unremarkable to others but extraordinary to those who live through them. Epiphanies are had. Time passes. Olive grows old but not always alone. It’s a triumph. I’m deeply suspicious of sequels but delighted that Strout took me back to Crosby to meet Olive again.

What about you – any small town American novels you’d like to recommend?

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40 thoughts on “Five Small Town American Novels I’ve Read”

  1. I should really get to Elizabeth Strout soon, perhaps this series is a good one to start with. Valentine sounds a compelling read as well, and one I’ll keep a lookout for.

  2. I too love books set in small town America. Although everyone knows everyone else and their business, there is a space in them that is missing in the British equivalent – I find village novels rather claustrophobic! I should read more Haruf and Rash – I’ve loved the ones I’ve read, and I must get to Nickolas Butler, I have several on the shelves – acquired mostly through your recommendations, but I’ve not got to them yet! For some insane reason, Strout doesn’t appeal to me – don’t know why! Authors that come to mind to me include Annie Proulx, and Jen Waldo wrote two fine ones but seems to have disappeared.

    1. Hmm… I’ll think we’ll have to agree to differ over Strout! But I’m with you about the English equivalent. Proulx I know but not Waldo – I’ll look those two up. Thank you.

  3. I love the Butler and Strout. I have got to try Haruf’s trilogy again, and though I’ve enjoyed others by Rash I’ve not read him in ages. Wetmore is new to me.

  4. Plainsong and Valentine are both fabulous, in very different ways. One of my best small-town-novel discoveries was Ohio, by Stephen Markley, which came out in the UK in 2018 to relatively little fanfare but which I found utterly compelling in its dissection of a community ravaged by prescription drug addiction, the traumas of military service in Iraq, and declining industry.

    1. I’ve not seen any mention of a new Wedmore, at least in the UK. It seems a long time since Valentine. Thanks for the Markley tip. Sounds right up my street!

  5. The small-town novel that first occurs to me is Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism, which I read about 15 years ago. Haven’t read anything else by him, though.
    I agree with your Haruf and Strout choices; have you considered Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone?

  6. And never forget the classic of the genre; Peyton Place – Grace Metalious. (Not to forget The Scarlet Letter!) American small town = shorthand for scandal, vice, hypocrisy!

    1. Brilliant suggestion! When I was a little girl Peyton Place was on TV. I remember a definite frisson around it. Never allowed up late enough to watch it, naturally.

  7. The Plainsong trilogy sprang to mind the minute I saw your title, so it’s lovely to see it here. Similarly the Olive novels, they’re perfect for this type of list. You’ve probably read it already, but Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace might fit the bill? (I listened to it on R4 Book at Bedtime last year – abridged, of course, but it worked well on audio.)

      1. It’s good, particularly the characterisation. Possibly in a similar space to Marilynne Robinson, although I’ve never been able to get on with her…

  8. I love small town novels and so have loved reading this blog post. I’ve put Shotgun Lovesongs top of my list and have my eye on the Ron Rash. I want to read more of Rash’s work — I’ve only read The Cove. If you haven’t already read it, I think you might like Montana 1948 by Larry Watson, set in a small Montana town. It’s beautifully written, and captures all the small town essences.

      1. Just stumbled across your blog thanks to a search to remind me of the order of Haruf’s novels – now looking forward to many hours working back through your posts!

        This topic is smack-on my favourite genre (despite being a UK city boy), and I’d echo the votes for Haruf and Russo. I also loved Shotgun Lovesongs.

        Although not strictly ‘small town’ writers, I’d make a case for John Irving and – bear with me – Steven King fitting in nicely here. (I think King is unfairly looked down on as a result of his popularity, but when he’s on song there are few better American Chroniclers).

        Also not strictly fitting the small town, but a masterpiece of writing about outsider American communities, I’ve been pressing Stone Junction by Jim Dodge into any hands I could for years 🙂

        1. Lovely to hear that, Stuart. Thanks for your kind words, and for your recommendations. Have to admit I’d probably not have thought of Stephen King but I’ll give him a try. I’ve gone off the boil with John Irving in recent years but absolutely agree about his early stuff. I’m pretty sure my partner has a copy of the Dodge on our sheleves, too.

  9. I read Olive, Again, and thought it was fantastic, Strout’s storytelling is superb. Of the others Shotgun Lovesongs is the one I am drawn to.

  10. Both Haruf and Stout are favorites of mine. I’d also recommend Ann Petry’s second book, Country Place, which I read and posted about earlier this year. If you haven’t tried any of Louise Erdrich’s work, you might find it interesting too.

    1. Oh, that’s great. Thanks – I’ll mosey over and take a look. I went through an Erdrich phase some years back but seem to have lost track of her more recent novels.

  11. I really adore Kent Haruf, lovely to see Plainsong included.

    It’s been years since I read it but when I saw your title the one that sprung to mind after Haruf was Empire Falls by Richard Russo. I remember really enjoying it – I should probably re-read!

  12. This is a setting I also love when the mood is right – I haven’t read any of these, so thanks for the suggestions. My go-to would be Marilynne Robinson or (some) Barbara Kingsolver for this sort of setting.

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