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 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 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.
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 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.
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?
If you’d like to explore more posts like this, I’ve listed them here.