The best novels for an honest look at rural America

Who am I?

Nearly a quarter century has passed since my childhood spent in the Ozark Mountains, but it still remains home. It’s a unique corner of America, not quite the South and not quite the Midwest, but undeniably country. Growing up there on a farm, near towns in decades-long decline, I saw the best and worst of rural life, and of the folks who call it home. That place and those people inspire me and my writing, driving me to show the Ozarks and its people as complex and ever changing. I aspire to move past the nostalgia of rural life, but not at the sacrifice of its beauty and charm.

I wrote...

Chicken Dinner News

By Jeff Billington,

Book cover of Chicken Dinner News

What is my book about?

Ryan Shipley wouldn't have recognized his grandfather if they were the only two people in a room. So when an unwanted inheritance lands in his lap, Ryan is overcome with obligation. Does he leave his life as a journalist in LA to run his grandfather's weekly newspaper and revive a dying Ozark town, half of which he now owns?
The overwhelming amount of casserole dishes brought to his door, along with being stopped by anyone and everyone to be regaled about the virtues of his grandfather, don't sway him. But when he starts to fall in love with more than just a girl named Olivia, Ryan sees a future there. Charming and humorously thoughtful, Chicken Dinner News is contemporary fiction for open-minded soul searchers

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The books I picked & why

Empire Falls

By Richard Russo,

Book cover of Empire Falls

Why did I love this book?

Even picturesque Maine has its rough side, and Empire Falls paints a complex and intriguing portrait of a rural town down on its luck and the tenuous ties between two of its most constant families, current and past.

It is a unique work where I fell in love with the story, without necessarily falling in love with the characters, as they were far too nuanced for such a simplistic emotion. Despite its nearly 500 pages, I ripped through it in just a few days, though my mind long lingered on what the future could offer this rusty mill town and its residents.

By Richard Russo,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Empire Falls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • PULITZER PRIZE WINNER • The bestselling author of Nobody's Fool and Straight Man delves deep into the blue-collar heart of America in a work that overflows with hilarity, heartache, and grace.

“Rich, humorous ... Mr. Russo’s most seductive book thus far.” —The New York Times

Welcome to Empire Falls, a blue-collar town full of abandoned mills whose citizens surround themselves with the comforts and feuds provided by lifelong friends and neighbors and who find humor and hope in the most unlikely places, in this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Richard Russo.

Miles Roby has been slinging burgers at…

The Bridges of Madison County

By Robert James Waller,

Book cover of The Bridges of Madison County

Why did I love this book?

As a child I watched my parents’ marriage collapse, my mother exhausted by an often solo task of raising children and managing an active farm, while my father charged into his work as a part-time farmer and full-time oil well driller.

Years later, when I read The Bridges of Madison County it felt like part of my mom had been transported into its pages, as the neglected Francesca. It helped me better understand her, as well as the often rumor-ridden atmosphere of rural communities.

It also aided me in coming to terms with the fracturing of my own family, as I found comfort in how Waller’s story provided a more forgiving and soothing conclusion, one that doesn’t demonize either Francesca or her rural way of life.

By Robert James Waller,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Bridges of Madison County as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fall in love with one of the bestselling novels of all time -- the legendary love story that became a beloved film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.

If you've ever experienced the one true love of your life, a love that for some reason could never be, you will understand why readers all over the world are so moved by this small, unknown first novel that they became a publishing phenomenon and #1 bestseller.

The story of Robert Kincaid, the photographer and free spirit searching for the covered bridges of Madison County, and Francesca Johnson, the farm wife waiting…

The Last Picture Show

By Larry McMurtry,

Book cover of The Last Picture Show

Why did I love this book?

I’ve read this book twice. I read it first as a teenager anxious to escape my rural upbringing, seeing more of the ugly in the written words, the dying town, and the bitterness and hopelessness exhibited by some of the characters.
But reading it as an adult some years removed from my country roots, I saw it in a different light. Then it pulled me into the kindness and sense of community that is almost unique to rural areas, such as the way Sam keeps a kind eye on the young folks of the town, especially those he fears may go wayward.

McMurtry was a master of creating a sense of place and character without overlabored descriptions, as I felt I knew and could relate to all the players, and that I had personally walked the dusty streets of Anarene.

By Larry McMurtry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Last Picture Show as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is one of McMurtry's most memorable novels - the basis for the film of the same name. Set in a small, dusty Texas town, it introduces Jacy, Duane and Sonny, teenagers stumbling towards adulthood, discovering the beguiling mysteries of sex and the even more baffling mysteries of love.

Book cover of The Whole Town's Talking

Why did I love this book?

Many would point to Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café as her opus to rural America, but the broader scope of The Whole Town’s Talking pulled me in instantly.

She draws out a full history of a small town, its good and bad and the people that made their mark there, some from birth to death. Even after death, their voices remain an active part of her tale, remaining as unbashful observers from the cemetery on the hill.

So much of rural America has fallen into disrepair, as does Flagg’s fictional Elmwood Springs, but I hold out hope that the increase in telecommuting and simmering desires to leave urban (and suburban) lives behind can reinvigorate some of these sleeping villages that are spread across much of the nation. 

By Fannie Flagg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Whole Town's Talking as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The bestselling author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is at her superb best in this fun-loving, moving novel about what it means to be truly alive.


Elmwood Springs, Missouri, is a small town like any other, but something strange is happening at the cemetery. Still Meadows, as it’s called, is anything but still. Original, profound, The Whole Town’s Talking, a novel in the tradition of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Flagg’s own Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven, tells the story of Lordor Nordstrom, his…

Winter's Bone

By Daniel Woodrell,

Book cover of Winter's Bone

Why did I love this book?

Having grown up in the rural Ozark Mountains, I saw firsthand both the best of its people and the worst of the fragile edges of its society.

Winter’s Bone is a book that unapologetically tells a story of how these two aspects are not exclusive of each other. From the protective and driven daughter of a poor hill family to the destructive and brutal reality that the intrusion of drugs has brought to rural America, Woodrell’s complex work explores loyalty and contradiction while emphasizing the gray area that often exists in community morals.

It’s a book that will pull you in – giving you drama, crime and an appreciation for how perseverance for a cause or duty can endure in even the most hostile situation. 

By Daniel Woodrell,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Winter's Bone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a fiercely original tale of love, heartbreak and resilience in the lonely wastes of the American Midwest. The last time Ree saw her father, he didn't bring food or money but promised he'd be back soon with a paper sack of cash and a truckload of delights. Since he left, she's had to look after her mother - sedated and losing her looks - and her two younger brothers. Ree hopes the boys won't turn out like the others in the Ozark mountains - hard and mean before they've learnt to shave. One cold winter's day, Ree discovers…

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