The best novels on the intersection of race, class, and justice in America

Who am I?

I grew up as an African American in the Maryland Appalachian valley, a town that was ninety-five percent white. My father worked for the paper mill and would bring home reams of paper, pens, pencils. I began playing with the stuff—making up stories and stapling them into books, the raw beginnings of a future novelist. Separately, I created dialogue, using clothespins as people: a burgeoning playwright. (We were not destitute—my sister and I had toys! But those makeshift playthings worked best for my purposes.) So, given my working-class racial minority origins, it was rather inevitable that I would be drawn to stories addressing class and race. 

I wrote...

The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter

By Kia Corthron,

Book cover of The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter

What is my book about?

In 1941, the two sons of a white rural Alabama sawmill worker—one a scholarly eighth-grader, the other a deaf teenager just beginning to grasp language—come of age in the shadow of the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, the two sons of a Black small-town Maryland Pullman Porter—one a precocious six-year-old, the other an adolescent starting to realize he’s gay, grow up navigating a world where their adults struggle for labor and racial dignity. The boys become men during the early civil rights movement, and each of them is eventually uprooted, their separate journeys spanning the country. Ultimately the families’ paths will cross, and the momentous ramifications of this intersection will be carried by all four brothers for the remainder of their lives. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Beloved

Kia Corthron Why did I love this book?

When Beloved was first released, I was already a Morrison fan and looking forward to her latest. But I’d barely cracked the cover when I put it down. I’d never felt such a haunting, repellent force. Weeks went by and I tried again, once more blocked by the same energy. On page 18, Sethe says, “I got a tree on my back and a haint in my house” and it wasn’t the latter that shook me. It was the “tree”—the mark of the whip: something alive and, on some level, growing. Months later I faced the monster again, this time ramming myself through the terror. It would take some emotional fortitude for me to navigate the rushing waters of that literary masterpiece but, at last, I was ready.

By Toni Morrison,

Why should I read it?

33 authors picked Beloved as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Toni Morrison was a giant of her times and ours... Beloved is a heart-breaking testimony to the ongoing ravages of slavery, and should be read by all' Margaret Atwood, New York Times

Discover this beautiful gift edition of Toni Morrison's prize-winning contemporary classic Beloved

It is the mid-1800s and as slavery looks to be coming to an end, Sethe is haunted by the violent trauma it wrought on her former enslaved life at Sweet Home, Kentucky. Her dead baby daughter, whose tombstone bears the single word, Beloved, returns as a spectre to punish her mother, but also to elicit her…

Book cover of The Round House

Kia Corthron Why did I love this book?

I had not read Louise Erdrich in many years when I picked up this book, but I was especially interested as it addresses violence against Indigenous women, an all-too-common reality rarely reported in the mainstream. The author makes a fascinating choice: to tell the story from the perspective of the victim’s thirteen-year-old son. On the reservation, where intersecting law and law enforcement—federal, state, and tribal—only leads to massive injustice, the boy takes matters into his own hands, as investigator, prosecutor, and judge. Erdrich goes there for a shocking climax, and perhaps an even more riveting denouement. A visionary examination of Indian jurisprudence as dictated by the United States, and its discontents.

By Louise Erdrich,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Winner of the National Book Award • Washington Post Best Book of the Year • A New York Times Notable Book

From one of the most revered novelists of our time, an exquisitely told story of a boy on the cusp of manhood who seeks justice and understanding in the wake of a terrible crime that upends and forever transforms his family.

One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface because Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal…

Book cover of Bang

Kia Corthron Why did I love this book?

I was searching for some good fiction by a Latinx author regarding immigration at the southern border when I discovered this gem. The narrative begins in Texas with an undocumented family—the mother’s constant dread of authorities; the aching memory of the father’s deportation; sickness and abuse engendered by farm work. Some youthful mischief by the two sons accidentally, and in an instant, splinters the household and transforms the mise en scène to Mexico and the nightmare that, as the author eloquently demonstrates, NAFTA and the American drug wars have wrought: routine brutality, lethal superstition, destitution, desperation. Peña’s graceful prose packs into two hundred pages an epic journey of love and sacrifice, of terror and survival, of three people struggling under the most insurmountable circumstances to maintain their humanity. 

By Daniel Peña,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bang as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Uli’s first flight, a late-night joy ride with his brother, changes their lives forever when the engine stops and the boys crash land, with “Texas to the right and Mexico to the left.” Before the accident, Uli juggled his status as both an undocumented immigrant and a high school track star in Harlingen, Texas, desperately hoping to avoid being deported like his father. His mother Araceli spent her time waiting for her husband. His older brother Cuauhtémoc, a former high-school track star turned drop-out, learned to fly a crop duster, spraying pesticide over their home in the citrus grove.


Book cover of Native Son

Kia Corthron Why did I love this book?

Unless your first reading has been spoiled by a movie or CliffsNotes, I don’t believe you can fail to be stunned by Wright’s 1940 eons-ahead-of-its-time pièce de résistance. While much has been written addressing racial bias in the courtroom (that is, if the defendant survives the initial encounter with police), the author took the outlandish step of providing head-spinning complexity: presenting a culpable protagonist, albeit one whose crime against an affluent young white woman came about unwittingly, having everything to do with his knowledge that he, a Black man, would invariably be perceived as guilty. Wright never lets us off the hook, forcing readers of all hues to consider the entanglements of race, class, and jurisprudence, beginning the day those of us who are not white and/or privileged are born.

By Richard Wright,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Native Son as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Reissued to mark the 80th anniversary of Native Son's publication - discover Richard Wright's brutal and gripping masterpiece this black history month.

'[Native Son] possesses an artistry, penetration of thought, and sheer emotional power that places it into the front rank of American fiction' Ralph Ellison

Reckless, angry and adrift, Bigger Thomas has grown up trapped in a life of poverty in the slums of Chicago. But a job with the affluent Dalton family provides the setting for a catastrophic collision between his world and theirs. Hunted by citizen and police alike, and baited by prejudiced officials, Bigger finds himself…

Book cover of The Enchanted

Kia Corthron Why did I love this book?

A bookseller friend, whose opinions I highly respect, had highly recommended Rene Denfeld’s debut, so The Enchanted very quickly catapulted to the top of my To-Read List. And I was instantly enchanted by the luscious language, the urgent content, the writer’s ability to fuse metaphorical darkness and light. Told from the perspective of a death row inmate, the writing seamlessly flows from gritty reality to breathtaking fantasy. I wasn’t surprised to learn of Rene’s extensive time in prisons (often on death row) as a public defender’s chief investigator, or that her keen understanding of trauma in childhood came from her own firsthand experience, as the text is drenched in arresting truths, in transgression and redemption, and in the complicated and wondrous humanity of us all.

By Rene Denfeld,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'THE ENCHANTED wrapped its beautiful and terrible fingers around me from the first page and refused to let go after the last. A wondrous book... so dark, yet so exquisite.' Erin Morgentern, author of The Night Circus

A prisoner sits on death row in a maximum security prison. His only escape from his harsh existence is through the words he dreams about, the world he conjures around him using the power of language. For the reality of his world is brutal and stark. He is not named, nor do we know his crime. But he listens. He listens to the…

You might also like...

The Emerald Necklace

By Linda Rosen,

Book cover of The Emerald Necklace

Linda Rosen Author Of The Emerald Necklace

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Novelist Swimmer Public Speaker Reader Lover of gardens

Linda's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

It’s 1969. Women are fighting for equality. Rosalee, an insecure sculptor, and Fran, a best-selling novelist, have their issues. Will their bitter envy of each other and long-held secrets destroy their tenuous friendship? Or will Jill, Rosalee’s granddaughter, and the story behind her emerald necklace bind them together?

A multi-generational novel of friendship and frenemies, envy, and long-held secrets that explores current issues through a historical lens. The Emerald Necklace sheds light on that inevitable time when lovers, family, friends, and circumstances change and force you to reinvent yourself whether you want to or not.

The Emerald Necklace

By Linda Rosen,

What is this book about?

"Engaging and mysterious, The Emerald Necklace sheds light on that inevitable time when lovers, family, friends and circumstances change and force you to reinvent yourself whether you want to or not." –Rebecca Rosenberg, award-winning Champagne Widows series

Three months after her husband's death in 1969, Rosalee Linoff is determined to jump back into life.

For her, that means returning to her art. She desperately wants to be accepted as a talented sculptor, but that requires she dig up the courage to submit her work again - and be judged. Her paralyzing insecurity mounts when she meets her new neighbor, best-selling…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in undocumented immigrants, private investigators, and African-American men?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about undocumented immigrants, private investigators, and African-American men.

Undocumented Immigrants Explore 24 books about undocumented immigrants
Private Investigators Explore 277 books about private investigators
African-American Men Explore 30 books about African-American men