The best novels about ordinary (sometimes conflicted) people drawn into social activism

Who am I?

Was it the environmental movement, which burgeoned as I was growing up? Or remnants of Sunday School teachings? For whatever reason, I deeply believe that I have a responsibility to give back to the world more than I take. There are many ways to give back, as my characters Miranda and Russ explore in my novel I Meant to Tell You. In my nonfiction, I’ve investigated the healthcare and financial industries, and also suggested steps we can take in our everyday lives as consumers, parents, and investors. When I’m not writing, I’m organizing environmental clean-ups, collecting supplies for refugees, and phoning public officials.


I wrote...

I Meant to Tell You

By Fran Hawthorne,

Book cover of I Meant to Tell You

What is my book about?

Miranda Isaacs and her fiancé, Russ Steinmann, admire her parents (antiwar activists in the Sixties) and grandfather (a union organizer) as role models – if they could only figure out what sorts of roles they themselves might play in changing the world in their own era. When Russ is offered what seems like his dream job, as an assistant U.S. attorney investigating business corruption in Washington DC, they joke that Miranda’s family history might jeopardize his security clearance. But as it turns out, the real threat emerges after Russ’s future employer discovers that Miranda was arrested for felony kidnapping seven years earlier – an arrest she’d never bothered to tell Russ about.

The books I picked & why

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The Cold Millions

By Jess Walter,

Book cover of The Cold Millions

Why this book?

This might be the most powerful novel about U.S. working conditions since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle; if I were president of the AFL-CIO, I would hand out copies at every picket line. But beyond its moral force, this is also a beautiful, page-turning story of loyalty between two young Irish-American brothers, Gig and Rye Dolan, who arrive penniless in Spokane, Washington, in the early 1900s hoping to find jobs. As they get caught up in the violent battles pitting workers against mine owners and the corrupt local police, Gig and Rye are each drawn to union activism in a different way—and, in turn, draw further apart. It’s a book that hit me in the head, heart, and gut in multiple ways.

The Cold Millions

By Jess Walter,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'A beautiful, lyric hymn to the power of social unrest in American history...funny and harrowing, sweet and violent, innocent and experienced; it walks a dozen tightropes' Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See
_____________________________________________

1909. Spokane, Washington.

The Dolan brothers are living by their wits, jumping freight trains and lining up for work at crooked job agencies. While sixteen-year-old Rye yearns for a steady job and a home, his dashing older brother Gig dreams of a better world, fighting alongside other union men for fair pay and decent treatment.

But then Rye finds himself drawn to suffragette…


Heat and Light

By Jennifer Haigh,

Book cover of Heat and Light

Why this book?

I live in the same world where too many modern novels (including mine!) take place—a world of professionals and students, people whose hands get dirty only if we’re repotting our tomato plants. So it’s wonderfully eye-opening to enter the setting of this book, along with farmers, prison guards, nurses, and other rural folks who are actually living out the current debate over natural-gas fracking. While the gas-company officials are clear villains, the townspeople on both sides are portrayed with compassion and complexity. Who are the “good guys” and “bad guys” when a prison guard sells his mineral rights to the frackers for the cash to start a dairy farm? Or when a gas driller has an affair with a woman whose husband died of environmental cancer? 

Heat and Light

By Jennifer Haigh,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Haigh returns to the Pennsylvania town at the center of her iconic novel Baker Towers in this ambitious, achingly human story of modern America and the conflicting forces at its heart-a bold, moving drama of hope and desperation, greed and power, big business and small-town families. Forty years ago, Bakerton coal fueled the country. Then the mines closed, and the town wore away like a bar of soap. Now Bakerton has been granted a surprise third act: it sits squarely atop the Marcellus Shale, a massive deposit of natural gas. To drill or…

Conscience

By Alice Mattison,

Book cover of Conscience

Why this book?

Alice Mattison, the author, must have been reading my mind! This piercing novel echoes some of my conflicted feelings about the Sixties and social activism in general, even as it also probes the strains of long-term marriage and friendship. As college students, Olive, Helen, and Val took different routes during the Sixties antiwar protests. Now, when a magazine commissions Olive to write an essay about Val’s long-ago novel, she must confront the repercussions of those friendships and the decisions the three women made. Helen chose violent protest; Olive chose a PhD; Val chose to appropriate Helen’s life in her fiction. Olive’s rethinking raises a question that’s important for us today: How far should an ethical person go for a just cause?  

Conscience

By Alice Mattison,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Decades ago in Brooklyn, three girls demonstrated against the Vietnam War, and each followed a distinct path into adulthood. Helen became a violent revolutionary. Val wrote a controversial book, essentially a novelization of Helen’s all-too-short but vibrant life. And Olive became an editor and writer, now comfortably settled with her husband, Griff, in New Haven. When Olive is asked to write an essay about Val’s book, doing so brings back to the forefront Olive and Griff’s tangled histories and their complicated reflections on that tumultuous time in their young lives.Conscience, the dazzling new novel from award-winning author Alice Mattison, paints…

All Over Creation

By Ruth Ozeki,

Book cover of All Over Creation

Why this book?

This novel took me into a community that I rarely read about in fiction, to show the human impact of a controversial industry—in this case, GMO agriculture and Idaho potato farmers. From my research for two of my nonfiction books, I started with some understanding of the complex debate, and I appreciate that All Over Creation branches into more subplots beyond simply Big Agriculture versus family farms. In fact, I liked Will, the well-meaning local farmer who sincerely believes that GMO potatoes will save his ailing farm, far more than Yumi, the main character, a single mom who long ago fled potato country. She seems too caught up in her resentments against her father and hometown, to care about anyone but herself. 

All Over Creation

By Ruth Ozeki,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A warm and witty saga about agribusiness, environmental activism, and community-from the celebrated author of The Book of Form and Emptiness and A Tale for the Time Being

Yumi Fuller hasn't set foot in her hometown of Liberty Falls, Idaho-heart of the potato-farming industry-since she ran away at age fifteen. Twenty-five years later, the prodigal daughter returns to confront her dying parents, her best friend, and her conflicted past, and finds herself caught up in an altogether new drama. The post-millennial farming community has been invaded by Agribusiness forces at war with a posse of activists, the Seeds of Resistance,…

The Nix

By Nathan Hill,

Book cover of The Nix

Why this book?

At 640 pages, this exuberant saga takes an original approach toward the Sixties. The protagonist’s mother, Faye, got swept into the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago almost by accident, because it was part of the student scene. That’s only one of about six plotlines in this book, which focuses on Faye’s abandonment of her son, Samuel, when he was a boy; her arrest for throwing gravel at a right-wing presidential candidate decades later; and the paths propelling the potential mother-son reunion. I was captivated by the energy, richness, and plot twists of this novel, which somehow manages to keep all its balls spinning. (PS: The political protests aren’t what they seem.)  

The Nix

By Nathan Hill,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Winner of the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction
A New York Times 2016 Notable Book
Entertainment Weekly's #1 Book of the Year
A Washington Post 2016 Notable Book
A Slate Top Ten Book

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

“The Nix is a mother-son psychodrama with ghosts and politics, but it’s also a tragicomedy about anger and sanctimony in America. . . .  Nathan Hill is a maestro.” —John Irving 

From the suburban Midwest to New York City to the 1968 riots that rocked Chicago and beyond, The Nix explores—with sharp humor and a fierce tenderness—the resilience of love and home,…

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