The best books from small-town America

Who am I?

I’m the author of the Pulitzer Prize Finalist novel, The Bright Forever, among other books, and I teach in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Ohio State University. I was born in southeastern Illinois, where my father farmed eighty acres in Lawrence County’s Lukin Township. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of ordinary people, particularly working-class folks in small towns and rural communities. I admire their dignity, their directness, and their big hearts. I’ve spent my life writing about them with help from writers like the ones whose books I’m recommending. I want to speak for those whose voices often get overlooked or silenced.

I wrote...

Yours, Jean

By Lee Martin,

Book cover of Yours, Jean

What is my book about?

Yours, Jean portrays the events of September 3, 1952, when one man’s actions reverberate through a number of families in the small towns of Vincennes, Indiana, and Lawrenceville, Illinois. Jean De Belle, the new librarian, is eager to begin the next phase of her young life after breaking off her engagement with her fiancé, Charlie Camplain. She has no way of knowing that in a few hours, Charlie will arrive at the school, intent on convincing her to take back his ring. What happens next will challenge the bonds within the families whose lives intersect with them on that fateful day. Yours, Jean is a novel about small-town manners and the loneliness and the desire for connection that drive people to do things they never could have imagined. 

The books I picked & why

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Winesburg, Ohio

By Sherwood Anderson,

Book cover of Winesburg, Ohio

Why this book?

Yes, even at the turn of the Twentieth Century, there were all sorts of goings-on taking place in Clyde, Ohio. As an aspiring writer in my own small town of Illinois, I love following this story of George Willard and the lives of the townspeople he records. I particularly admire the sharp insights into rural people and into the loneliness common to those who are meant to live their lives alone.

Our Souls at Night

By Kent Haruf,

Book cover of Our Souls at Night

Why this book?

Who can resist this tender love story of the widow, Addie Moore, and the widower, Louis Waters? This is the book Kent Haruf promised his wife he’d complete before he died, and now we have the gift of his sharp insights into the nature of love in our later years along with his crystalline prose. I’m a romantic at heart, and this book reinforced my faith in the power of love. The humanity and the dignity of these characters will stay with you forever, not to mention the gentle humor that comes from two senior citizens trying to make their late-in-life relationship work.


By Marilynne Robinson,

Book cover of Gilead

Why this book?

A father writes a letter to his son in this moving book. The father, Reverend John Ames, is at the end of his life. He speaks hard-earned wisdom as he contemplates the nature of faith, the complicated relationships between fathers and sons, and the life he has long loved. Part hymn and part lamentation, this book appeals to me because of my difficult relationship with my father as well as my struggles with faith.

So Long, See You Tomorrow

By William Maxwell,

Book cover of So Long, See You Tomorrow

Why this book?

I love this book for its depiction of 1920s rural Illinois and its beautiful writing. My father was a boy during the 1920s, and this story of two friends, their friendship tested by a murder, connects with what I imagine my father’s boyhood to have been like and gives me insight into what he kept guarded throughout his life. Maxwell’s narrator reconstructs the facts of the murder in a way that keeps me on the edge of my seat in this story of youth and loss. 

Shiloh and Other Stories

By Bobbie Ann Mason,

Book cover of Shiloh and Other Stories

Why this book?

This short story collection was a very influential book for me because it gave me permission to write about the people I know best. Bobbie Ann Mason’s Western Kentucky characters live just beyond the river from my native Illinois. In fact, my family came from Kentucky by way of Ohio. The characters in Shiloh are just as complicated as characters from urban areas. This book taught me how to write about my own small-town and rural folks.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Ohio, Colorado, and Kentucky?

5,809 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Ohio, Colorado, and Kentucky.

Ohio Explore 41 books about Ohio
Colorado Explore 40 books about Colorado
Kentucky Explore 34 books about Kentucky

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Olive Kitteridge, This Heavy Silence, and A Man Called Ove if you like this list.