The best novels that are stealth environmental histories

Julie Cohn Author Of The Grid: Biography of an American Technology
By Julie Cohn

The Books I Picked & Why

Death Comes for the Archbishop

By Willa Cather

Book cover of Death Comes for the Archbishop

Why this book?

Every book by Willa Cather is worth a read for her beautiful evocation of places, times, and people. Death Comes for the Archbishop is a fictionalized biography of two Roman Catholic priests dispatched to New Mexico in the 1850s to serve the newly established diocese in this newly annexed region of the United States. The heart of the story is the way in which each of the men evolve and adapt to a world utterly unlike the European urban centers they have left behind. In Cather’s hands, the landscape quickly becomes a third principal character. I was struck by how effectively she portrayed change in the natural world, as generations of humans made their livings across the region; and how the deserts and mesas persisted, despite the encroachments of a modernizing America.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God

By Zora Neale Hurston

Book cover of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Why this book?

Hurston’s riveting book explores the extraordinary experiences of a Black woman living in the 1930s rural south. With vernacular language, compelling characters, and lively dialogue, Hurston’s protagonist, Janie, tells her story of love and tragedy. Every episode is embroidered with the vegetation, humidity, waterways, and soil of central and northern Florida. The land-based work of former slaves forms the spine of the story, and a hurricane triggers the culminating crisis of Janie’s life. Through this work of fiction, one grasps essential themes of environmental history: human labor intertwined with the land, altered ecosystems, gendered experiences of nature, and the tight link between natural disasters and social inequities. 

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Angle of Repose

By Wallace Stegner

Book cover of Angle of Repose

Why this book?

An “angle of repose” is the steepest angle at which loose material, such as sand, can be piled without slumping. Stegner chose an explicit term of geology and soils science as the metaphor for this love story. His protagonists, a restless miner and his Yankee wife, dwell in the mountains of California, Colorado, and Mexico as they build, betray, and somehow sustain their marriage. Stegner evokes the voracious appetite of the mining companies, the destruction caused by mining operations, the challenges of living on mountain edges, and the sharp beauty of western North America, all central themes of environmental history.

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The Lady in the Lake

By Raymond Chandler

Book cover of The Lady in the Lake

Why this book?

What is more fun than reading a gritty noir detective story set in Los Angeles in the mid-twentieth century? Chandler’s book takes the reader in and around the City of Angels in 1942, as the film industry booms, the suburbs expand, the air grows polluted, and nearby mountains beckon. Yet the titular lake sits behind a federal dam, protected by US Army patrols, as World War II encroaches. While following Chandler’s characters as they enacted their tale of murders, sordid affairs, and dirty money, I was struck by the environmental story unfolding. Urban sprawl, networked infrastructure, reconstructed waterways, and diminishing opportunities to commune with nature – these are core issues of the 20th-century transformation of the US landscape.

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Lot: Stories

By Bryan Washington

Book cover of Lot: Stories

Why this book?

As a longtime resident of Houston, of course, I must include a book about this unusual place! Washington’s characters lead difficult lives, his narrative is tough, and sometimes his geographical references are misleading. Nonetheless, each episode (which unfolds on a particular lot or spot in Houston) captures the experience of living in the Bayou City – the traffic, the summer weather, the slow-moving waterways, the unruly weed patches, the architecture, the neatly maintained neighborhoods, and the mix of cultures from around the world. Houston was transformed from prairie, swamp, and piney woods to a landscaped metropolis by wildcatters, entrepreneurs, scientists, workers, creatives, and others. Washington’s stories evoke this dynamic human/environment connection throughout. 

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