The best books set in a rural area

3 authors have picked their favorite books about rural and why they recommend each book.

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Gap Creek

By Robert Morgan,

Book cover of Gap Creek: The Story of a Marriage

This depiction of a life of poverty in southern Appalachia around 1900 would be too sad to warrant its reading, were it not for its strong and sensitive narrator, Julie Harmon. The author describes the mundane details of butchering a hog or washing of a dead man’s feet within the context of the marriage of Hank and Julie, poor, uneducated, and perhaps mismatched young people who face one adversity after another. The details of ordinary life blossom into unexpected meaning in the interpretation of a sensitive narrator who not only cherishes details, but who is also exquisitely aware of her own feelings. She speaks in the straightforward language of an uneducated person rather than in the flowery prose of a voice attuned to expressing itself. Yet her presentation takes on the poetry of a clever woman gifted with a unique interiority.

Through Julie, the author renders nuanced feelings in a…


Who am I?

I have written all my life. This includes freelance writing as well as reporter jobs at small, weekly newspapers in the DC/VA area. I have also taught writing (creative and technical writing) to students as diverse as jail inmates, residents of homeless shelters, military officers at the Pentagon, CIA employees, and firefighters at Ronald Reagan National Airport. Both of my published novels are works of historical fiction set in my native Iceland: Seal Woman and Sigga of Reykjavik. These novels cover the time 1908 to 1955, a period when Iceland was a little-known island. I have always been drawn to novels about isolated, cold-weather places where unusual characters and mannerisms flourish. 


I wrote...

Seal Woman

By Solveig Eggerz,

Book cover of Seal Woman

What is my book about?

Set in rural Iceland in the 1940s and 50s, the novel is informed by the selkie legend. Charlotte, one of the German women who migrated to Iceland after WWII seeks work on an Icelandic farm at the invitation of the Icelandic Agricultural Association. A combination of historical and psychological fiction, the story is driven forward by several questions—Will Charlotte survive the past that haunts her? will she find her “misplaced,” half-Jewish daughter? will she remain faithful to the family she has established with an Icelandic farmer?

Charlotte faces the challenge of getting rooted in the everyday life of the farm. She must live in the here and now. For her and her farm family, it is a matter of survival.

Cold Mountain

By Charles Frazier,

Book cover of Cold Mountain

Frazier’s book, a serious novel rather than a potboiler, set during and after the American Civil War, nevertheless leaped onto the bestseller lists, then went on to win a National Book Award. Why? Reading the book is a profound experience. You are seamlessly taken back to the middle of the 19th century and engaged with characters whose poignant stories penetrate a reader’s heart. It’s both an adventure and a love story about a soldier on a fraught journey home and his lover’s story as she lives her own life close to the earth in a time before modern conveniences and distractions. The novel is a reminder that great fiction awakens our humanity because the author not only has great gifts and technique, but because he believes in the integrity of his own characters and embeds them in a world that matters. Made into an Oscar-winning film that is well…


Who am I?

I’m the author of ten books, including fiction, memoir, collected journalism, and criticism. My novels are historical fiction, hence my decision to make my recommendations within that genre, mostly. My own historical novels comprise a tetralogy beginning with The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin and ending with The Turner Erotica, so the series takes the reader roughly from 1648 to 1900. The second book chronologically in the series, Rebecca Wentworth’s Distraction, won the 2003 Langum Prize for historical fiction. Retired now, I was the founding director of the MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction at Southern New Hampshire University.


I wrote...

The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin

By Robert J. Begiebing,

Book cover of The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin

What is my book about?

The first novel of an historical tetralogy, Mistress Coffin is based on the unsolved, brutal murder of a strong woman in 17th century New England. The novel follows actual court records from 1640s New Hampshire Province (then under Massachusetts rule) where the case was tried and dropped by the woman’s husband for mysterious reasons. The settlement’s elders call on Richard Browne, a young Englishman, to discover what happened. But the more he learns, the more puzzling the crime becomes, and the more Browne finds himself attracted to the wife of the missing suspect.

Saigyo

By Burton Watson, Saigyo,

Book cover of Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home

Saigyo (1118-1190) was one of the most influential Japanese poets. His name means "Westward Journey" which implies moving toward the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha. The poems bring out the bitter-sweet quality of life, beauty and loneliness, blooming spring and frosty winter, cherry petals and tears that fall, echoing the deep emotionality and mystery of the spirit of Japanese Buddhism.


Who am I?

David Brazier ordained as a Buddhist priest in 1976, studied all the major schools of Buddhism, and eventually founded Amida Shu, a Pure Land order, of which he was head from 1996 until retiring in 2020. His close disciples now meet as “Global Sangha”. He holds a doctorate in Buddhist psychology, has initiated socially engaged projects in several countries, and still teaches internationally and online. He is the author of more than a dozen books and many chapters, monographs, and podcasts.

I wrote...

The Dark Side of the Mirror: Forgetting the Self in Dogen's Genjo Koan

By David Brazier,

Book cover of The Dark Side of the Mirror: Forgetting the Self in Dogen's Genjo Koan

What is my book about?

Genjo Koan is the most seminal and key writing of Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) who was the most important writer in the Zen tradition in Japan. There are a number of translations into English, but these are mostly by Zen specialists. This book reveals the coherence of Dogen's original vision in its spiritual and historical context and thus provides a doorway into the profundity and range of Japanese Buddhism.

Look Homeward, Angel

By Thomas Wolfe,

Book cover of Look Homeward, Angel

Another Southern cultural landmark, this North Carolina tour de force comes, like Faulkner, out of a tradition steeped in Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible. Some people think you can appreciate this one only when you’re young. Not true. I read it for the second time in my 40s and got caught up again in the Gant family saga and those wonderful, rolling sentences, exploding like thunder all around.


Who am I?

I grew up in North Carolina and Washington, D.C., and have since lived in Arkansas and Virginia. My two novels are historical, set in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Virginia and North Carolina, and are heavily influenced by the great Southern writers. My books feature family dramas, how the land interacts with characters, questions of fate and personal action, and the decisions that change people’s lives. I love Faulkner, but you’ll find him on every list. He influenced every writer who came later, but there are plenty of other heavy hitters to choose from. Here are a few favorites.


I wrote...

The Reservoir: A Novel

By John Milliken Thompson,

Book cover of The Reservoir: A Novel

What is my book about?

In 1885 in Richmond, Virginia a young pregnant woman is found floating in the city reservoir. It appears she has committed suicide, but there are curious clues at the scene that suggest foul play. The case attracts local attention, and an eccentric group of men collaborate to solve the crime. As the identity of the girl, Lillie, is revealed, her dark family history comes to light, and the investigation focuses on her tumultuous affair with Tommie Cluverius.

Tommie, an ambitious young lawyer, is the pride and joy of his family and the polar opposite of his brother Willie, a quiet, humble farmer. Though both men loved Lillie, it’s Tommie’s reckless affair that thrusts his family into the spotlight. Told through accumulating revelations, Tommie’s story finally ends in a riveting courtroom climax.

Prodigal Summer

By Barbara Kingsolver,

Book cover of Prodigal Summer

One of my all-time favorite books, Prodigal Summer is a compelling, gorgeous, and sometimes steamy story as well as a very thoughtful examination of our role as stewards of the land. Deanna Wolfe, a reclusive wildlife biologist, is studying a den of coyotes that have recently migrated into the Appalachian Mountains where she lives in an isolated cabin as a forest ranger. Her solitary life is disrupted by an intriguing and infuriating young hunter who invades her private spaces and her thoughts. I loved this book for the story and the characters. What I learned about coyotes and the importance of predators to the ecosystem, as well as about the American Chestnut, a fascinating tree lost to blight, stays with me and conveys deeper meaning about the natural world. 


Who am I?

I began as an activist in high school, knocking on doors to enlist support for clean water and air, and more recently, for my favorite candidates for local, state, and federal office. Some of my most meaningful work was as a lawyer and volunteer on land conservation deals for an agricultural land trust. Fiction has an amazing power to recharge us and to shift our perspectives to imagine the world differently. My favorite books are always ones that teach me something interesting. My recent activism has been motivated by my frustration with our political process, including the 2010 Supreme Court case of Citizens United declaring corporations to be “persons” under the law.


I wrote...

The Third Way

By Aimee Hoben,

Book cover of The Third Way

What is my book about?

After losing her college scholarship, Arden Firth—with the help of Justin Kirish, a law student with a mysterious past—becomes the reluctant leader of a movement to ban corporations. South Dakota Ballot Initiative 99 is Arden’s last hope to save her grandmother’s farm from foreclosure; but as the movement grows, shadowy forces conspire to quash it, and Arden sees “99” begin to spiral out of her control. Charting the intersection between idealism, extremism, and forgiveness, The Third Way is the story of a young woman struggling with her own demons while trying to articulate a vision that could change the world.

Winter's Bone

By Daniel Woodrell,

Book cover of Winter's Bone

For a taste of modern-day Southern Gothic, read this.

Set in the Ozarks, 17-year-old protagonist, Ree Dolly, takes up the mantle of caretaker and survival overseer for her family after her father disappears. Epic in its mix of family secrets, general despair, and societal ignorance, Winter’s Bone serves up humanity at its worst: the underbelly of the meth world in the forgotten parts of our country. And yet, the will to survive is strong in Ree. 

I can tell you from experience, this backwoods life still exists in places today.


Who am I?

I’ve lived in the South all my life. When I travel the world, I recognize a certain vision and way of life that is unique to the southern United States. The prose that springs from our shared history of societal tragedies, our deeply engrained family sagas, and from the very nature of our land itself—dripping with Spanish moss, humidity, and blood from the sins of our past—is rich, meaningful, and snatches at the soul. My goal in writing Southern Gothic is to transcend race, gender, and political affiliation in favor of eliciting a conviction of the heart toward a better future for all.


I wrote...

Winter's Reckoning: A Novel

By Adele Holmes,

Book cover of Winter's Reckoning: A Novel

What is my book about?

In 1917, herbalist Madeline Fairbanks is devoted to the people of a dying town in the Southern Appalachians. Renetta Morgan—with whom it is taboo to fraternize because of race—is her apprentice.

On a cold September wind, charismatic Carl Howard blows into town astraddle a stallion of near-mythic proportions. With no reason to doubt him, the town accepts him as their new pastor. But Carl casts a wider net, claiming power, leadership, and much more than he has a right to. Maddie does not bend the knee to Carl, but continues in her progressive ways—and in doing so, finds herself accused of witchcraft and targeted by the KKK.

God's Little Acre

By Erskine Caldwell,

Book cover of God's Little Acre

Erskine Caldwell is deeply underrated; for my money, he’s one of the best southern gothic writers in the genre. Perhaps it’s down to the risque nature of his books and characters, which were especially provocative (and in some cases, downright despicable) for the time period. However, beyond the depravity there is a real beating heart in his books that perfectly capture the desperation and grief of depression-era Georgia. 


Who am I?

I am the author of three novels (with two more set to release next year); Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree; The Dead Rockstar Trilogy; and I'm happiest when straddling literary genres. I have published works of historical fiction, as well as southern gothic, horror, speculative fiction, dark fantasy, and literary fiction. My debut, Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree was nominated for Georgia Author of the Year in 2020. In addition to writing, I am a genealogist and recently went back to school to obtain my history degree. My love of writing, history, and family all intersect to inform my writing and I always set my characters in good old Georgia.


I wrote...

Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree

By Lillah Lawson,

Book cover of Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree

What is my book about?

It is Indian summer, 1929, and O.T. Lawrence is about as content as a cotton farmer can be in Five Forks, Georgia—nothing, not poverty, drought, or even the boll weevil can spoil the idyllic family life he shares with his doting wife and children, and his beloved twin brother Walt. Until illness and Black Tuesday take everything O.T. ever held dear in one fell swoop. Grieving, drinking, and careening towards homelessness, O.T. is on the brink of ending it all when he receives an odd letter from a teenage acquaintance, the enigmatic Sivvy Hargrove, who is locked away in Milledgeville’s asylum for the insane. Traveling through desperate antebellum towns, O.T. and his daughter Ginny are determined to find Sivvy and discover her story. 

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

By Stephen King,

Book cover of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

Once again, King proves he is the king by thrusting a nine-year-old girl into the harsh Appalachian Mountains and leaving her to fight for her own survival. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon follows Trisha, a spunky kid who loses her way while hiking with her mom and brother. To stay alive, she must conserve what little food she has and maintains her sanity by listening to her Walkman and following baseball news about her favorite player, Tom Gordon. But little does she realize that something fierce and hungry is following her every step. As an avid hiker, I understand the harsh realities of getting lost in unfamiliar terrain—it’s [bleeping] terrifying. One of Stephen King’s best!


Who am I?

This topic is very close to my heart, as a lot of my readers know me as “the landscape guy.” My two award-winning mystery thrillers (and the serial killer thriller I'm currently writing) feature chillingly explosive landscapes (the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Gates of the Arctic, and the Rocky Mountains). Readers and reviewers have mentioned time and again how I utilize landscape as a character in its own right, and I have very much been influenced by other authors who do the same. There is so much opportunity in these remote and high-altitude landscapes to propel the dread and isolation for these types of stories.


I wrote...

Three Houses on a Hill

By Nicholas Holloway,

Book cover of Three Houses on a Hill

What is my book about?

Three Houses on a Hill follows Lazalier Brady, an ex-firefighter on the verge of homelessness who must provide for his cancer-stricken toddler by accepting a groundskeeper position in the wild and frozen interior of Alaska. By day, he tends to the grounds and structure of the Dilbrook Mansion. By night, he sits huddled in his Cabin, haunted by the secrets of an eerie Shack perched on the western ridge of Horseshoe Hill. When Laz stumbles upon a charred corpse in the woods, he unearths a web of murderous secrets kept hidden by the mysterious Dilbrooks, and suddenly finds himself in the deadly center of it all.

My Side of the Mountain

By Jean Craighead George,

Book cover of My Side of the Mountain

This classic story of a boy running away to the Catskill Mountains and surviving on his own in the wilderness has stayed in my mind for years. Camping in the mountains of California with my comfortable sleeping bag and tent is so much different than reading about Sam Gribley, who brings only his knife, flint, and steel to light fires, some rope, and his ingenuity. Sam bonds with a falcon who helps him survive the harsh winter, which he spends living in a hollowed out log. 


Who am I?

I grew up playing in nature: body surfing the waves in Southern California, backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, swimming in rivers. For the past thirty years, I’ve lived in the redwoods of Northern California. Spending so much time in the peace and beauty of nature has filled me with joy and deep respect for the incredibly interconnectedness of living ecosystems. I’ve also had a lifelong passion for reading, especially fairy tales, fables and fantasies. Combining nature and fantasy in my writing allows me to explore ideas and inspirations about how we can live in harmony on our one beautiful planet.


I wrote...

Wind

By Ellen Dee Davidson,

Book cover of Wind

What is my book about?

Thrust by an earthquake into a world where trees are wise helpers, animals can guide us to safety, stories are gathered by the guardian of the deep sea, and greed becomes a place where everything turns to poison, Katie must learn to get along with an annoying alien boy, Za, in order to return home. But as Katie’s experiences test her environmental awareness, will she ever be able to develop her gifts of listening and communicating with the non-human realm? Will she and Za ever figure out the secret to finding the elusive Winged Ones – the only beings capable of taking them home?

The Taking

By Dean Koontz,

Book cover of The Taking

I highly recommend The Taking because it continues to haunt me with existential terror—I have never been as frightened by a horror novel in my life. The struggles of a young couple in the face of an apparent alien invasion are frightening enough, but the imagery is overwhelmingly frightening and powerful. When the reveal comes at the end, the surprise was almost too scary to bear, since it concerns entities in which I truly believe. This book lingers with me… and lingers…. and lingers….


Who am I?

I was a fraternal twin, and my brother died about two hours after birth from a bilateral pulmonary hemorrhage. Knowing this as a child, I became fascinated with death, thinking of it as annihilation. Later, I feared my religion (Christianity) might be false and I would be annihilated at death. Thus I became fascinated by all things philosophical and theological, including theological horror. The works I like most center on themes of the truth of religion and life after death while avoiding preachiness and the trap of telling rather than showing.


I wrote...

Unpardonable Sin

By Michael Potts,

Book cover of Unpardonable Sin

What is my book about?

A teenage boy is terrorized by a being pretending to be a demon, but who is really a being of cosmic horror from outer space who came to earth millions of years ago. This entity seeks to torment the boy using the boy’s own dark desires to drive him into despair and suicide. The entity has succeeded in the past, but this boy tries to fight back.

With the help of his friends, an old man, and a mysterious manuscript, the boy must find a way to stop the entity from tormenting him before it is too late.

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