The best books about West Virginia

11 authors have picked their favorite books about West Virginia and why they recommend each book.

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Colored People

By Henry Louis Gates,

Book cover of Colored People: A Memoir

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a renowned Harvard professor and author of a series of deeply insightful books on African American history. He has also become one of the most recognizable public figures in the nation, from the PBS series Finding Your Roots and Reconstruction to a cameo in Watchmen in which he played the United States Treasury Secretary. It can be easy to forget that “Skip” Gates was raised in the hills of West Virginia, part of a tight-knit, quirky, distinctly African American community. In Gates’ affectionate memoir detailing his growing up, a series of fascinating characters leap from the page—some Churchgoing, some anything but; some strait-laced; some definitely not; some ambitious, some content to do as little as possible to get by.  Everyone we meet in Colored People is both recognizable and a revelation, and Gates has created a moving and nostalgic look at African American culture that…


Who am I?

When I was eight, my mother was called in to see the principal…yet again. He pulled me out of class, stood me in the hall for maximum intimidation value, then said to my mom, “Your son has no respect for authority.” Mom asked, “What about that, Larry?” My reply—and this is totally true—was, “He doesn’t mean respect. He means courtesy. You can demand courtesy, but you have to earn respect.” Those sentiments have not changed, which is why, I suppose, I have an extremely critical eye for history, especially American history, that deifies the winners. I don’t think we make ourselves stronger as a nation by pretending our leaders were somehow not as human in their flaws as the rest of us.  I prefer to look under what is called “conventional wisdom,” because that’s where the real story often lies.


I wrote...

On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights

By Lawrence Goldstone,

Book cover of On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights

What is my book about?

On Account of Race details how white supremacists in the post-Civil War South succeeded in undoing all the advances of Reconstruction, reclaiming total political power, and establishing a Jim Crow society, slavery in all but name. None of this could have succeeded unless voting rights for African Americans, guaranteed by two Constitutional amendments, could be denied. And so they were, with the full approval and even sponsorship of the Supreme Court.

On Account of Race, winner of the 2021 Lillian Smith Book Award, tells the story of an American tragedy, the only occasion in United States history—to date—in which a group of citizens who had been granted the right to vote then had it stripped away. We as a nation will be forced to decide whether we are willing to have it happen again.

Shiloh

By Phyllis Reynolds Naylor,

Book cover of Shiloh

Naylor won the coveted Newbery Award for Shiloh, for good reason. The story is heartwarming, beautifully written, and timeless. When 11-year-old Marty finds a young, starving beagle near his home in the West Virginia mountains, he is faced with a moral dilemma: keep a dog who is not his or return the dog to an abusive home. One of the many reasons I love this book is Naylor does an excellent job of creating characters that are multidimensional and so very relatable. Even the “bad guy!” This is the first in a series of three books about Marty and Shiloh. Give this book to your tenderhearted, reluctant reader.


Who am I?

From the time I was a small, shy child, books and dogs were my best friends. I loved nothing better than reading books about dogs in the company of my dog. I decided that when I grew up, I wanted to be an author. My love of books led to a career as a librarian that lasted over thirty years. Still, I never gave up on my dream of becoming an author. Since then, I have written seven novels for young readers including A Dog’s Way Home, The Dogs of Winter, and my latest award-winning novel, Stay. When I’m not writing, I can be found hiking with my dogs in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


I wrote...

Stay

By Bobbie Pyron,

Book cover of Stay

What is my book about?

Piper's life is turned upside down when her family loses their home and has to move into a family shelter in a new city. She misses what she had before, and hates being labeled "homeless" at her new school. Baby, a little terrier mix, lives in a park with his person, Jewel. Baby loves his life on the streets with Jewel because they are never apart. That is, until Jewel gets sick. When Baby and Jewel are separated, Piper and her friends are determined to not only reunite the two but find them a safe forever home.

"Timely, important, and truly beautiful." —Katherine Applegate, Newbery Award-winning author of The One and Only Ivan

Sarah

By Laura Albert aka JT LeRoy,

Book cover of Sarah

Sarah by Laura Albert aka JT LeRoy captivated my attention right from the start. The story crackles with originality even years after its release. The writing is so vivid that it engulfs the reader in the story. The characters are three dimensional, and the tale being told in the first person and present tense makes you empathize more with the main character. Having gone through a difficult upbringing, the story of Cherry Vanilla and their quest to find love and acceptance spoke to me. This is a title I would highly recommend, not only for the merit of the writing but also because its message continues to resonate to this day. Also check out the audiobook of Sarah, read splendidly by Winsome Brown.


Who am I?

As with many people, my life has been full of twists and turns. I know what it means to be an outsider and to be cast aside as though my voice and presence doesn’t matter. But, with grit and determination, I battled systemic racism head-on, and with my good L.U.C.K (labor under correct knowledge), encouragement, and faith, I am thriving in an environment that was designed to be non-inclusive for People of Color. Currently, I am the only Black female professor in the 94-year history in the college where I am employed.


I wrote...

Resilience: Bravery in the Face of Racism, Corruption, and Privilege in the halls of Academia

By Marilyn K. Easter,

Book cover of Resilience: Bravery in the Face of Racism, Corruption, and Privilege in the halls of Academia

What is my book about?

Emma shines a light on the discriminatory practices deeply embedded in this country’s education system. She is bright, eager to learn and willing to work hard. But racial rebuffs from teachers and colleagues present her with a tidal wave of deterrents. This book takes readers through Emma’s past in a way that clearly lays out the obstacles young African American girls confront in a highly encoded education system—and it reveals the successful strategies Emma develops to surmount them. It also points out that these hurdles shouldn’t exist and brings hope that those who follow in Emma’s footsteps and learn from her can build on her experiences and change that system. 

Missing May

By Cynthia Rylant,

Book cover of Missing May

My all-time favorite middle-grade novel about grief. The recipient of the 1993 Newbery Medal, Missing May holds up for today’s readers. No matter how many times I read this beautiful little book, I sob at certain points in the story. Rylant takes the reader through every stage of grief, and the emotions are relatable to those of all ages. Whirligigs, gardens, and grief...they blend together gorgeously in this sparse and poetic novel. As someone who’s always looking for a sign after someone I love dies, I related with Rylant’s protagonist Summer and her desperate search for a sign from May.


Who am I?

I have passion for the topic of grief among middle-school-aged children, as I struggled with my grief when I was ten and my beloved grandmother died. My dad came from a very large family, and so other relatives passed during my childhood, with me always dealing with feelings of confusion after the loss. I think that children need to know that they are not alone when they are facing a loss, whether it be of a human or a pet.


I wrote...

One Amazing Elephant

By Linda Oatman High,

Book cover of One Amazing Elephant

What is my book about?

A poignant middle-grade animal story from talented author Linda Oatman High that will appeal to fans of Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. In this heartwarming novel, a girl and an elephant face the same devastating loss—and slowly realize that they share the same powerful love.

Twelve-year-old Lily Pruitt loves her grandparents, but she doesn’t love the circus—and the circus is their life. She’s perfectly happy to stay with her father, away from her neglectful mother and her grandfather’s beloved elephant, Queenie Grace. Then Grandpa Bill dies, and both Lily and Queenie Grace are devastated. When Lily travels to Florida for the funeral, she keeps her distance from the elephant. But the two are mourning the same man—and form a bond born of loss. And when Queenie Grace faces danger, Lily must come up with a plan to help save her friend.

Lord of Misrule

By Jaimy Gordon,

Book cover of Lord of Misrule

Jaimy Gordon has written a beautiful, unforgettable novel that takes place at a run-down racecourse in West Virginia, where a has-been trainer forms a get-rich-quick plan with used-up racehorses. The story of Lord of Misrule, the legendary stakes winner, brings us into the heart of it, where everybody’s searching for something, everything has a price and what’s truly valuable is right in front of your nose.


Who am I?

I saw my first horse before I could walk or talk – a humble mare with flies in her eyes and a feed basket tied to her nose. I was drawn to her with a magnetic force, and that attraction to horses never diminished. Over the years I’ve presided over their birth, raised them, and conditioned them to various disciplines. When it exists, the bond between horse and human is undeniable. In my novels—through family disfunction, hardship, adventure, and mystery – I explore how this connection gives young people confidence and the courage to overcome any obstacles.  


I wrote...

Jockey Girl

By Shelley Peterson,

Book cover of Jockey Girl

What is my book about?

Estranged from her classmates and unwanted at home, Evangeline Gibb feels alone in the world except for No Justice, a talented but difficult racehorse. All her life she’s believed that her mother is dead, but on her sixteenth birthday, a message from her Aunt turns her world upside down. To win enough money to find her mother and leave her father for good, Evie secretly enters No Justice in the Caledon Horse Race under the alias, Kazzam.

With help from Aunt Mary and a stray dog named Magpie, Evie unearths long-hidden family secrets, enters the underground world of drug addiction, defies her father, finds unexpected love, and takes the racing world by storm with single-minded determination.

Machine Dreams

By Jayne Anne Phillips,

Book cover of Machine Dreams

Machine Dreams is a wrenching novel that chronicles an American family through decades of reflection and turbulence, culminating in the shattering ramifications of the Vietnam War. For those of us who learned to refract the U.S. through the prism of that savagery, which left millions of Vietnamese dead and vast stretches of their country burned and poisoned, Machine Dreams was a novel that radiated the heartsickness of that era on the home front. American families were, indeed, torn apart by that war, but the weaknesses of those bonds had abiding roots. I was weeping by the time I finished this novel but hasten to add that I have no regrets about the experience, only gratitude. 


Who am I?

I read a lot of literary fiction. At the moment, I’m finishing To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, which I’ve enjoyed and whose novel, A Little Life, was brilliant. My interest in thriller fiction is sparked by writers who bring their considerable literary talents to their trade. John LeCarré comes to mind. Writers who sacrifice depth of character or concern for place quickly lose my interest. Thankfully, there are many thriller writers who do a superb job of keeping my wandering nature in check. (A quick note: I also write dystopian fiction under my pen name James Jaros.)


I wrote...

Burn Down the Sky

By James Jaros,

Book cover of Burn Down the Sky

What is my book about?

When well-armed marauders roll in at dusk to brutally attack a fiercely defended compound of climate-crisis survivors, Jessie is unable to halt the slaughter—and she can do nothing to prevent the ruthless abduction of innocents, including her youngest child. Now, along with her outraged teenage daughter, Bliss, Jessie must set out on a journey across a blasted landscape—joining up with the desperate, the broken, the half-mad, on an impossible mission to storm the fortress of a dark and twisted religion and bring the children home. Though published ten years ago, the climate emergency has only heightened the book’s relevance and resonance.

Everything in Its Path

By Kai T. Erikson,

Book cover of Everything in Its Path

This classic award-winning book is a must-read for anyone interested in traumatic events. Sociologist Kai Erikson was the first to equate a major disaster with individual and community upheaval, based on the 1976 Buffalo Creek dam flood. He details how this event traumatized individuals and caused a breakdown of community relationships and a rise in crime, unethical behavior, and major out-migration. Many of the emotional and social effects of disasters had not been discussed or treated when this book was written. Much has been learned since. However, Erikson stresses that many of the psychological and sociological problems continue to exist when calamities occur today and must be resolved. 


Who am I?

Sometimes you need to search for the next roads to take in your life; other times these roads approach you. I was looking for new ways to use my long-term communication and mental health advocacy skills and then, sadly, the Sandy Hook shooting occurred. I immediately wanted to help community members ease their pain and assist cities nationwide to greatly improve their disaster mental health response. I never expected a pandemic would arrive only two months after I published, making my book all the more important. Now climate change is exacerbating our already stressful times, and we must act to stem mental health issues before they become out of hand.  


I wrote...

Disaster Mental Health Community Planning: A Manual for Trauma-Informed Collaboration

By Robert W. Schmidt, Sharon L. Cohen,

Book cover of Disaster Mental Health Community Planning: A Manual for Trauma-Informed Collaboration

What is my book about?

In 2012, tragedy hit my Newtown, Connecticut community with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. We weren’t prepared for this traumatic event’s long-term emotional impact. Many still suffer. Newtown isn’t alone. Most communities have a plan for “medical” emergency response but not for “mental health” disaster response. About 25% of those impacted, especially the most vulnerable, will suffer PTSD within six weeks if not receiving trauma-informed care. The trauma ripple moves from survivors, to first responders, and the entire community and causes depression, anxiety, relationship discord, substance abuse, and suicide. Traumatic events include violence, natural disasters, pandemics, climate change, and societal instability—all facing us today. This book’s roadmap details the ways communities can help individuals emotionally prepare for and respond to traumatic events.    

Call It Horses

By Jessie van Eerden,

Book cover of Call It Horses

I loved reading this novel first and foremost for its exquisite craftswomanship; van Eerden just writes beautiful sentences. Her descriptions are palpable, delivering the reader to a hollow and its people—all characters who remain intricately bound to their homeplaces no matter how far away they travel. Like my own novel, this story revolves around women and also includes an LGBTQ character. And themes of grieving and motherhood, love and loss, and compromise, are naturally woven into the fabric of the story. 


Who am I?

I live in the southern Appalachians, a place that boasts some of the most beautiful views on earth and laments some of the most ravaged landscapes. As a fiction writer who is passionate about nature and human rights, I’ve taken up my pen to craft a novel with regular people at its heart, all living regular lives that are disrupted by tragedies all too common to the region. This is the general throughline in the books I am recommending, although the themes differ. I’ve offered a variety of genres, as well, which best reflects my own bookshelf at my home in the hills. 


I wrote...

In Circling Flight

By Jane Harrington,

Book cover of In Circling Flight

What is my book about?

In this contemporary novel set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southern Appalachia, the lives of two young women are knit together when one is left alone on a farm after the sudden loss of her partner and the other is displaced by mountaintop removal coal mining. An embedded historical plot line follows the exodus of ancestors from Ireland during the Great Hunger to their settling in the Blue Ridge, a tale of oppression and migration that mirrors the current circumstances. In Circling Flight is as much a story of love and loss of the human kind as it is a treatise to the elemental relationship between people and their land.

June Bug

By Chris Fabry,

Book cover of June Bug

I can just imagine Chris Fabry saying, “Hey, let’s set a retelling of Les Miserable in West Virginia!” Which is exactly what he does in June Bug, resulting in a story that’s just as wonderful and heart-rending as its inspiration. June Bug is traveling the country with her father in an RV. Then, one day, she sees her own face on a poster for missing children. What if her father isn’t her father? Well worth picking up a copy to find out!


Who am I?

I’m a seventh-generation West Virginian. My husband and I own the farm that’s been in my family since before the Civil War. My Appalachian roots are sunk deep, so when it comes to “writing what you know,” this is it! I was baptized in stories by my father who transformed my ancestors and my history into a living, breathing cast of characters I longed to meet. So, I began to write their stories in the guise of novels about made-up people. My seven novels (and two novellas) are love letters to the place that shaped me. 


I wrote...

The Finder of Forgotten Things

By Sarah Loudin Thomas,

Book cover of The Finder of Forgotten Things

What is my book about?

"In a hardscrabble 1930s setting, complex characters wrestle with justice, mercy, inequality, honesty, and the fact that they are all prodigals still searching for the way home. Loudin Thomas delivers a stunning tale of one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history, underlined with a moral imperative to love one's neighbor that still hits home today." -Library Journal

"Loudin Thomas introduces a multifaceted cast desperately trying to survive the Great Depression in 1930s West Virginia, in this strong historical... The small-town plot's set against the real-life Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster... giving Loudin Thomas impetus to underline the impact of acts of caring in a community." - Publishers Weekly

Dirt

By Mary Marantz,

Book cover of Dirt: Growing Strong Roots in What Makes the Broken Beautiful

Mary and I both grew up in West Virginia. And while her family life was rougher than mine, I recognize so many of the characters she writes about in her bittersweet memoir. This is Mary's story of trying to move past poverty, shame, and those doggone hillbilly stereotypes to discover who she really is. And in doing so, she reminds us all of who we are too—broken people trying to get the dirt out from under our fingernails before anyone sees. If you've ever struggled to embrace your roots, this is the book for you!

Who am I?

I’m a seventh-generation West Virginian. My husband and I own the farm that’s been in my family since before the Civil War. My Appalachian roots are sunk deep, so when it comes to “writing what you know,” this is it! I was baptized in stories by my father who transformed my ancestors and my history into a living, breathing cast of characters I longed to meet. So, I began to write their stories in the guise of novels about made-up people. My seven novels (and two novellas) are love letters to the place that shaped me. 


I wrote...

The Finder of Forgotten Things

By Sarah Loudin Thomas,

Book cover of The Finder of Forgotten Things

What is my book about?

"In a hardscrabble 1930s setting, complex characters wrestle with justice, mercy, inequality, honesty, and the fact that they are all prodigals still searching for the way home. Loudin Thomas delivers a stunning tale of one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history, underlined with a moral imperative to love one's neighbor that still hits home today." -Library Journal

"Loudin Thomas introduces a multifaceted cast desperately trying to survive the Great Depression in 1930s West Virginia, in this strong historical... The small-town plot's set against the real-life Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster... giving Loudin Thomas impetus to underline the impact of acts of caring in a community." - Publishers Weekly

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