Words to Live By

25 political novels for summer reading

Image: John Harding

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Five years ago Mother Jones asked Arthur I. Blaustein, who teaches social policy, politics, and planning at the University of California at Berkeley, to recommend a few good novels to help us recover from what he called the “quadrennial carnival” of a presidential election year (“Political Primers,” May/June 1993). Now, facing what promises to be a long, hot summer of scandal, we asked him to reprise and expand that list.

As William Faulkner said, the best literature is far more true than any journalism. Whether explicitly political, a good read, or both, great novels offer genuine hope for learning how to handle our daily personal problems in a more ethical and humane way.

The following authors have been selected because of their moral intelligence; though they vary widely in style, background, and era, they all use compelling stories to examine the everyday realities underlying the American ideals of freedom, justice, and equality. By giving names and personalities to abstract issues, these novels explore the uncertainties of political, social, and economic change, and remind us of our commitment to the democratic covenant—that what unites people to form a national character is not color or gender or religion, but conscience.

These 25 books offer an alternative to terminal consumerism and empty escapism. If read widely, they could do wonders for our social vision and moral sensibility by introducing us to fictional—yet ordinary—people who struggle to achieve genuine individuality and human connection. Not exactly light beach reading, but it’s worth it.

Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina (Dutton). The story of Bone, a young girl caught up in family violence and incest in rural South Carolina.

Russell Banks, Continental Drift (HarperCollins). A frost-belt family migrates to the impoverished fringes of Florida’s coast, where their lives become intertwined with those of Haitian refugees.

Charles Baxter, Shadow Play (Penguin). Wyatt Palmer, the assistant city manager of a small economically depressed town in Michigan, sees his life fall apart when the chemical plant he lured to town turns out to be a cancer-causing environmental disaster.

Wendell Berry, The Memory of Old Jack (Harvest). Jack Beechum, a solitary Kentucky farmer, finds strength in his enduring relationship with his land.

Robert Crichton, The Secret of Santa Vittoria (Carroll & Graf). Near the end of World War II, a bumbling wino becomes mayor of a small town in Italy and organizes the community to hide its wine from the German army.

E.L. Doctorow, The Book of Daniel (Modern Library). In this fictionalized account of the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted in the ’50s of spying for the Russians and executed, Doctorow looks at the Cold War, the arms race, and McCarthyism through the eyes of his characters’ son, Daniel.

Gretel Ehrlich, Heart Mountain (Penguin). An examination of political exile through the story of Japanese Americans forced into a Wyoming relocation camp during World War II.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (Modern Library). The classic tale of a young black man’s social invisibility in, and eventual rejection of, the white world.

Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine (Henry Holt). A chronicle of several generations of two Native American families in North Dakota, examining life both on and off the reservation.

Denise Giardina, The Unquiet Earth (W.W. Norton). From the Depression to the War on Poverty to the Reagan era, an Appalachian mining community struggles to survive as mines close and labor unions falter.

Ernest Hebert, The Dogs of March (Ultramarine). A blue-collar New England family watches the American Dream go belly-up after a local manufacturing plant closes.

Ursula Hegi, Stones From the River (Scribner Paperback Fiction). Both an insider and an outsider in her community, a German dwarf reveals the ordinary and secret lives of her local townspeople, exploring how their actions—and apathy—shaped their fates during the Holocaust.

Linda Hogan, Mean Spirit (Ivy). Members of a relocated Osage Indian tribe are robbed of their wealth after oil is discovered on their land.

John Irving, The Cider House Rules (Ballantine). The story of Dr. Wilbur Larch, a physician whose experience as the director of an orphanage in Maine leads him to perform illegal abortions, and his adoptive son and apprentice Homer Wells.

William Kennedy, Ironweed (Penguin). The story of Francis Phelan’s life “on the bum” in Depression-era Albany, New York, documents the lives of the homeless.

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams (HarperCollins). Codi Noline attempts to find love and a sense of place when she returns to her small Arizona hometown and finds the water polluted by an old copper mine.

Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (Bantam). Four people grapple with questions of race, class, and gender in a small Georgia mill town by confiding their secrets to a deaf and mute man.

Toni Morrison, Beloved (Knopf). The psychological legacy of slavery is revealed in this ghost story set in post-Civil War Ohio, when a former slave is haunted by memories of rape, murder, and her child, Beloved.

John Nichols, The Milagro Beanfield War (Ballantine). Joe Mondragon starts a cross-cultural turf war over water rights between the Chicano community and high-powered New Mexico developers when he diverts a little water to his parched bean field.

Marge Piercy, Gone to Soldiers (Fawcett). A sweeping epic of women’s lives on the home front during World War II.

Chaim Potok, Davita’s Harp (Knopf). A coming-of-age novel about a young Jewish girl developing a social, moral, and political consciousness during the 1930s and ’40s.

E. Annie Proulx, Accordion Crimes (Simon & Schuster). A series of stories detailing the lives and immigrant experiences of the successive owners of an accordion.

Jane Smiley, Moo (Random House). The financial, academic, sexual, and political scandals of a Midwestern university are laid bare in this satire of higher education.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird (Dell). The story of Walter F. Starbuck, a fictional Watergate co-conspirator, offers unflinching commentary on power, politics, and Nixon’s social policies of “benign neglect.”

Alice Walker, Meridian (Pocket Books). An African American civil rights activist works to heal herself and those around her as she travels the South registering black voters in the 1960s and early ’70s.

Arthur I. Blaustein is the author of The American Promise—Equal Justice and Economic Opportunity. In 1997, President Clinton appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities.


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