Books of Fiction and Nonfiction That Bring the Civil Rights Movement Alive

The Civil Rights Movement spanned decades, and resulted in some of the most society-defining legislature of the past century. Because of the work that activists, lawmakers, and citizens alike put into the Civil Rights Movement, the U.S. made great strides in becoming a more equal, fair place to live, for people of all races. In 2018, it’s important to remember the work that’s been done as we evaluate the work we have left to do. On the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which provided equal housing opportunities to all citizens, regardless of race, religion, or national origin, we asked author Elaine Neil Orr to recommend a few books that bring the Civil Rights Movement alive for readers via both fiction and nonfiction. Read on for the books she recommends, and leave us further recommended reading in the comments.


The cover of the book Why We Can't WaitWhy We Can’t Wait

Martin Luther King

The seed of this book is King’s essay, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which King famously observed that members of the KKK aren’t the greatest threat to the Negro’s call for justice but moderate white Americans, who urge “the Negro” to bide his time.

To the question: how can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others, King responds: “The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’”

This book and the essay that inspired it are a cornerstone to my sense of justice and to my theology (I grew up the daughter of missionaries in West Africa). Working for justice means mending broken relationships and this is the work of Divine Love.


The cover of the book The Autobiography of Malcolm XThe Autobiography of Malcolm X

Malcolm X; Alex Haley

I first read this book in paperback almost forty years ago and I still own it. I remember feeling that the narrative was both astonishing and completely understandable. The story of Malcolm’s early life (father’s death, mother’s commitment to a psychiatric hospital) gripped me.  I was still relatively new to the U.S., having grown up a white American in Nigeria. So Malcolm X’s critique of the U.S., his passion, and his spiritual conversion to Islam all rang true for me even though I knew next to nothing about Islam. Somehow I identified with his pilgrimage to Mecca and North Africa, perhaps because I had just been required to leave that continent. I came away from the book admiring Malcolm X as a Black nationalist and as a Pilgrim or Seeker, who was still evolving when he was assassinated.


The cover of the book Song Of SolomonSong Of Solomon

Toni Morrison

For me, Morrison’s third novel is a Civil Rights novel though it only refers to Malcolm X glancingly and to Emmett Till briefly. But the novel is an extended metaphor for the struggle. On the one hand, we have the black, middle-class character of Milkman, who fails entirely to understand “the urgency of now” (King), and on the other hand, we have his friend, Guitar, who will use “any means necessary” to right the wrongs of white America.  The evolution of their friendship is a conversation about Black identity, Civil Rights, and justice, but the conversation is playing out not in politics or the pulpit but in their everyday lives. Pilate, the matriarch of Milkman’s family, is the deep mystery at the heart of the novel. “Without leaving the ground, she could fly.” Her character points to the essential relation between self-acceptance and loving the “other.”


The cover of the book Hughes: PoemsHughes: Poems

Langston Hughes

While Hughes is connected with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s, his poems cover the twentieth century and have shaped my sense of “the urgency of now.” In a few lines, these poems imprint our minds with Black realities. Essential poems include “Mother to Son,” “Cross,” “Words Like Freedom,” “Jim Crow Car,” “The Negro Dreams of Rivers, and “Always the Same”—which is a rousing critique of race-based exploitation and a call for global justice.  Also, “Tell Me”—which asks the question, “why should it be my dream/ deferred/overlong?”


The cover of the book The Blood of Emmett TillThe Blood of Emmett Till

Timothy B. Tyson

The story of Emmett Till and his mother ignited the Civil Rights movement and is the heart of the movement for me. Perhaps because I’m a mother, the terror of that event, the courage of the mother, the mutilated body, carry a weight of Biblical proportion, like a crucifixion.  The story had to go into my current novel. Tyson wrote this book of political history after Carolyn Burns, the white woman in whose name Emmett Till was killed, asked to talk with him. She doesn’t come off very well. What “comes off” is how the white imagination was bent by the history of race in Mississippi, how Chicago and Mississippi were not that far apart. This book is imperative for anyone who wants to know why the movement could not wait.


The cover of the book Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson

This story in poems about a young girl’s experience of her brownness can be read by young and old readers alike. It includes the girl’s awareness of sit-ins and protests. More than that, it extends the movement into our present. Part of what I love about this book is that the girl loves her early life in South Carolina, where she is surrounded by family and pine trees and porch wings: “In South Carolina, we become The Grandchildren/ Gunnar’s Three Little Ones/ Sister Irby’s Grands/ MaryAnn’s Babies.” I also love her discovery of a composition notebook that she carries around for days before writing in it as if it’s a sacred object (which it is). What is so powerful about this book is that we are seeing in the here and now how brownness shapes a life now: the beauties of brownness and the imperative, still, for justice. We still can’t wait.



The cover of the bookElaine Neil Orr is professor of English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where she teaches world literature and creative writing. She also serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA in Writing program at Spalding University in Louisville. Author of A Different Sun, two scholarly books, the memoir Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life, and Swimming Between Worlds, she has been a featured speaker and writer-in-residence at numerous universities and conferences and is a frequent fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She grew up in Nigeria.


5 Famous Books Saved from the Dumpster

by Hayley, January 30, 2018, first appearing on Goodreads Blog

The road to publication is paved with headaches, heartaches, and crumpled up balls of paper. No one knows this more than the following authors. Their work went on to achieve worldwide acclaim, but in the beginning, it took an unlikely—and often unsung—literary hero to save their manuscripts from obscurity.

Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at the big books that barely made it to the shelf.

Stephen King’s Carrie

Bad Beginnings: In 1973, King and his wife Tabitha lived in a trailer. Struggling to make ends meet, he began writing a story about a teen outcast named Carrie White. The process, however, was not an easy one; compounded by the fact that King was modeling his main character on two girls he knew in high school who had both died at an early age. Eventually, he gave up. “I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell. So I threw it away,” King wrote in his memoir, On Writing.

To the Rescue… Tabitha! She fished the pages out of the trash and set them right back in front of her husband. “You’ve got something there,” she told him—and she was right. Carrie sold over a million copies in its first year. Since then it’s been adapted for film, television, and Broadway.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

Bad Beginnings: Almost a decade after the publication of his classic and controversial novel, Nabokov admitted Lolita was a “difficult book” to write. Perhaps this was an understatement. At one point during the novel’s creation, Nabokov set a fire in his backyard and fed his entire draft to the flames.

To the Rescue… Vera, Nabokov’s wife! A Cornell student witnessed her running out of the house to pluck as many pages as she could out of the fire. Was Nabokov suitably grateful for this act of literary heroism? We’ll let a snippet from one of his love letters to Vera answer that question: “How can I explain to you, my happiness, my golden wonderful happiness, how much I am all yours—with all my memories, poems, outbursts, inner whirlwinds? Or explain that I cannot write a word without hearing how you will pronounce it?”

Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl

Bad Beginnings: Anne wrote her diary while she was hiding in an annex from the Nazis during World War II. The sweet, hopeful, and haunting account was abandoned when, on August 4, 1944, she and her family were apprehended and transported to concentration camps.

To the Rescue… Miep Gies. The Dutch woman, a loyal friend of Anne’s family, snatched the diary out of the ransacked annex and kept it safe in her desk drawer. She returned the diary to Anne’s father, the family’s only known survivor, who submitted it for publication in 1946.

John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces

Bad Beginnings: Toole took the numerous rejections of A Confederacy of Dunces hard. He toiled on re-working it for years, writing to his editor, “Something of my soul is in the thing. I can’t let it rot without trying.” After eventually giving up on the novel ever getting published, Toole committed suicide on March 26, 1969. He was 31 years old.

To the Rescue… Toole’s mother, Thelma. Two years after her son’s death, she found a smeared carbon copy of the manuscript in Toole’s old room. The novel would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

Bad Beginnings: It’s hard to imagine Lee’s beloved novel absent from our bookshelves—and Scout and Atticus and Boo Radley absent from our hearts—but in the late 1950s, publication did not seem likely. The author later admitted to readers she found the writing process so frustrating that at one point she lost hope and threw the entire manuscript out the window and into a pile of snow.

To the Rescue… Lee’s agent! He reportedly demanded she retrieve and finish the manuscript. The tough love worked. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. It became an instant sensation and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year.

8 New Spy Books to Add to Your Reading List This Year

Photo by Aaron Mello on Unsplash

The spy novel has come a long way since the heyday of Ian Fleming. John LeCarre’s literary legacy has been the morally complex person who must negotiate a world in which the terms “bad guys and good guys” has lost all meaning. The newest spy novels not only incorporate the bells and whistles of the latest technology, but they also feature complicated human beings who don’t always know if they’re doing the right thing in service to their country.

A recent spate of nonfictional accounts and fiction about spies reveal that “these are the times that try men’s souls.” Thomas Paine recognized that service to one’s country during difficult times tested all who were called. In these accounts, the notion that spying is service to one’s country will be questioned by more than one person. In 2018, writing fiction that surpasses the current nonfiction blockbuster at play in Washington, D.C. is a daunting challenge, and yet, the writers here have found ways to meet it. And, in the nonfiction accounts, the real people who became spies are stories of adventure and heartbreak.

Here are some of our recent favorites.

The cover of the book Who is Vera Kelly?Who is Vera Kelly?

Rosalie Knecht

One thing Vera Kelly is not is a standard-issue spy. During the Cold War, both the United States and the U.S.S.R. expended enormous amounts of money and personnel in search of information that would provide one or the other with an advantage. They also fought for influence among non-aligned groups, which is how Vera Kelly, a former “troubled teen” who is working dead-end jobs in Greenwich Village ends up as a spy in Buenos Aires. She has been sent there to infiltrate a leftist student group and monitor the members’ contact with the Soviets. But when a coup d’etat creates chaos on Argentinian streets and cuts her off from her C.I.A. handlers, Vera must improvise to survive.

Knecht has written a hybrid novel that is both literary in its attention to character and language, and a thriller where Vera’s status as a spy makes her a hunted woman who will have to find a way to survive. This intelligent novel about the quest for secret intelligence is a real treat.


The cover of the book Liar's CandleLiar’s Candle

August Thomas

Penny Kessler lands a dream internship working at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. On July 4th, she is part of the happy crowd at the Embassy’s Independence Day celebration. But someone lets off a bomb, killing and injuring many in the crowd. Many of the newspapers covering the story publish an affecting photo of the the after-effects of the bomb, one in which the injured Penny becomes the focus for the world’s rage and sorrow.

The trouble is that the photo makes Penny a target for those who want to use the injured woman as propaganda and those looking for a scapegoat. Even before she has regained consciousness, Penny’s life is taken over by those who want to make her a symbol of American resilience. But as many past heroes have discovered, the celebrated survivor may soon find themselves as the prime suspect, and it’s not long before she has to fight for her life against those who claim that Penny is a terrorist and a spy.


The cover of the book The Woman Who Fought an EmpireThe Woman Who Fought an Empire

Gregory J. Wallance

Even today, to speak of what happened in Armenia in 1915 as “genocide” is to provoke the fury of the Turkish government, which has always insisted that the slaughter of 1 million Armenian men, women, and children were military losses, not the result of an ethnic cleansing. But, as Gregory J. Wallance writes in his history, what Sarah Aaronsohn witnessed as a Jew living in the Ottoman Empire convinced her that after the Armenians had been erased, the Ottoman Empire would turn its attention to Jewish settlers in Palestine, also part of the imperial territory.

In order to prevent further Turkish atrocities, Aaronsohn and her Nili ring of spies began offering the British, who were fighting the Turks in battles in Egypt, information from behind Ottoman lines. Wallance paints a portrait of a complex woman who performed heroic work during difficult times. For those looking for a book about espionage that has real human lives at stake, this little-known story is a tremendous read.


The cover of the book The DeceiversThe Deceivers

Alex Berenson

Pity the spy novelist writing a thriller set in 2018 America. When the current American administration is under investigation for having allowed Russian actors to influence the latest election and a former KGB agent is now the head of the Russian government, how can fiction top real-life shenanigans? Enter John Wells, the fictional creation of Alex Berenson. Wells is former C.I.A. who is now following the trail that begins with a drug bust in Texas and ends with a plot to take over the White House.

Berenson writes in a style perhaps best described as “hard-boiled.” He uses few adverbs and does not provide long literary descriptions. What he does is to immerse readers in story before they leave the first page, which makes The Deceivers a tough book to put down, especially when the plot that John Wells uncovers will add layers of anxiety to any anxiety readers are already feeling about the current occupants of the White House.


The cover of the book The Kremlin's CandidateThe Kremlin’s Candidate

Jason Matthews

Film adaptations do not always do justice to complex literary characters and plots. Movie goers who saw Red Sparrow without reading the book upon which it was based missed out on Jason Matthews’ detailed descriptions of how a spy shakes someone who is tailing them, or the labyrinthine structure of Russian security bureaucracy, or the complicated woman that Dominika Egorova is underneath her performed role as spy.

Matthews was in the C.I.A for years, and his knowledge of the myriad little maneuvers and counter-maneuvers that go into an operation is fascinating to readers who may have wondered how the system really works. In this, the third novel in his trilogy, readers once again follow Dominika as she seeks to frustrate President Putin in his plans to assassinate an essential member of America’s intel community.


The cover of the book Need to KnowNeed to Know

Karen Cleveland

Karen Cleveland worked for the Central Intelligence Agency before writing a novel so Need to Know is full of the kinds of verisimilitude that readers of spy thrillers hunger for. With rare exception, other spy novels portray spies as the survivors of busted marriages or for whom the constant exposure to human depravity has made private life near impossible. But Vivian Miller, a counterintelligence analyst, has a perfect home life, one in which she has been successful at dividing her life at work from her husband and four children.

All that changes while she is searching for sleeper agents, those Russian agents who have blended into the American population and are thus able to perform all of their espionage duties without triggering any warning signs. Miller has developed a new computer program that uses data to hone in on these sleeper agents. But one morning, her program reveals that one of these spies sleeps next to her every night in her marital bed. What happens when you come into possession of knowledge that you really didn’t want to know?


The cover of the book How to Catch a Russian SpyHow to Catch a Russian Spy

Naveed Jamali and Ellis Henican

Walter Mitty was James Thurber’s invention: a man who imagined himself to be other versions of himself in a vivid fantasy life. When Naveed Jamali was growing up, he imagined himself as the sort of spy whose exploits he watched in television shows.

After college, however, Jamali became what he had imagined. His spy story reads like the best of fictional capers with money deals transacted in Hooters restaurants and other everyday places in American cities. Jamali wasn’t just a spy, however, he became a successful double agent, working with Americans to convince Jamali’s Russian contacts to give up valuable information. Jamali’s true story is a delicious read.


The cover of the book A Spy in CanaanA Spy in Canaan

Marc Perrusquia

Many spy stories present romanticized images of the person who is willing to do heroic work for their own country by uncovering information about another country before harm can be done to our own. But a spy among one’s own people is regarded as the worst kind of betrayer: someone who trades secret knowledge to someone else knowing that the information can do harm to us.

But, as Marc Perrusquia shows, some spies can be forced into their actions either through extortion—the threatening of family members, for example—or because they believe that their actions are meant to protect the group they love from people the spy regards as bad actors.

So, what then, to make of the case of photographer Ernest Withers? Withers captured some of the most iconic moments of the Civil Rights movement, photographs that convinced America that the situation had to change in order to be on the moral side of history. And yet, the evidence also suggests that Withers was an informant for the F.B.I, an agency that treated people such as Martin Luther King, Jr. as enemies of the people. What would have convinced Withers that spying on King and his cohorts was the right thing to do? This fascinating book elucidates one of the darkest chapters of American history, when Americans spied on other Americans as they worked for justice.

Nature’s Revenge: Ten Tales of Eco-Horror for Earth Day

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

For all of horror’s various niches and subgenres, ecological horror is one that feels more and more timely with each passing year. With bizarre and volatile weather events occurring at a distressing pace, wildfires decimating large swaths of land, and the ever-more alarming threat of rising sea levels, it’s not difficult to see why. It sometimes feels as if our changing climate has us on a rolling wave of ecological catastrophe, and the terrors once explored in the confines of the novel are now entirely too plausible. Writers have long swapped common supernatural threats like ghosts and deadly monsters for the uniquely human terror of ecological collapse and a hostile nature reclaiming the world around us. These are a few of our favorites.


The cover of the book Occultation and Other StoriesOccultation and Other Stories

Laird Barron

Occultation, Laird Barron’s second collection of short stories (and winner of a 2010 Shirley Jackson Award), features a cadre of stories pitting men and women against a chaotic and deadly universe seemingly hellbent on their destruction. His story “-30-” was recently adapted into the film “They Remain” and follows two scientists investigating an unspeakable tragedy at an isolated former cult encampment. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned.


The cover of the book The Salt LineThe Salt Line

Holly Goddard Jones

In a dystopic near-future, the border of American civilization has receded behind an area known as the Salt Line, a ring of scorched earth meant to keep out hordes of deadly disease-carrying ticks. For most, life continues, if in a limited capacity. But there are those who venture outside to experience what’s left of nature, and one such group of thrill-seekers discovers that there are things more dangerous and deadly than the ticks lurking in the outer zone.


The cover of the book AnnihilationAnnihilation

Jeff Vandermeer

The first in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation introduces readers to the bizarre, surreal, and horrifying landscape of Area X. It’s been cut off from both man and civilization for decades, and nature (or something more) has fully reclaimed it. When the most recent of several ill-fated expeditions returns, each member stricken with fatal cancer, a twelfth expedition is organized to finally map the now-alien terrain. What they find is beyond anything they could have imagined.


The cover of the book The RuinsThe Ruins

Scott Smith

For Eric and Stacy and their friends Amy and Jeff, a Mexican vacation seemed like just what they needed. When they hit it off with another group of friendly tourists? All the better. Unfortunately, what begins as a day trip into the jungle quickly spirals into a hellish nightmare when the group stumbles onto an ancient and overgrown ruin. Something is lurking within the vines and undergrowth – something that doesn’t want them to leave.


The cover of the book The Day of the TriffidsThe Day of the Triffids

John Wyndham

This 1951 classic imagines a post-apocalyptic world where the majority of humanity loses their sight in a meteor shower. As the world descends into chaos, the same meteor shower seems to have also animated the triffids – a tall, venomous plant now capable of uprooting themselves and attacking the surviving humans. Though the premise is a little bizarre, Wyndham’s narrative skill turns the tale into a true classic of speculative fiction, one that feels far more plausible than it has any right to.


The cover of the book The Nature of BalanceThe Nature of Balance

Tim Lebbon

With The Nature of Balance, Tim Lebbon imagines a world where one day the majority of the world’s population simply doesn’t wake up. For the survivors, the new world quickly evolves into a horrifying place in ways no one could have anticipated. Mankind is no longer the world’s dominant species – nature is reclaiming the earth and man is simply a cancer to be rooted out and removed.


The cover of the book ZooZoo

James Patterson

Try to imagine what would happen if one day animals suddenly turned on humans en masse. Thanks to James Patterson, you don’t have to try that hard. In Zoo, biologist Jackson Oz has been largely ostracized from the professional community for his seemingly crackpot theory on the increasing prevalence of animal attacks on humans. When these attacks grow to a startling scale and level of coordination, entire cities are crippled and Oz races to discover a means to stem the tide.


The cover of the book SeedersSeeders

A.J. Colucci

When a reclusive plant biologist living on a remote island passes away, he leaves the island to his daughter Isabella and his close friend and fellow researcher Jules. When the pair arrive, they quickly discover that Isabella’s father made a monumental advancement – communication between plants and animals. When a fierce storm isolates them on the island, they find that this breakthrough has far darker and more sinister implications than anyone could have imagined.


The cover of the book Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird StoriesAncient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories

Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood’s work served as something of precursor both modern horror and weird fiction. His darkly supernatural tales, intricately woven and deeply foreboding, were a major influence on H.P. Lovecraft and several others. Ancient Sorceries is one of Blackwood’s finest collections, with the novella “The Willows” standing as perhaps the author’s best. It centers on two friends and their canoe trip on a stretch of the Danube crowded by willows on both banks. Before long, the trip is beset by dread and tragedy as nature itself begins to turn on them.


The cover of the book The SwarmThe Swarm

Frank Schatzing

Nearly three quarters of our planet is covered in water. If, for whatever reason, the ocean’s ecology ever turned on mankind, there would be virtually no place to hide, and that’s the basic premise of The Swarm. Whales begin coordinated attacks, sinking ships. Toxic crabs poison Long Island’s water supply. The North Sea Shelf suddenly collapses. Virtually all at once, the fragile ecosystem of the earth is thrown violently out of balance, and there may be no way to set it right.

Notable Returns, from Harry Potter to J.R.R. Tolkien

BY , APRIL 11, 2018, FIRST APPEARING IN Library Journal

Brian Selznick has created the 20th anniversary covers for the Harry Potter books. They are available starting June 26. USA Today reports “When placed side-by-side chronologically, the seven books create a single image that tells Harry’s story, from his arrival at No. 4 Privet Drive to the final Battle of Hogwarts.” A box set of all the books will issue in September.


A new book by J.R.R. Tolkien will publish in late August. Entertainment Weekly reports that The Fall of Gondolin, previously unpublished, furthers the stories of Middle Earth. It is edited by Christopher Tolkien and illustrated by Alan Lee. It is currently soaring on Amazon.

Genre Friday – WESTERNS

Image result for western genre

The Western genre is uniquely American (more-or-less – Australian and Eurowesterns [see below], and spaghetti western films [many oddly inspired by Japanese samurai films] create a few exceptions to this rule). The genre’s main feature is its setting, the untamed western half of the United States during the 1800s (and occasionally stretching into the late 1700s or early 1900s), which makes sense as it got its start in the “penny dreadfuls” and “dime novels” of the 19th century. These cheap books were wildly popular and helped spread the mythic image of the old west with stories about the mountain men, outlaws, settlers, and lawmen who were taming the wild western frontier. Western novels as we know them today began appearing in the early 20th century, popularized by well known authors like Zane Grey and later, in the mid 20th century, by authors like Louis L’Amour. Maybe due to the timing of it, as the Western novel was becoming popular as motion pictures came into their own, but the Western genre is as well known for its movies (and movie stars) and TV shows as it is for its books (maybe better known). This is why you’ll notice in the list of Western subgenres below that more than a few of the examples given are film titles.

Sadly, the genre peaked around the early 1960s and has been undergoing a long, slow decline ever since. Most of the best movies are old, and a lot of the new ones are remakes, and many of the most iconic Western novels (and their authors) are several decades past their prime. Still, as long as there is an audience for them, Westerns and their rugged heroes will continue to prevail before stoically riding off into the sunset.

Western Subgenres

You can be fairly certain that there will be six shooters and horses, but aside from that Westerns can vary quite a bit. Below is a list of many of the subgenres associated with tales of the wild west.

1063180Australian westerns are a rare exception to the ‘time and place’ bounds of the genre, moving from the western US to the untamed Australian outback. Sometimes, the protagonist is an American that is no longer satisfied with the rapidly-filling western United States, and instead settles in Australia’s vast outback. Sometimes the story centers around European or Australian outlaws and their western-like adventures and escapades. Ned Kelly, the fictional account of a real Australian outlaw is a good example.

Black Cowboy (Buffalo Soldier): These westerns feature a protagonist of color. Gerald Haslam’s story Rider is a fine example. These stories sometimes depict members or veterans of the US Army’s 9th and 10th Cavalry (aka Buffalo Soldiers), African-American soldiers that gained fame for their actions in the west. Z.Z. Packer’s novel The Thousands is a good example of this subgenre.

Bounty Hunter tales center upon these morally ambiguous characters. Peter Brandvold’s novel Bounty Hunter Lou Prophet is a clear example. Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian follows a band of bloodthirsty killers after the money offered for killing Native Americans.

Cattle Drive westerns are set amidst this definitive frontier activity and, along with gunslingers and wagon trains, is among the most well known and frequently depicted western subgenre. Often the young protagonist makes long strides toward adulthood during these grueling journeys. Larry McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove and its sequels are famous examples. Clay Fisher’s novel The Tall Men is another.

2881203Civil War westerns are defined by the conflict that gives the subgenre its name – pitched battles having been fought as far west as New Mexico. Stories can be set during or after the war as former soldiers carried Blue/Gray antagonisms throughout the frontier in the years following the official end of the fighting. Johnny D. Boggs’ novel Camp Ford is a comprehensive example. Howard Hawk’s 1970 film Rio Lobo places John Wayne in a similar situation.

463124Cowpunk is a subgenre that derives its name (and irreverant tone) from science fiction’s ‘cyberpunk.’ It can also, but does not have to, overlap with the steampunk subgenre of sci-fi to varying degrees. These tales depict all sorts of bizarre happenings on the remote frontier. Elisabeth Scarborough’s novel The Drastic Dragon of Draco Texas mixes ethnic mythology with comedy and horror.

Doctor and Preacher is a subgenre with two main types of protagonists. I’ll give you two guesses… Well done.

The common thread between the two character types are that such lead characters are committed to peace and healing (or know they should be) despite frequently finding themselves surrounded by violent situations and people. TV’s fictional Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman is a well-known example. Robert B. Parker’s novel Preacher is a more recent one.

Winnetou I: Kepala Suku ApacheEurowestern tales come, as the term implies, from Europe. Karl May’s German-language novels, starting in 1892 with his Winnetou I, brought the excitement and allure of the rugged frontier across the Atlantic. Sergio Leone’s classic 1966 ‘spaghetti western’ films, like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly with Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in the white and black hats, could also be considered part of this genre. Traditional examples of this subgenre are often more gritty; in a an emotional and violent (and even dusty) sense, than its American cousins, which could depict a more romanticized version of the Old West.

257837Gunfighter tales are an iconic western subgenre. In reality, two men dueling each other on the dusty main street of an old west town almost never happened , yet that image is probably what people most often picture when thinking of westerns and it is essential the plot of these stories. Often a ‘white hat’ protagonist reluctantly agrees to go up against a cruel ‘black hat’ villain on behalf of oppressed common folks. Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel Shane is a classic example. Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 film High Noon casts Gary Cooper in the lead role.

2917585Humorous or Parody is self-explanatory. Mel Brook’s 1974 film Blazing Saddles towers over this subgenre. Gene Kelly’s 1970 film The Cheyenne Social Club is another example and Ellen Recknor’s novel Prophet Annie is full of wry humor.

Indian Wars dominate the subgenre of the same name. They are often historically accurate in the details, but can also reflect the time and worldview (and thus, bias) of the author. James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans remains a classic. Douglas C. Jones’s novel The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer vividly depicts a “what if?” cultural clash, asking ‘was General Custer a hero or a villain?’ Many older American films depict the Indians as ruthless savages to be swept aside. In Arthur Penn’s 1970 film Little Big Man the natives are wise and noble and white Americans cruel interlopers. Kevin Costner’s 1990 film Dances With Wolves portrays a more realistic mixed bag.

235292Land Rush stories usually focus on Oklahoma, where vast tracts of land were suddenly opened to homesteading — whether the resident Native Americans liked it or not. Al and Joanna Lacy’s novel The Land of Promise is one example. Ron Howard’s 1992 film Far and Away has a dramatic portrayal.

4554887Lawmen (Texas Rangers): This subgenre centers around the honest lawmen (especially Texas Rangers) who struggled to bring order and justice to the wild frontier. Often the protagonist is, or is based upon, an actual person. Jack Cumming’s novel The Last Lawmen is a realistic example.

1063298Mexican Wars (Texan Independence): Stories in this subgenre include the decisive geopolitical events of 1845-48. Marion G. Otto’s novel Hugh Harrington is a good example. Many Texan tales feature the siege of the Alamo, like Stephen Harrigan’s novel The Gates of the Alamo. Mexican authors who write in this subgenre often depict the secession of Texas, and the US invasion of Veracruz and Mexico City — but with heroes and villains reversed.

48119Modern Indians is a western subgenre that is set in the present day with a protagonist must bridge a venerable Native American heritage with modern American culture and technology. Tony Hillerman’s novel Coyote Waits is perhaps the best known example. Hillerman’s books are often listed with the ‘mystery’ genre, as they feature the Navajo tribal police. To his credit, they’re immensely popular in Navajo country.

24598788Mormon tales center upon the settlement of Utah in the 1840s and 50s, under the leadership of Brigham Young. Marilyn Brown’s novel The Wine-Dark Sea of Grass is an unstinting depiction and From Everlasting to Everlasting, by Sophie Freeman, mirrors real-life experiences. Many of these novels are published by imprints associated with the LDS church.

3680174Outlaw westerns focus on the ‘black hats,’ the colorful villains of that era cast as anti-heroes. The Dalton Brothers, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and many others became legends in their own time. Eugene Manlove Rhodes’ 1927 novel Paso por Aqui (later reprinted as Four Faces West) depicts an unusual robber hunted by the famous marshal Pat Garrett.

1208794Prairie Settlement tales are not quite standard ‘westerns,’ but they do fall within the time-and-place bounds of the genre. They depict the taming of the vast flat plains of the midwest, during the 1800s. Ole Rolvaag’s classic novel Giants in the Earth depicts a Norwegian family enduring bitter winters and maddening loneliness, as civilization slowly follows them west. While intended for children, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series is enjoyed by all ages.

830742Prospecting (Gold Rush): This subgenre focuses on the quest for sudden riches, whether as a comfortable silver mine owner or a hardscrabble gold panner. In the 1860s, Bret Harte and Mark Twain immortalized these characters even as the California gold rush was in full swing. Jack London extended the ‘western’ genre northward, with realistic accounts of the 1896 gold rush into Alaska and the Yukon Territory, most famously in his novel The Call of the Wild.

10090301Quest westerns involve a protagonist on a mission, set against a harsh untamed frontier and relentless rivals and/or enemies. Cameron Judd’s novel The Quest of Brady Kenton is an oft-cited example of this subgenre. Elmer Kelton’s Cloudy in the West is another.

Railroad stories center upon a titanic project: the bridging of the east and west coasts by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines. Rugged geography, indentured Chinese workers, and international scandals add depth to this milieu. John Ford’s 1924 film The Iron Horse remains a classic.

169751Range Wars (Sheepmen): These stories center upon a peculiar western rivalry, as ranchers trying to claim the best grazing land came into conflict with homesteading farmers (sometimes sheep ranchers) who were fencing off said grazing land. Owen Wister’s classic 1902 novel The Virginian, later filmed at least twice, depicts Wyoming’s fratricidal Johnson County War.

A few subgenre tales focus on shepherds, many of them Basque immigrants, and the wool merchants who owned the flocks. Zane Grey’s 1922 novel To the Last Man depicts a cattlemen vs. sheepmen feud (based upon real Arizona history) so vicious its title is a literal description.

10035073Revenge westerns are a relatively dark subgenre. A determined protagonist, often a young survivor of some cruel massacre, goes after the perpetrators. In the Western setting, witnesses to crimes were few, and law enforcement scarce (and sometimes corrupt), leading to such harsh individual actions. Charles Portis’s 1969 novel True Grit, soon filmed by Henry Hathaway (also remade by the Coen brothers), follows a determined young woman on such a mission.

3467451Romance is an overlapping subgenre, where the Romance and Western genres meet, which features the elements of Romance but in the ‘western’ novel setting. A.H. Holt’s Silver Creek and Morgan J. Blake’s Redemption are two such novels.

Town-tamer westerns are well described by their name. A lone gunman, or sometimes a group of friends, take on the corrupt and oppressive leaders or marauding bandits that are terrorizing an isolated town. Frank Gruber’s story “Town Tamer,” filmed by Lesley Selander, is a clear example. Lawrence Kasdan’s 1985 movie Silverado is a great depiction. John Sturges’ 1960 film The Magnificent Seven extends this subgenre into rural Mexico.

822935Most Trapper or Mountain Man tales are set earlier than other western subgenres, when Native Americans still dominated the land and civilization was still a long way away in the “East.” Often the rugged protagonist is the only white man for hundreds of miles around, and he’ll find a native bride. Louis L’Amour’s novel To the Far Blue Mountains depicts the earliest English settlement of the Appalachians, in the 1500s. A.B. Guthrie’s novel The Big Sky crosses the continent, and James Michener’s sprawling Centennial is another example.

Wagon Train westerns are a quintessential subgenre. The Oregon Trail was the interstate highway of its era, with lumbering Conestoga wagons, and hardships that were often extreme. Zane Grey’s 1936 novel The Lost Wagon Train is a classic example. George Stewart’s episodic novel Sheep Rock follows waves of settlers through a remote Nevada desert.

The WindWomen protagonists lead this subgenre. Some tales idealize their courage and triumphs, as with the real-life Annie Oakley. Opposite this, Dorothy Scarborough’s 1925 novel The Wind is a harsh depiction of a young woman’s life in frontier west Texas – so harsh that the leaders of Texas at the time protested.

The Best Dads in Fiction: A 4-Book Literary Guide to Fatherhood

Mark Williams and Bonnie Wright in ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2’ (2011)/Photo by Jaap Buitendijk © 2011 Warner Bros Entertainment Inc.

Parenthood is a common topic in literature for obvious reasons – the abundance of turmoil being chief among them. Fatherhood has specifically been increasingly on my mind as of late. For me, it’s looming – with all the attendant anxiety, hope, misgivings, and doubts that collectively make up this hazy concept of anticipation – just on the horizon. My wife is due with our first child by year’s end, and as is customary in these situations, our little guy will be arriving with no consideration of whether I am prepared or not (apparently kids are funny that way).

Despite receiving many assurances that I will know what to do when this tiny bundle of humanity arrives, I have my doubts. While these waters are undoubtedly well-traveled and well-charted, the journey is nonetheless a daunting one. As is often the case with virtually all other facets of life, literature is a remarkable place to turn for guidance.

With an adventure that feels puzzling, exciting, and terrifying drawing ever closer, I turned to the well-worn pages of a handful of beloved books to puzzle out a possible ideal of fatherhood. Here’s what I found.


The cover of the book To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee

Atticus Finch

Perhaps the pinnacle of literary fatherhood, Atticus Finch represents an ideal that may be unattainable, but is none the less worth striving for. Deeply kind with an unerring moral compass, Atticus gave his children a sense of the world as it was, and more importantly, as it should be. He did not hide Scout and Jem from the darkness of the society in which they were raised. Rather, he gave them a light to cut through that darkness with an eye toward a better tomorrow. It was a mark of not only love, but a deep respect for his children and their ability to understand the nuances of the world around them to hopefully leave it better than they found it. In the words of Atticus Finch, “I wanted you to see what real courage is. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”


The cover of the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's StoneHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

J.K. Rowling

Arthur Weasley

Arthur Weasley is one of my favorite literary fathers. The Weasley children were exasperated and beguiled by their father’s exploits. His unbridled love for the world around him, and for muggles, gave his children an understanding, whether they realized or not, of how to find joy in even the most simple life experiences. He was a father, a protector, a co-conspirator, a mentor, and a friend, likely to join in his children’s hijinks while also providing words of fatherly wisdom. Arthur was a man who loved life – its myriad and minute joys. Whether it’s his excitement in learning his sons absconded with his flying car, or a paternal aside with Harry to assure that he will be safe and taken of, Arthur Weasley is evidence of the delight and wonder that can be found in parenting.


13496A Game of Thrones

George R. R. Martin

Ned Stark

Quality fathers are not in particular abundance within the borders of Westeros. Ned Stark is a notable and appreciated exception. Though Ned was far too honorable and just to thrive in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, his noble qualities made him a tremendous father and influence on the lives of not only the Stark children, but Jon Snow and even Theon Greyjoy. Indeed, his acceptance of both Jon and Theon are markers of his caring, stern, paternalistic nature. Similar to Atticus Finch, Ned understood the harsh realities of the lives his children would lead, and he did his best to prepare them for what was to come. More than anything else, Ned sought to instill in his children a sense of responsibility. While certainly an extreme and severe example, when Ned requires his sons to witness him executing a deserter of the Night’s Watch, he modeled for his children that while there are consequences for one’s actions, responsibility must also be taken for one’s decisions. It was a harsh lesson, but an essential one.


The cover of the book The Book ThiefThe Book Thief

Markus Zusak

Hans Huberman

When I think of the things that I would want for a child, much of it can be boiled to down to two traits – curiosity and wonder. They are things that are so easy to take for granted – but if happiness and contentment are the destination, curiosity and wonder may just be the path. Hans Huberman, or Papa as he is affectionately known to young Liesel in The Book Thief, helps Liesel to discover the world around through her growing desire and curiosity to read.  More importantly, it’s a journey he happily takes alongside her, guiding where he can but also encouraging her independence and inquisitiveness with his own. His kindness, patience, and exhilaration for the world around them – difficult and harrowing as it may be – proved a powerful example well worth emulating.