Next Tuesday, we celebrate our country. A country that seems to be imploding with every passing presidential tweet. A country that has failed to care for the most vulnerable while those in power grow richer. Celebrating the Fourth this year feels a bit like going out for dinner with a cheating spouse.
But it’s important to remember that America is not our leaders, America is us. In that vein, here are some books that help remind us what actually makes America great (hint: it’s not tax cuts). Some of these books are problematic; others contain racism (looking at you Ma and Pa Ingalls); still more are jubilant, triumphant, and full of hope. But each highlights a real aspect of America, good or bad, and hopefully can remind us that what makes America great are the voices of the people who call this messy place home.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
As Rumpus Senior Features Editor Julie Greicius pointed out, “Lolita, oddly enough, is a brilliant foreigner’s felonious road trip across America, with Lolita herself as metaphor of a country too young to understand what crime is being committed against her.”
The Federalist Papers by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton
A collection of eight-five articles and essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay promoting the ratification of the United States Constitution. Go check out what two of our Founding Fathers hoped America might be.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The American dream, sans happy ending. So, real life?
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
A Newbery Medal-winning book about racism in America during the Great Depression. Taylor explores life in southern Mississippi, when racism was still common in the South and many were persecuted for the color of their skin.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
Rankine recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person’s ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship. In essay, image, and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named “post-race” society.
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
Uprooted from their family home in the Dominican Republic, the four Garcia sisters arrive in New York City in 1960 to find a life far different from the genteel existence of maids, manicures, and extended family they left behind. What they have lost—and what they find—is revealed in fifteen interconnected stories that span over thirty years.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Told in a series of vignettes—sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous—this is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become.
Snopes: A Trilogy by William Faulkner
A saga that stands as perhaps the greatest feat of Faulkner’s imagination. “For all his concerns with the South, Faulkner was actually seeking out the nature of man,” noted Ralph Ellison. “Thus we must turn to him for that continuity of moral purpose which made for the greatness of our classics.”
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
A series of American children’s novels written by Laura Ingalls Wilder based on her childhood in the northern Midwestern United States during the 1870s and 1880s. Eight were completed by Wilder, and published by Harper & Brothers from 1932 and 1943. The first draft of a ninth novel was published posthumously in 1971 and is commonly included in the Little House series.
The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez
Lyrical and gritty, this authentic coming-of-age story about a border-town family in Brownsville, Texas insightfully illuminates a little-understood corner of America.
Native Guard by Natasha Tretheway
Through elegiac verse that honors her mother and tells of her own fraught childhood, Trethewey confronts the racial legacy of her native Deep South, where one of the first black regiments, the Louisiana Native Guards, was called into service during the Civil War. Trethewey’s resonant and beguiling collection is a haunting conversation between personal experience and national history.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henríquez
Peopled with deeply sympathetic characters, this poignant yet unsentimental tale of young love tells a riveting story of unflinching honesty and humanity that offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be an American
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
The Fire Next Time galvanized the nation and gave passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement. At once a powerful evocation of James Baldwin’s early life in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, the book is an intensely personal and provocative document. It consists of two “letters,” written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that exhort Americans, both black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism.
The Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson
This authoritative volume makes sense of that vast and confusing “second American Revolution” we call the Civil War, a war that transformed a nation and expanded our heritage of liberty.
Bear, Diamonds and Crane by Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan
In this collection, personal narratives take their place alongside group stories, “the wound” that “resists erasure and cultural amnesia. […] the image of barbed wire.” Kageyama-Ramakrishnan reflects on the life of her grandmother, who “acquiesced on impulse” to marry and move to the United States on the U.S.S. Jackson as well as on stories from Manzanar, the concentration camp where Japanese Americans were interned during World War II.
Poeta en San Francisco by Barbara Jane Reyes
Poeta en San Francisco incorporates English, Spanish, and Tagalog in a book-length poem at once lush and experimentally rigorous. From the vantage of San Francisco, Reyes looks outward to the Philippines, Vietnam, and other colonized places with violent histories.
Thomas and Beluah by Rita Dove
Winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Thomas and Beulah tells the semi-fictionalized chronological story of Dove’s maternal grandparents, the focus being on her grandfather (Thomas, his name in the book as well as in real life) in the first half and her grandmother (named Beulah in the book, although her real name was Georgianna) in the second.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
A compulsively readable debut novel about marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American Dream—the unforgettable story of a young Cameroonian couple making a new life in New York just as the Great Recession upends the economy.