The Many-Decade Spans of Some Sequels and Series

After reading last week that Margaret Atwood is writing a follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought about which sequels — and series — spanned the most time.

Atwood’s famous, feminist, dystopian novel came out in 1985, and The Testaments will be published in 2019 — making for a gap of 34 years. Not quite the 36-year-period between Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) and its sequel Doctor Sleep (2013), but plenty long.

Why gaps like that? Authors such as King and Atwood (pictured above) are of course busy writing many other books, and may not want to revisit the same characters — at least until several decades go by. In Atwood’s case, one spur for the coming sequel is the high popularity of the current The Handmaid’s Tale television series. Also, the Republican Party’s current far-right/misogynist politics make her 1985 novel prescient and very relevant to today.

The Testaments will reportedly begin 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale ends. Other sequels can of course be set closer or farther away in time from the original novel.

Can many-years-later sequels be better? Sometimes. Heck, the authors have often become more mature writers. But they might also be past their prime, a bit tired, and not have as many new ideas. Still, numerous fans don’t mind if a sequel isn’t as good; they’re just happy it exists. Plus there’s money to be made for the authors — not that superstar writers like Atwood and King need it. 🙂

Other one-sequel, multiple-sequel, or series scenarios spanning many a decade?

P.G. Wodehouse wrote his Jeeves novels and stories over a stunning period of nearly 60 years — 1915 to 1974!

Agatha Christie featured Hercule Poirot in 40-plus novels and short-story collections for more than a half-century — from 1920’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles into the 1970s. And Christie’s Miss Marple character starred in more than 10 books from 1930 (The Murder at the Vicarage) into the ’70s.

John Updike’s four Rabbit novels were published over a period of 30 years (1960, 1971, 1981, 1990) — with a novella added to the mix in 2001. So, 41 years total.

Other large spans include 35 years between Sue Grafton’s first and 25th “alphabet mysteries” starring Kinsey Millhone (“A” Is for Alibi, 1982/“Y” Is for Yesterday, 2017); 32 years between Martin Cruz Smith’s first and eighth Arkady Renko novels (Gorky Park, 1981/Tatiana, 2013); 26 years between Walter Mosley’s first and 14th Easy Rawlins novels (Devil in a Blue Dress, 1990/Charcoal Joe, 2016); 25 years between Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970) and From Time to Time (1995); 24 years between Janet Evanovich’s first and 25th Stephanie Plum novels (One for the Money, 1994/Look Alive Twenty-Five, 2018); and 23 years between Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool (1993) and Everybody’s Fool (2016).

Then there are Honore de Balzac’s and Emile Zola’s many-book sagas containing stand-alone but interlinked novels featuring characters who pop in and out, sometimes as lead protagonists and sometimes as supporting players. Balzac wrote his La Comedie Humaine works from 1830 to the late 1840s — not that long a period because of his relatively early death, but an extraordinarily prolific period that produced a whopping 90-plus novels (such as Old Goriot and Cousin Bette) and stories! Zola penned his 20 Rougon-Macquart novels (The Drinking Den, Germinal, etc.) from 1871 to 1893.

Other sequels and series you can name with many-year publishing spans? And/or any comments about the ones I mentioned?

I will not be posting columns on December 9 and 16 (because of another trip to Florida to deal with my late mother’s estate and some other reasons). Back on December 23! I’ll still reply to comments under already-published columns. 🙂

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — written by my cat! — is here.

Non-Living Things Can Offer Literary Zings

Sometimes the main or almost-main character in a novel or short story is an inanimate object. And sometimes that object can seem almost as alive as characters who are actually alive (albeit fictionally).

My latest object of (literary) desire is the painted drum in Louise Erdrich’s absorbing novel The Painted Drum, which I’m in the middle of reading. As is often the case with fiction’s noteworthy objects, the non-living thing is named in the title. And this Native-American artifact has a personality of sorts, crafted beauty, and a major impact on the plot. (Ms. Erdrich is pictured above.)

Other prominent objects in literature of course include houses, cars, art, jewelry, statues, and more.

When a house is the title “character,” there’s frequently something about it that makes the human protagonists uneasy. For instance, Jane Austen’s part-spoof-of-Gothic-fiction Northanger Abbey features a character (Catherine Morland) whose overactive imagination gets a bit out of hand when she visits the titular dwelling. The house in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is legitimately scary, the one in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables is not exactly a happy place, and the abode in Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand is the jumping-off point for some weird time travel.

More positive is the house in L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle. It’s not literally a blue castle, but it’s the dream home Valancy Stirling has always wished for but never thought she’d have — and Valancy ends up living there with a man she loves through a very improbable set of circumstances.

Speaking of time travel a la du Maurier, there’s also H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine — with that titular device a vehicle of sorts.

Cars? The automobile “character” I first thought of is the one in Stephen King’s From a Buick 8 that’s a portal to a spooky place.

Art? Donna Tartt’s set-in-recent-times novel The Goldfinch is built around Carel Fabritius’ 1654 painting “The Goldfinch,” which is taken from a museum by protagonist Theo Decker amid the chaos of a terrorist attack that kills his mother and others. The priceless painting subsequently has a giant effect on Theo’s life.

Jewelry, gems, and such? Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone — an early novel in the detective genre — “stars” a huge diamond. The also-huge, very valuable pearl in John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl is not the positive find Kino and his family hope it will be; it turns out to be a disaster — as does the article of jewelry in Guy de Maupassant’s devastating short story “The Necklace.”

Then there’s of course J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in which the trilogy’s most-powerful ring is as consequential (to the plot and the future of Middle-earth) as it gets.

Statues? There’s the stone pillar in Erich Maria Remarque’s The Black Obelisk that can be seen as a symbol of the nascent Nazi movement in 1920s Germany. And there’s the famous statuette that’s the title of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon, starring detective Sam Spade.

Another sleuthing work focusing on an object is Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter,” featuring detective C. Auguste Dupin. Poe also put inanimate things in the titles of several other tales — including “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Oblong Box,” and “The Oval Portrait,” among others.

Oh, and there are the fateful overpasses in The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder and Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather.

Novels and stories you remember that prominently feature objects?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a disruptive snowstorm and more — is here.

Characters Who Are First in Prominence, But Not the First to Appear

Usually, a novel’s main protagonist appears quickly at/near the start of the book. But there are times she or he doesn’t enter the story until somewhat later, with readers perhaps first meeting a secondary character or two.

While the latter approach can seem odd and counterintuitive — especially if the novel is named after the main protagonist — there are advantages to waiting a bit. We might initially see the protagonist through another character’s eyes, which can offer readers some early insight into the not-yet-met person. Also, waiting for the book’s star to take the stage can be a nice “tease” — building some tension and imbuing the star with some mystery as our gratification is delayed. Last but not least, we sort of get eased into the novel.

I most recently noticed this approach in Richard Russo’s very absorbing Nobody’s Fool. Readers first encounter Beryl, an interesting 80-year-old woman in a small New York State town. After a few pages, I thought the novel would be mostly about her, but then — through Beryl — we meet her upstairs tenant Donald Sullivan, who turns out to be the book’s main character. By that time, thanks to Beryl, we already know a good deal about “Sully” (who, in the above photo, was played by Paul Newman in the 1994 Nobody’s Fool movie; he’s next to Jessica Tandy as Beryl).

Another novel I read this fall that initially traveled the indirect route was The Cuckoo’s Calling by J.K. Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith). We first meet Robin Ellacott as she travels to the office of private investigator Cormoran Strike to work as a temp for him. Then, we start to learn about Strike when he crashes into Robin as she approaches his office — with the large Cormoran almost knocking Robin down the stairs as he dashes out the door to try to catch the longtime girlfriend who just broke up with him. As it turns out, Robin displays private-investigator abilities and becomes the co-star of The Cuckoo’s Calling and subsequent books in that Rowling series.

A number of much older novels also take this kind of story-telling route.

For instance, Lockwood visits his landlord Heathcliff in the opening chapters of Wuthering Heights. We of course also meet Heathcliff, the co-star of Emily Bronte’s book, and a scared Lockwood, while sleeping, intensely feels the spirit of the deceased Catherine — the other Wuthering Heights co-star. Soon, through the narration of housekeeper Nelly Dean, we learn the tempestuous tale of Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship.

Mr. Smith, the grandfather of a differently spelled Nellie, is the first character we meet in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured. But he turns out to be a minor figure. The semi-autobiographical young author Vanya is the novel’s star, and Natasha (loved by Vanya), Alyosha (loved by Natasha), the orphaned Nellie, and other characters are much more significant players. But by trying to help the gravely ill Mr. Smith early in the novel, readers learn of Vanya’s decency and concern for others. And his moving into Mr. Smith’s place after that old man dies helps set some of the plot machinations in motion.

L.M. Montgomery starts Anne of Green Gables by showing nosy neighbor Rachel Lynde watching in shock as shy, scruffy old Matthew Cuthbert, who rarely leaves home, rides away in his horse-and-buggy dressed in his best suit. Turns out he’s going to pick up an orphan boy to help with farm work, but an orphan girl appears at the train station instead. We first learn of Anne Shirley’s braininess, originality, and other traits as she talks nonstop to the bewildered Matthew on the ride home. Anne then of course becomes the novel’s star — with the kind/gentle Matthew, his harder-edged sister Marilla Cuthbert, Anne’s best friend Diana Barry, Anne’s future love interest Gilbert Blythe, and others playing crucial supporting roles.

In Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy, we first meet Francis Osbaldistone. It’s quite a while until Francis and the novel’s readers encounter Robert “Rob Roy” MacGregor, the leader of a band of Highlanders. (In the 1995 movie starring Liam Neeson, the Rob Roy character is much more front and center.)

Which novels can you think of that don’t open with the main protagonist?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — a nightmare fantasy about Donald Trump possibly becoming mayor of my town — is here.

Fifty Shades of States

I’d like to state that some novels capture a state — the feel, the ambiance, the streets, etc.

That obvious fact occurred to me last week as I read Tom MacDonald’s The Charlestown Connection, a mystery set in Massachusetts — mostly Boston’s Charlestown section (pictured above). The novel has interesting characters, but just as interesting is its you-are-there descriptions of various places in Beantown.

Many other novels, of course, do the same with other states in the U.S. I won’t give examples from all 50 states, but will mention one or more books from more than 20 states — listed alphabetically. They might or might not be the ultimate novels set in those states, but they’re in the discussion. And my apologies to non-U.S. readers of this blog for today’s U.S.-centric post. 🙂

Alabama: Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafĂ© contains a double bonus — great evocations of The Yellowhammer State’s present (as of the novel’s 1980s publishing date) and past.

Arizona: Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale is the story of four women who live in Phoenix.

Arkansas: Charles Portis’ True Grit has an 1870s setting in places such as the rural Dardanelle area and the more citified Fort Smith.

California: Way too many novels to name are set in The Golden State, but, to offer just some examples, there are various John Steinbeck books (East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and so on). Also, the crime fiction of Walter Mosley (such as Devil in a Blue Dress) and Sue Grafton (her alphabet mysteries) expertly conveys the vibe of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara (the city that Grafton’s Santa Teresa is based on), and other California locales.

Florida: Also set in the 1870s, The Yearling captures the atmosphere of a rural/backwoods part of The Sunshine State as author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings focuses on a boy and his fawn.

Georgia: Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye — a hypnotic 1941 novel that includes an unusual (for its time) look at homosexuality — takes places at an Army base in The Peach State.

Hawaii: David Lodge’s Paradise News is initially set in the United Kingdom but then moves to Hawaii — with the state’s many charms depicted amid the plot involving an ill relative and a romance.

Indiana: Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, which has a strong theme of “old money” vs. “new money,” is set in Indianapolis.

Louisiana: Anne Rice’s multigenerational The Witching Hour spends many chapters in New Orleans — an evocative place for a spooky novel.

Maine: Many of Stephen King’s intense works are of course set here, and Richard Russo’s Empire Falls and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge also unspool in The Pine Tree State. Strout’s title character is…flinty.

Maryland: A number of Anne Tyler novels, including The Accidental Tourist and Ladder of Years, are set in or near Baltimore.

Michigan: Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex stars the gender-confused Cal/Calliope, but a major supporting “character” is Detroit.

Minnesota: Sinclair Lewis placed many of his memorable novels in the Midwest, with Main Street set in The North Star State.

Mississippi: The setting of many a William Faulkner novel, including As I Lay Dying and Light in August.

Missouri: The adventures in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer happen in The Show-Me State.

New Jersey: Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao toggles between the Dominican Republic and a well-described Garden State.

New York: Like California, New York (and especially New York City) is the locale for countless novels. Just five examples from different times would be Adam Langer’s Ellington Boulevard (set in the 21st century), James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain (20th century), Jack Finney’s Time and Again (20th and 19th centuries), Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (19th century), and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (18th century). Time and Again‘s superb photos of NYC in the late 1800s add to the effect.

Ohio: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio — of course.

Pennsylvania: The Keystone State’s two biggest cities are covered in Lisa Scottoline’s Philadelphia-set mysteries (such as The Vendetta Defense) and in more than one Michael Chabon novel (including Wonder Boys).

Rhode Island: In Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Subhash leaves India for graduate studies in Rhode Island and stays there after college as the novel’s dramatic events continue to unfold.

South Dakota: The roamin’ Jack Reacher goes to The Mount Rushmore State in Lee Child’s 61 Hours, and boy is it cold and snowy in that thriller.

Tennessee: Cormac McCarthy’s atmospheric novel Suttree is set in Knoxville.

Washington: Maria Semple’s colorful Where’d You Go, Bernadette includes a satiric look at Seattle.

It of course helps if authors live in/have lived in a state they’re writing about, but there’s always visiting and/or researching the place — as Lee Child did for 61 Hours.

I know I left out many states, authors, and books. Which novels do you associate with certain states? If it’s a state you live or lived in, did the author render things accurately and interestingly?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about the November 6 election — is here.

Jewish Authors and Characters

The horrific October 27 massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue (shown above) made me think of many things — including the terror the shooting targets felt, the grief of surviving families, the easy access to guns supported by Republican politicians beholden to the far-right National Rifle Association, white-supremacist Trump’s refusal over the years to strongly denounce neo-Nazis, and more.

Given what I blog about each week, I also thought about Jewish authors — and Jewish characters created by Jewish or non-Jewish authors. Characters who are depicted sympathetically and three-dimensionally, as well as characters depicted in stereotypical or even anti-Semitic ways.

Some Jewish authors focus often on Jewish themes, while other Jewish authors are more “generalist,” for lack of a better word. Some, of course, veer between the two approaches in their various novels and stories.

When one thinks of Jewish or partly Jewish authors, among the names that come to mind are Isaac Asimov, Saul Bellow, Judy Blume, Michael Chabon, E.L. Doctorow, Stanley Elkin, Nora Ephron, Nadine Gordimer, Joseph Heller, Erica Jong, Franz Kafka, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Elsa Morante, Walter Mosley, Jodi Picoult, Marcel Proust, Mordecai Richler, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, to name just a few.

I’ve read some or a lot of each writer mentioned above, and wanted to mention several of their works with Jewish protagonists.

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay stars two Jewish cartoonist cousins who have echoes of real-life “Superman” creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, while E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel is a novel loosely based on the 1950s case that saw Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executed for allegedly spying for the Soviet Union. Among Doctorow’s other books is his novel/memoir-hybrid World’s Fair.

One of Stanley Elkin’s novels is The Rabbi of Lud — enough said. Erica Jong’s sexually frank Fear of Flying stars Jewish journalist Isadora Wing.

Among Bernard Malamud’s novels are The Assistant and The Fixer — with the first featuring Morris Bober, an aging Jewish refugee who operates a struggling grocery store in a working-class neighborhood of Brookyn, NY; and the second focusing on Yakov Bok, a Jewish handyman unjustly imprisoned in Czarist Russia.

Elsa Morante’s most famous work is History — a tremendous novel, set in fascist Italy during the World War II era, about the struggles of a timid half-Jewish woman (Ida) and her two sons (Nino and the precocious Useppe — the latter born after Ida was raped by a German soldier).

Walter Mosley is more known as an African-American writer, but he’s half-Jewish. One of the notable supporting characters in his popular Easy Rawlins mystery series is union organizer Chaim Wenzler of A Red Death. Who reminds me of the liberal politics of a good percentage of American Jews.

Philip Roth burst into major literary celebrity with Portnoy’s Complaint — starring Alexander Portnoy, a lust-ridden Jewish guy who is quite interested in non-Jewish females and has some mother issues. Goodbye, Columbus and a number of other Roth novels also have strong Jewish themes.

Mordecai Richler’s multi-generational Solomon Gursky Was Here might be the only fictional work that includes a section starring a Jewish Eskimo! Considered by some a candidate for “The Great Canadian Novel,” the book is loosely based on the Canadian-Jewish Bronfman family of liquor renown.

I’ve read many of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories (none of his novels yet), and they of course wonderfully chronicle Jewish life.

Then there are non-Jewish writers with prominent Jewish characters.

For instance, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda features the memorable Daniel (a wealthy ward who initially doesn’t know he’s Jewish), the kind/beleaguered Mirah Lapidoth (who crosses paths with Daniel), and Mirah’s visionary brother Ezra Mordecai Cohen — along with various equally memorable non-Jewish characters. It’s one of my very favorite novels.

William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice has Nathan Landau, the Jewish lover of the Catholic Sophie years after her devastating Holocaust trauma.

One character in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is Simon Rosedale, a Jewish businessman interested in marrying Lily Bart for the social prestige she could bring him. Simon is sort of stereotypical in a way, but he does have a kinder element or two.

And among Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe cast are the Jewish characters of Rebecca (non-stereotypical) and her father Isaac of York (a rather stereotypical merchant and money-lender).

Yes, there are of course some troubling depictions of Jewish people in literature — also including the miserly villain Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and the money-lender Shylock in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. Also, the great Fyodor Dostoevsky has occasional bits in his novels that can be considered anti-Semitic.

Who are your favorite Jewish authors and characters? Your thoughts about them?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about the upcoming November 6 election and more — is here.

We Get a Kick Out of Sidekicks Who Kick Novels into Overdrive

Sidekicks! Whether in real life or literature, the word means partners/assistants who are somewhat lower in rank. Yet sidekicks are often as interesting, charismatic, and comedic as their ostensible superiors — or even more so. And the interaction between sidekick/”sidekickee” — and the way they complement each other or not — can be fascinating.

A new favorite sidekick for me is Robin Ellacott of J.K. Rowling’s fabulous Cormoran Strike mystery novels — the second of which (The Silkworm) I read this week. This Robin to Cormoran’s Batman (?) works for Strike in his modest private-investigation office, but she’s much more than an ultra-competent secretary — she wants to be a private investigator herself, and helps Strike solve cases. Meanwhile, the brave/brainy twosome have a strong (though at times tense) working relationship/friendship that means a lot to both of them.

There are echoes of Rowling’s Harry Potter and Hermione Granger in Cormoran and Robin (Emma Watson, who played Hermione in the Potter movies, even gets a cover-of-a-magazine cameo in The Silkworm), but Ellacott and Strike are very much their own characters in the mysteries written under the pen name of Robert Galbraith.

In older literature, among the most famous sidekicks are Sancho Panza to the eccentric Don Quixote in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (the two are pictured atop this blog post), Samwise Gamgee to fellow hobbit Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective novels and stories.

Panza and Samwise have many similarities — they’re both short, smart, funny, courageous, resourceful, and invaluable to their “masters.” Heck, they’re clearly equal to, or more impressive than, who they’re sidekicking with. Dr. Watson, though far from dumb, seems like almost a lightweight next to sleuth extraordinaire Sherlock. But the genial Watson is an important character — narrating things (much of the time), expressing admiration for/awe of Holmes, etc. He’s in many ways a reader surrogate, and helps ground things in a sort-of reality — like calm servant Nelly Dean does amid the hyper-emotional drama in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Then there’s Diana Barry, who’s often with best friend Anne Shirley when the initiative-taking Ms. Shirley gets into all kinds of quirky situations in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. The more passive Diana tends to be a reluctant participant.

In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn is a kind of sidekick. Then, in the later Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is the main character — with Tom occupying a secondary role. A sidekick promotion!

Getting back to current fiction, we have Sgt. Frances Neagley in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. She appears only periodically — Jack often goes it alone, of course — but when she does show up she’s a great help to Reacher as he fights the bad guys. Neagley and Reacher share a military-police background and the qualities of discipline, competence, bravery, loyalty, and…being loners.

Can a character have more than one sidekick? Why not? An example of this would be Dorothy and her three sidekicks: the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

That reminds me that there’s something about the notion of sidekicks that often has them accompanying their “superiors” on a quest, an adventure, a trip to some destination. At minimum, they tend to appear in very plot-oriented novels.

Who are your favorite sidekicks in literature?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about gentrification, rent control, an expensive stairway fix, and more — is here.

Small-Town Novels Can Pay Big Literary Dividends

I’ve spent my whole life living in the city or medium-sized suburbs, so it’s an interesting change of pace for me to occasionally visit small towns — and to more-than-occasionally read novels set in small towns.

We’re all aware of the pros and cons of not-big burgs. Many residents know each other, there can be lots of friendliness, life is calmer, the streetscape and landscape are often pretty, etc. But small-town residents can know TOO much about each other, be mostly homogeneous in race and ethnicity, be narrow-minded in a number of cases, get very bored, etc. And then there’s the possibility of a family having three (or even four) generations in the same community — which can be good or bad.

Still, people who don’t live in a small town might find reading about one fascinating and almost exotic.

I’ve nearly finished a small-town-set novel: Empire Falls, the masterful Pulitzer Prize-winning gem by Richard Russo. Empire Falls, Maine, is going downhill economically, and 42-year-old protagonist Miles Roby isn’t doing so well, either. The diner he operates barely breaks even (at best), his wife Janine divorces him after falling in lust with an obnoxious guy who frequents the diner, Miles’ eccentric father is a total embarrassment, and the rich widow who basically owns the town basically owns Roby, too. Yet there are some wonderful human interactions (such as between Miles and his bright teen daughter Tick) and other positive elements of living in a small town.

That’s certainly the case in Jennifer Ryan’s heartwarming The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, in which many women join together to form a song group while local men are away fighting in World War II. But the novel, set in an English village, is not always sentimental as some devastating deaths occur and some not-nice characters act…not nicely.

Another World War II novel set in a small community is The Moon Is Down — an absorbing, lesser-known John Steinbeck work about a Nazi-occupied town (in Norway?) whose brave residents resist the Germans.

In Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, protagonist Janie Crawford’s unhappy second marriage places her in the small town of Eatonville, Fla. Her nasty/sexist husband becomes mayor there, and also runs a general store with a front porch that becomes Eatonville’s center of social life — but he doesn’t allow Janie to be there. Yes, a small town can be a place that perniciously forces women into “traditional” gender roles.

Things are more idealized in W.P. Kinsella’s Magic Time, which focuses on Mike Houle as he plays for a semipro baseball team in Grand Mound, Iowa. Everything in the tiny burg seems too good to be true — is it paradise, or a gilded cage?

Then there are various Sinclair Lewis novels — such as Main Street — set in small-town America. Those memorable Lewis books tend to satirize those communities for being conservative, resistant to change, and so on, yet some affection for the life there shines through.

Fannie Flagg, whose excellent novels are nearly always set in small towns, depicts those places in mostly positive ways — while not ignoring their downsides. One of her most moving and enjoyable books is A Redbird Christmas, in which the middle-aged Oswald Campbell is ill and miserable in snowy Chicago before finding health, happiness, and love after moving to a diminutive Alabama community.

Of course, many novels feature the opposite migration — from small town to big city as the protagonists search for money, diversity, excitement, a more creative life, and so on. One example is Denise Baudu’s move to Paris in Emile Zola’s compelling Au Bonheur des Dames.

Getting back to Alabama, one of literature’s most famous small-town novels is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The fictional Maycomb (said to be partly based on the real-life Monroeville) is not big, but it has all kinds of things going on — including neighborliness, racism, and kids being kids but also growing up too soon as they see life’s realities. And the characters range from ethical to eccentric to awful. Which proves the obvious point that no matter how small or large a place is, there are all kinds of recognizable people and emotions a novelist can depict.

What are your favorite novels set in small towns?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a greedy developer crowding my town and making it less diverse — is here.