Coming to America: 13 Immigrant Stories That Represent Our History
When you think of the word “immigrant,” different images may come to mind: perhaps it’s of Ellis Island, or colonists landing at Plymouth, or someone getting off a plane and starting fresh. Whatever your association, one thing has been the same throughout history: people come to America to find a better life for themselves and their families. This year, I am pledging to read more of those stories, especially the ones I haven’t heard before. If you’re looking for a place to start to learn more about the stories of immigrants, we’ve collected 13 novels about immigrating to the United States from its founding to today.
1A Place Called Freedom
In 1776, 21-year-old Mack McAsh escapes from the coal mines of Scotland where he’s worked for years in hopes of making a better life for himself in London. There, he becomes a leader in a working-class movement, but his involvement eventually results in his exile to the new colony of Virginia. A PLACE CALLED FREEDOM features a vivid cast of heroes and villains (including some familiar faces) that tell of the classic American quest for freedom.
2The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street
Malka Treynovsky flees Russia with her family in 1913, only to be crippled and abandoned in the streets of New York shortly after she arrives. Taken in by an Italian ice peddler on the Lower East Side, she soon learns the tricks of his trade and sets off across the country in an ice cream truck. Along the way, she creates an empire and transforms into Lillian Dunkle, “The Ice Cream Queen.”
3The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
This Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is best known for its exciting, epic deep dive into the lives of two cousins, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, as they make a name for themselves in the comics industry, but at its core, this is truly a story of immigrants, ambition, and identity. Though Joe escapes Europe before Hitler reaches the apex of his power, he can never quite shake the shadow of fascism cast over his family and work.
Adapted into an Oscar-nominated film last year, Colm Tóibín’s short and sweet novel about Eilis Lacey is an unforgettable story about love, loss, and home. When a priest offers to sponsor Eilis in New York, she leaves her beloved sister and small Irish town and moves to Brooklyn. There, she is given a job at a department store and meets a young Italian boy named Tony, but just as she begins to fall in love, news from home pulls her back and has her questioning the decision she’s made to start over.
5How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
A contemporary classic, Julia Alvarez’s first novel tells the story of the four García sisters—Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia—and their family’s arrival in New York City after fleeing the Dominican Republic in 1960. While their parents fight to maintain their Caribbean traditions, the girls try to find new lives. HOW THE GARCÍA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS is a must-read that explores the struggle to find the balance between old and new, and the meaning of home.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s beloved novel follows the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta to their new home of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their son, Gogol, is thus forced to walk the difficult path of a first-generation American, navigating loyalty, cultural identity, and love. It is a story of expectations, experiences, and self-definition that will resonate with any reader.
7Girl in Translation
When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, she quickly begins a secret double life: during the day, she is an exceptional student, and by night she works in a Chinatown sweatshop. As she struggles to move between the two worlds she occupies, Kimberly falls in love and tries to find a way to succeed against overwhelming odds.
8The Book of Unknown Americans
THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS centers around the Rivera family as they journey to America from Mexico after their daughter, Maribel, is injured and in need of care. Once they arrive, Maribel attracts the attention (and affection) of one of their new neighbors. The love story that follows, intertwined with the stories of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Latin America, has profound repercussions for everyone involved.
9The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Changez is living the American dream: he’s a graduate of Princeton working at a high-end firm and is embarking on a new relationship with a beautiful society woman. But when the Twin Towers fall, everything changes. As the world’s view of him is completely upended, Changez finds himself doubting the life he’s made for himself, and questioning whether it’s possible for the country he now loves to love him back.
AMERICANAH centers around the young Nigerian couple Ifemelu and Obinze, who are separated when Ifemelu heads to the United States. There, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time, and what it means to be an other in the aftermath of 9/11. Meanwhile, Obinze has been living an undocumented life in London, until the two reunite in the newly democratic Nigeria 15 years later.
11We Need New Names
When paramilitary policemen destroy her home, a ten-year-old girl named Darling must leave Zimbabwe to live with an aunt in the United States, a place she calls “Destroyedmichigan” (Detroit, Michigan). Though she travels to the middle of a new country to find opportunity and safety, she soon discovers that her options as an immigrant are few and far between. WE NEED NEW NAMES is a vivid and raw story of displacement and arrival that will break your heart and open your eyes.
In this haunting and powerful novel, Julius, a young Nigerian doctor, walks the streets of Manhattan between shifts, reflecting on his present, his past, his relationships, and the choices he has made that have led him to Morningside Heights. Along the way, he meets people from different cultures and classes who help him understand the deepest parts of his own soul.
13Behold the Dreamers
There have been dozens of novels recently published about the financial crisis of 2008, but few have focused on those most profoundly affected: the working families left to pick up the pieces. Jende Jonga is a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem with his wife, Neni, and child when he lands a job as a chauffeur for a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. As the story alternates between Jende and Neni and speeds perilously close to economic disaster, they learn about privilege, pride, and impossible choices.