When it comes to the bildungsroman—coming-of-age stories—here are my favorites. Because they span such a broad time period, I’ve listed them in the order in which they were published.
This was the first Dickens novel I ever read, and it’s still my favorite. The story of Pip, orphaned at an early age and carried throughout life on the changing whims of fortune good and bad, is Dickens at his funniest and also most poignant. From Pip’s chance encounter with the convict Magwitch in a graveyard, through his emotional torturing by the beautiful but cold Estella, into his manhood, which is complicated as only Dickens’s fruitful imagination could make it, Pip finds his way mostly with the kindness of others. In large measure, this is a story of hope for anyone with expectations in life both great and small.
"So I called myself, Pip. And came to be called, Pip." The great story of a young orphan, an old spinster, a murderer and thief and the intertwining of their lives for good and ill.
Hemingway famously said of this American classic, “It’s the best book we have. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before.” A bit of hyperbole, in my opinion, but he’s on the right track. The story of Huck and the runaway slave Jim as they raft down the Mississippi River in pre–Civil War days is quintessential coming-of-age. Not only did Twain invent a kind of idiomatic vernacular for the voice of Huck, the novel’s narrator, he bejeweled the novel with a plethora of wise observations that are sometimes sidesplitting and often deeply poignant. This is the book that inspired my own novel, THIS TENDER LAND.
I write profoundly out of a sense of place, and my love of Steinbeck is part of the reason. THE RED PONY was my introduction to his work, required reading my freshman year in high school. Written as a series of short stories, it’s the tale of a boy Jody Tiflin growing up on a ranch in the Salinas Valley, learning the difficult lessons as he prepares to cross the threshold into his manhood. A mix of both harsh realities and dreamy sequences, the story of Jody’s struggle to understand the world spoke to my adolescent self in a deep way, and Steinbeck’s stunning evocation of the landscape, which shaped so many of his stories, gave me an early appreciation of the importance of setting.
Although it’s often taught as a novel for adolescent readers, I didn’t discover this fine work until I was in my early twenties, and I loved it. It’s a tale of rivalry, real or imagined, between two friends. Like so many young men, I grew up being told that competition, athletic or otherwise, was a good thing because it made you strong. I competed with others but never comfortably. This story, set during World War Two in an exclusive boy’s academy called Devon, spoke to me deeply. The profound humanity of the Leperian Refusal has been with me all my life. Read this book and you’ll understand what I mean.
Set at a boys boarding school in New England during the early years of World War II, A Separate Peace is a harrowing and luminous parable of the dark side of adolescence. What happens between two friends one summer, like the war itself, banishes the innocence of these boys and their world.
Read the full review here.
This is my favorite American novel. Manifest in it for me are all the elements of great writing: powerful language, a stunning sense of place and time, memorable characters, and ageless themes. The voice of Scout Finch, the novel’s narrator, is one of the truest voices in all of literature. If you’ve never read this novel set in the 1930s, the story of a black man accused of raping a white woman and the effect this incident has on everyone in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, it’s high time you did something about it.
Wendy’s Fictional Dinner Party Guest: Atticus Finch
Perhaps it’s a cliché to want to have dinner with Atticus Finch—lawyer, father, all-around good man. Atticus is known for his conscience, grace, compassion, and morality. I suspect that his words would be full of insight and wisdom, and challenge me to sit straighter in my chair.
Larry McMurtry left a marvelous legacy of compelling stories, many set in his home state of Texas. I first discovered McMurtry through his Pulitzer Prize–winning epic LONESONE DOVE. The second McMurtry novel I read was his debut, HORSEMAN, PASS BY, published when he was only twenty-five and translated to the big screen as the classic Paul Newman film Hud. It’s a raw tale of harsh life on a cattle ranch, and of a teenager whose heroes do nothing but disappoint him. Like so many coming-of-age stories, it ends with an exit, the young man embarking on the life that awaits him now that he’s put his childhood behind. The prose is wonderful, and it’s easy to see in the setting, characters, and themes everything that, in the years to come, would mark McMurtry as one of our finest storytellers.
The novel that became the basis for the film Hud, starring Paul Newman. In classic Western style McMurtry illustrates the timeless conflict between modernity and the Old West through the eyes of Texas cattlemen.
Most readers may be familiar with the 1986 film Stand by Me. But how many realize that this memorable film was based on a terrific Stephen King novella titled THE BODY? This story of four kids on the edge of manhood who embark on a journey in search of a dead boy may be the best evocation in print of the nature of adolescent male friendships. King’s breezy narrative voice rolls out the prose, and the dialogue is spot on. The film ends with a line not in the book, but perhaps it should have been because it sums up perfectly the sentiment of the story: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”
This fine story won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2001, and rightly so. Set in East Texas, in the bottomlands near the Sabine River during the Great Depression, it’s a grisly tale of murder, racial prejudice, and poverty seen through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy. Not only is the story a compelling thriller in the best sense of that word, but it’s also a realistic portrayal of a southern community divided by politics, wealth, and race. As with all my favorite novels, the marvelous sense of place, of the unique landscape along the Sabine River, contributes significantly to the story’s appeal.
This isn’t a novel but a memoir, a collection of essays about the important lessons we learn in our youth that serve us well as we grow into adulthood. When Meyers was a young teenager, his father died suddenly of a stroke, leaving his children and widow to do all the work of running a hardscrabble farm operation in southwestern Minnesota. With pure simplicity of language and a deft eye for both the beauty and the challenge of the land, Meyers recalls the events of his childhood and the firm guidance of his parents which made it possible for him and his siblings to face so many hard realities in the wake of their father’s passing. This is one of my favorite pieces of nonfiction and I recommend it constantly.
So okay, I’m including one of my own books in the list. This novel is the nearest I’ve ever come to a memoir. I drew on much of my own background and many of my own memories to create the story of a thirteen-year-old boy who, in the summer of 1961, sees death visit his small town in a number of forms—accident, nature, suicide, and murder. It also provided me with an opportunity to ruminate on the nature of our spiritual journey as seen through the eyes of a minister’s son. I put everything I know about storytelling into this novel, and I put my whole heart into it as well.
When tragedy unexpectedly comes to call on his family, thirteen-year-old Frank Drum finds himself thrust into a world of secrets, adultery, and betrayal. Set in 1961, Ordinary Grace is the story of what a shocking murder does to a boy standing at the door of adulthood and the fabric of a small Minnesota town.