We love Dolly Parton. We love her music, we love her persona, and we love that she has donated over 132 million books to kids through her program Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Last year, Dolly also sat down with Good Morning America’s Jenna Bush Hager to talk about her love for books, and during the interview she mentioned some of her favorite things to read. So, in true Off the Shelf fashion, we put together a list! Below is our Dolly-inspired TBR featuring books, authors, and genres she has said she loves, plus a few books we feel are true to the spirit of the legendary singer.
Dolly told Jenna, “I read everything in Reese Witherspoon’s book club.” We do too! And since Dolly runs her own book donation program, we have a feeling she would approve of our adding Susan Orlean’s The Library Book to this list. THE book for book-lovers, it’s a chronicle of the 1986 L.A. Public Library fire, but on a grander scale, it’s a tribute to books and the importance of libraries.
An incredibly touching novel, Susan Crandall’s Whistling Past the Graveyard is a natural fit for this list. Not only does it offer a deep look at Southern history, but it reflects Dolly’s messages about being kind and good to others. In 1963, precocious 9-year-old Starla runs away from her Mississippi home with one goal in mind: To reach Nashville and find her mother, who left when Starla was three to become a country music star. On her journey, Starla meets Eula, a black woman traveling with a white baby, and together the three of them set out on a road trip bound for Tennessee. Along the way, Starla learns about life as it really is in the Civil Right-era South and this new understanding changes her forever.
In the summer of 1963, nine-year-old Starla runs away from her strict grandmother’s home in Mississippi and embarks on a life-changing road trip.
Another book Dolly specifically mentioned on Good Morning America was Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. The classic adventure follows Edmond, a sailor who is torn from his beloved and wrongfully imprisoned by his enemies. Over a decade later, he escapes from his captors with directions to an island full of treasure that helps him establish a new life. But by this point, he’s lost his career, and his love has married another. Under the guise of a different identity, he sets out to take revenge on those who wronged him. It’s an epic tale of suspense, love, and retribution that ultimately illustrates how good can triumph over evil.
Young merchant sailor Edmond Dantès returns home to Marseille to marry his fiancée, but is betrayed by his best friends and unjustly imprisoned. After he manages to escape prison and discovers a secret fortune, Dantès sets out for revenge on those responsible.
One of the titles Dolly called out by name in her GMA interview was Water for Elephants. In Sara Gruen’s novel set during the Great Depression, a young vet becomes the animal caretaker for a third-rate circus. There he meets an unforgettable cast of characters, including Marlena, the beautiful star of the equestrian act and wife of the cruel animal ringleader, and Rosie, the seemingly untrainable elephant who is supposed to help save their show. It’s a wonderfully written story about hope, survival, and love.
During the Great Depression, Jacob Jankowski quits veterinary school and finds himself working at the second-rate Benzini Brothers circus, where he must contend with August, the mercurial animal trainer; Marlena, his performer wife; and Rosie, a bull elephant. There he finds danger, love, and the dark world behind the glamour.
Lee Smith is a New York Times bestselling author who usually incorporates Southern culture or settings into her stories. Since Dolly regularly shows pride for her own Tennessee roots, it’s no surprise she considers Smith one of her favorite scribes. This novel in particular follows Crystal, a young woman living in rural Appalachia, as she matures from 12 to 32. In the beginning, Crystal is the most popular girl in school, destined to leave town and do great things. As the book progresses, however, her life shifts, and she returns home confused and lost. It’s an amazingly beautiful, but melancholy, tale of innocence and the way women are often encouraged by society to become passive participants in their own lives.
This list would not be complete without Dumplin’—the book that inspired the Netflix movie of the same name. In Julie Murphy’s thoroughly charming novel, Willowdean Dickinson is a teenage girl dealing with insecurity about her weight and pressure from her mom, a former beauty queen. To try and overcome these, she does something completely unexpected: She enters into the Miss Clover City beauty pageant. With support from a few other unlikely candidates, not to mention inspiration from Dolly Parton’s music, Willowdean finds herself and her confidence. It’s a truly enjoyable and utterly heartwarming read.
If you've already listened to the podcast Dolly Parton’s America to fully catch up to speed on Dolly’s enduring legacy, pick up this copy of HEARTLAND author Sarah Smarsh’s take on the iconic singer and “women who have lived her songs.” An essay collection, first published as a four-part series by the music journal No Depression, SHE COME BY IT NATURAL is an essential read for all of us who have been inspired by Dolly and her trailblazing career.
The National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author of Heartland focuses her laser-sharp insights on a working-class icon and one of the most unifying figures in American culture: Dolly Parton.
Growing up amid Kansas wheat fields and airplane factories, Sarah Smarsh witnessed firsthand the particular vulnerabilities—and strengths—of women in working poverty. Meanwhile, country songs by female artists played in the background, telling powerful stories about life, men, hard times, and surviving. In her family, she writes, “country music was foremost a language among women. It’s how we talked to each other in a place where feelings aren’t discussed.” And no one provided that language better than Dolly Parton.
Smarsh challenged a typically male vision of the rural working class with her first book, Heartland, starring the bold, hard-luck women who raised her. Now, in She Come By It Natural, originally published in a four-part series for The Journal of Roots Music, No Depression, Smarsh explores the overlooked contributions to social progress by such women—including those averse to the term “feminism”—as exemplified by Dolly Parton’s life and art.
Far beyond the recently resurrected “Jolene” or quintessential “9 to 5,” Parton’s songs for decades have validated women who go unheard: the poor woman, the pregnant teenager, the struggling mother disparaged as “trailer trash.” Parton’s broader career—from singing on the front porch of her family’s cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains to achieving stardom in Nashville and Hollywood, from “girl singer” managed by powerful men to leader of a self-made business and philanthropy empire—offers a springboard to examining the intersections of gender, class, and culture.
Infused with Smarsh’s trademark insight, intelligence, and humanity, She Come By It Natural is a sympathetic tribute to the icon Dolly Parton and—call it whatever you like—the organic feminism she embodies.
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