As someone who grew up near a city, I’ve always found opportunities to be submersed in nature very appealing. What’s it like in a town where you can look out and see mountains before you spot the nearest house? How difficult is it to live in a place with freezing cold temperatures, or one where there’s not much of a buffer between you and the elements? No matter your intention for seeking out these types of stories, this list will throw you headfirst into worlds where the setting feels like a protagonist.
In the gripping opening to HALF BROKE HORSES, Lily and her younger siblings cling to a tree overnight to avoid flash flood waters below. The vestiges of their world quickly assemble around them: their mother’s faith and belief that things happen for a reason, their father’s comeback from injury and urge to fight. Home is a half-hidden bunker, then rebuilt with scavenged wood from a neighbor who can no longer weather the Texas farmland. Life is unpredictable and freeing at times, with opportunities to learn and be challenged and explore. I loved following along as Lily jumped from topic to topic, keeping me guessing as to what family story might be recounted next.
I highly recommend listening to the audiobook of THE GREAT ALONE: with Leni’s voice in your ear, the ravaging wilderness of a small Alaskan town unfolding in both a magnificent and chilling way will remain with you for quite some time. I found myself wishing I had the words to describe my own surroundings in such evocative detail, and wondering how long I could last in Leni’s shoes. Leni’s father, a former POW, has a bad temper and a fondness for schemes, and Alaska is his most recent idea: a new life, a piece of land. But nothing goes as planned, and Leni worries she may be incapable of saving anyone, not even herself.
Reading chapters from both Mona’s and her daughter Ariel’s perspectives makes it easy for these women’s stories to quickly resonate. Feeling unsettled and angry before the upcoming election and the potential sale of her animal sanctuary, Mona feels ready to resist—even if it’s by removing a political sign from the yard of a conservative neighbor. She thinks of Ariel, who ran off to a more progressive town six years ago. Soon a disturbing event lures Ariel back home to Mona and her childhood town in Western Kansas, and to a collection of characters who don’t understand one another. Here mother and daughter must confront their differences under the wide-open Kansas sky—and amongst adorable, irresistible animals.
From the winner of the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction comes a “heartwarming and sharp-witted debut” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) set over one emotionally charged weekend at an animal sanctuary in western Kansas, where maternal, romantic, and community bonds are tested in the wake of an estranged daughter’s homecoming.
The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is in trouble.
It’s late 2016 when Ariel discovers that her mother Mona’s animal sanctuary in Western Kansas has not only been the target of anti-Semitic hate crimes—but that it’s also for sale, due to hidden financial ruin. Ariel, living a new life in progressive Lawrence, and estranged from her mother for six long years, knows she has to return to her childhood home—especially since her own past may have played a role in the attack on the sanctuary. Ariel expects tension, maybe even fury, but she doesn’t anticipate that her first love, a ranch hand named Gideon, will still be working at Bright Side.
Back in Lawrence, Ariel’s charming but hapless fiancé, Dex, grows paranoid about her sudden departure. After uncovering Mona’s address, he sets out to confront Ariel, but instead finds her grappling with the life she’s abandoned. Amid the reparations with her mother, it’s clear that Ariel is questioning the meaning of her life in Lawrence, and whether she belongs with Dex or someone else, somewhere else.
Acclaimed writer Pam Houston says that “Mandelbaum is wise beyond her years and twice as talented,” and The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals poignantly explores the unique love and tension between mothers and daughters, and humans and animals alike. “A story of reconciliation and forgiveness (and so many animals)” (Steven Rowley, bestselling author of Lily and the Octopus), Mandelbaum’s debut offers a panoramic view of the meaning of home and reminds us that love provides refuge, and underscores our similarities as human beings, no matter how alone or far apart we may feel.
Imagine if your top priority were to follow a whale migration from Mexico to Alaska. Think of the beauty in the simplicity of purpose, a submersion into the world of a completely different species. Now picture making the journey with a young child amid the reality of climate change. Cunningham’s memoir is fast-paced and engaging, jumping from childhood memories to her time with an Iñupiaq family to her mission to track the migration, all anchored by recurring vignettes of her experiences with whales. She considers their lives in juxtaposition to her own—her relationship with her own son, and the whale and human quests for survival. Emotionally charged and refreshingly honest, SOUNDINGS transports you to a variety of vivid landscapes for an untraditional adventure.
“This book is a gorgeous journey…You will be glad you’ve joined her.” —Susan Orlean, author of On Animals and The Library Book
In this memoir of motherhood, love, and resilience, a woman and her toddler son follow the grey whale migration from Mexico to northernmost Alaska.
In this striking blend of nature writing, whale science, and memoir, Doreen Cunningham interweaves two stories: tracking the extraordinary northward migration of the grey whales with a mischievous toddler in tow and living with an Iñupiaq family in Alaska seven years earlier. Throughout the journey she explores the stories of the whales and their young calves—their history, their habits, and their attempts to survive the changes humans have brought to the ocean.
Cunningham’s voice is powerful: sharp, profound, sensitive, and unflinching. A story of courage and resilience, Soundings is about the migrating whales and all we can learn from them as they mother, adapt, and endure, their lives interrupted and threatened by global warming. It is also a riveting journey onto the Arctic Sea ice and into the changing world of Indigenous whale hunters, where Doreen becomes immersed in the ancient values of the Iñupiaq whale hunt and falls in love. For this is Doreen’s story, too—a fierce, feminist tale, touching on her childhood and her time living in a Women’s Refuge with her baby, becoming a mother, just like the whales.
Lyrical, brave, and fearlessly honest, Soundings is an unforgettable journey.
The title of this book draws such an unusual image that I knew I needed to read on to learn more. Set in a small mountain town where alcohol is hard to come by and coal a hot commodity, the story is brought home by Witt’s characters. Their quirky personalities, love of music, and comradery despite unexpected hardships make for a world you never want to close a book on. The environmentalist in me also appreciated the insights into practices of large coal companies and their effects on Kentucky towns, especially on those who feel so tied to their lands.
Bringing to life a cast of eccentric, unforgettable characters, Lana Witt weaves a tale of epic dimension in a small rural town definitely worth a visit.
When wayward Californian Tom Jetts rolls his broken-down car into remote Pick, Kentucky, he finds himself in a town among friends, enemies, and lovers who are playing out tales as old as the prehistoric soil beneath their feet.
I’m sensing a theme here, and it’s one that perhaps is a good indication of where I should plan my next vacation: Alaska. Yes, THE SIMPLE WILD is the third novel on my list partially set here, and for good reason. What a place to really connect with nature, to confront your past and discover a different side of yourself. Calla may have been born there, but her mother soon whisked her off to Toronto, disappearing any instinctual adaptation to the Alaskan wild. Now twenty-six and dragged back at her father’s request, Calla has no context for what she might experience, and no plans to stay—even if she ends up forming an unexpected connection with a man working for her father.
City girl Calla Fletcher attempts to reconnect with her estranged father, and unwittingly finds herself torn between her desire to return to the bustle of Toronto and a budding relationship with a rugged Alaskan pilot in this masterful new romance from acclaimed author K.A. Tucker.
Calla Fletcher was two when her mother took her and fled the Alaskan wild, unable to handle the isolation of the extreme, rural lifestyle, leaving behind Calla’s father, Wren Fletcher, in the process. Calla never looked back, and at twenty-six, a busy life in Toronto is all she knows. But when her father reaches out to inform her that his days are numbered, Calla knows that it’s time to make the long trip back to the remote frontier town where she was born.
She braves the roaming wildlife, the odd daylight hours, the exorbitant prices, and even the occasional—dear God—outhouse, all for the chance to connect with her father: a man who, despite his many faults, she can’t help but care for. While she struggles to adjust to this new subarctic environment, Jonah—the quiet, brooding, and proud Alaskan pilot who keeps her father’s charter plane company operational—can’t imagine calling anywhere else home. And he’s clearly waiting with one hand on the throttle to fly this city girl back to where she belongs, convinced that she’s too pampered to handle the wild.
Jonah is probably right, but Calla is determined to prove him wrong. As time passes, she unexpectedly finds herself forming a bond with the burly pilot. As his undercurrent of disapproval dwindles, it’s replaced by friendship—or perhaps something deeper? But Calla is not in Alaska to stay and Jonah will never leave. It would be foolish of her to kindle a romance, to take the same path her parents tried—and failed at—years ago.
It’s a simple truth that turns out to be not so simple after all.
This is one of those books where you begin by wishing for an audio component to appreciate the protagonist’s musical abilities, and by the end you realize you’ve started hearing the music inside your head. The beautiful writing helps evoke this kind of multilayered experience, with detailed imagery that allows you to enter the sights, sounds, and colors of Kalu’s young life. In rural India, Kalu makes his own flute out of a banyan tree leaf, creating unique notes that earn him much attention. His main priorities being a safe place to sleep, a decent day’s work, and food to eat, he’s unsure of how to react to a man, a healer, who offers to care for him and pay him for his music. And so begins the hint of another life, one that can take a boy on all kinds of journeys.
Masterfully evoking the breathtaking beauty of India, Manisha Jolie Amin’s lyrical debut novel follows a young boy whose life takes an unexpected turn when he is sent to live with a reclusive but renowned musician.
“Kalu picked up the flute by his side and started to play. The sound was deep and full, as if he were translating his thoughts into music. It stayed in the air like dust floating on the sunlight, and each note held the promise of something not quite spoken but maybe heard in the darkness of a dream.”
Abandoned as a young child, Kalu, a cheeky street kid, has carved out a life for himself in rural India. In the quiet village of Hastinapore, Kalu has also found friends: Bal, the solitary boy who tends the local buffaloes, and Malti, a gentle servant girl, who with her mistress, Ganga Ba, has watched over Kalu since he first wandered into the small town.
One day, perched high in the branches of a banyan tree, Kalu chooses a leaf, rolls it tightly, and as he’s done for as long as he can remember, blows through it. His pure, simple notes dance through the air and attract a traveling healer, whose interest will change Kalu’s life forever, setting him on a path he would never have dreamt possible and testing his belief in himself and his sense of identity.
Rich in texture and atmosphere, Dancing to the Flute is a heartwarming story of a community’s joys and sorrows, the transformative powers of music, the many faces of friendship, and a boy’s journey, against all odds, to become a man.
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