Against All Odds: 6 Underdog Tales to Inspire You

September 22 2022
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Everybody loves an underdog. More specifically, everybody loves the story of an underdog, in which an unexpected, unassuming, or altogether unknown character overcomes the odds to become an unlikely hero. It’s the foundation for some of the oldest tales ever told, and it remains a fixture of storytelling for its simplicity. But don’t mistake that simple premise as a sign of unsophistication—it’s these hero stories that evoke the most emotion from readers. Inspiring us as we, page by page, follow their journey while they defy all doubt.

To honor those stories and pay tribute to the characters that continue to light a fire in our imagination (and under our feet), we’ve compiled a list of books best defined by their protagonists. Here’s to the characters who fight against all odds.

The Last Days of Dogtown
by Anita Diamant

Welcome to Dogtown, as it’s called by its rich neighbors in Cape Ann. This small, dying town in Massachusetts is the setting for Anita Diamant’s absorbing novel featuring no less than fifteen characters in the early part of the nineteenth century. THE LAST DAYS OF DOGTOWN’s first chapter opens on a wake for one of the last men in Dogtown. It’s here we meet the mostly women who have come to pay their respects to him. Among them is Black Ruth, an African woman who dresses as a man and works as a stonemason; Tammy Younger, thought to be a witch; Cornelius Finson, a freed slave separated from his soulmate by the racist townspeople; and Judy Rhines, the novel’s center and a lonely soul who builds a life for herself against all odds. Each of Dogtown’s inhabitants has suffered some sort of tragedy or endured some sort of setback, and Diamant provides vivid portraits of the residents, connecting their stories for a satisfying read. It’s fiction at its best, offering characters you’ll make life-long connections with.

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The Last Days of Dogtown
Anita Diamant

“An excellent novel. A lovely and moving portrait of society’s outcasts…affirms the essential humanity of its poor and stubborn residents, for whom each day of survival is a victory” (The New York Times Book Review).

Set on the high ground at the heart of Cape Ann, the village of Dogtown is peopled by widows, orphans, spinsters, scoundrels, whores, free Africans, and “witches.” Among the inhabitants of this hamlet are Black Ruth, who dresses as a man and works as a stonemason; Mrs. Stanley, an imperious madam whose grandson, Sammy, comes of age in her brothel; Oliver Younger, who survives a miserable childhood at the hands of his aunt; and Cornelius Finson, a freed slave. At the center of it all is Judy Rhines, a fiercely independent soul, deeply lonely, who nonetheless builds a life for herself against all imaginable odds.

Rendered in stunning, haunting detail, with Anita Diamant’s keen ear for language and profound compassion for her characters, The Last Days of Dogtown is an extraordinary retelling of a long-forgotten chapter of early American life.

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What Could Be Saved
by Liese O'Halloran Schwarz

Family can often be a high-stakes affair. But what happens when a family member returns after more than 40 years of being “missing”? WHAT COULD BE SAVED follows Laura Preston as she seeks to reconnect her family against the most improbable odds. It’s 2019, and Laura is struggling to deal with her mother’s dementia diagnosis. As she continually argues with her sister, Beatrice, about what to do next, Laura receives a mysterious email. It seems that there is a man in Thailand claiming to be her brother Philip. Just as Laura hops a plane to follow up on this man’s claim, readers are transported back to 1972 Bangkok, where the Preston family is residing. There we meet Laura, her parents Robert and Genevieve, and her two siblings, Beatrice...and Philip and learn about that one summer night when Philip vanishes. Bouncing back and forth between modern-day and the 1970s, WHAT COULD BE SAVED unravels a mystery that also provides sharp commentary on race, privilege, and power. Through it all a family, broken by loss and betrayal, seeks to overcome the obstacles and reunite in this page-turning work.

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What Could Be Saved
Liese O'Halloran Schwarz

When a mysterious man claims to be her long-missing brother, a woman must confront her family’s closely guarded secrets in this “delicious hybrid of mystery, drama, and elegance” (Jodi Picoult, #1 New York Times bestselling author).

Washington, DC, 2019: Laura Preston is a reclusive artist at odds with her older sister Beatrice as their elegant, formidable mother slowly slides into dementia. When a stranger contacts Laura claiming to be her brother who disappeared forty years earlier when the family lived in Bangkok, Laura ignores Bea’s warnings of a scam and flies to Thailand to see if it can be true. But meeting him in person leads to more questions than answers.

Bangkok, 1972: Genevieve and Robert Preston live in a beautiful house behind a high wall, raising their three children with the help of a cadre of servants. In these exotic surroundings, Genevieve strives to create a semblance of the life they would have had at home in the US—ballet and riding classes for the children, impeccable dinner parties, a meticulously kept home. But in truth, Robert works for American intelligence, Genevieve finds herself drawn into a passionate affair with her husband’s boss, and their serene household is vulnerable to unseen dangers in a rapidly changing world and a country they don’t really understand.

Alternating between past and present as all of the secrets are revealed, What Could Be Saved is an unforgettable novel about a family broken by loss and betrayal, and “a richly imagined page-turner that delivers twists alongside thought-provoking commentary” (Kirkus Reviews).

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Children of the Jacaranda Tree
by Sahar Delijani

Sometimes survival alone is an outcome against all likelihood. In Sahar Delijani’s powerful debut novel, CHILDREN OF THE JACARANDA TREE, three young people and their family members seek only to survive in post-revolutionary Iran. There’s Neda, whose mother, Azar, is forced to nurse her in the confines of Evin Prison before she’s unexpectedly taken away and never to be seen again. There’s Omid, whose parents are kidnapped by government agents from the family kitchen, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents and aunt. And, finally, there’s Sheida, born in the detention center portion of Evin Prison, who learns years later of her father’s execution and must reckon with that new information to salvage a relationship with her mother. Taking place between 1983 and 2011, the plotlines of these characters illustrate the impact a history of bloodshed has on a country and how the following generation is left to pick up the pieces. Poetic but at times brutally painful, CHILDREN OF THE JACARANDA TREE is a moving tribute to characters that have fought against all odds told by an immensely talented author certain to shine in the years to come.

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Children of the Jacaranda Tree
Sahar Delijani

Neda is born in Iran’s Evin Prison, where her mother is allowed to nurse her for a few months before an anonymous guard appears at the cell door one day and simply takes her away. In another part of the city, three-year-old Omid witnesses the arrests of his political activist parents from his perch at their kitchen table, yogurt dripping from his fingertips. Set in post-revolutionary Iran from 1983 to 2011, this stunning debut novel follows a group of mothers, fathers, children, and lovers, some related by blood, others brought together by the tide of history that washes over their lives. Finally, years later, it is the next generation who is left with the burden of the past and their country’s tenuous future as a new wave of protest and political strife begins.

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The Abduction of Smith and Smith
by Rashad Harrison

When you’re desperate enough to turn to your arch-enemy for aid, your back must truly be against the wall. Such is life for Jupiter Smith in THE ABDUCTION OF SMITH AND SMITH. Jupiter, having fought for the Union in the American Civil War, returns to the plantation he once worked on in search of his wife. Instead, what Jupiter finds is his old master at his wit’s end, tormenting those left in his circle. In an act of mercy, Jupiter kills the master and heads west. Little does Jupiter know, the slave master’s son, Confederate soldier Archie Smith, arrives home shortly after his departure. And when Archie finds his father killed, he vows revenge. What follows is a manhunt across the continent—until Archie, now an opium addict, becomes a target of a San Francisco gang, which Jupiter just so happens to work for. Jupiter tries to save Archie, but the failed attempt lands both men shanghaied and aboard a ship engaged in devious activities. The two men must rely on each other to survive, in the most unlikely of alliances, as they seek to return home in one piece. A historical adventure at its best, THE ABDUCTION OF SMITH AND SMITH is a wild ride on the high seas that you’ll devour.

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The Abduction of Smith and Smith
Rashad Harrison

In this “splendid tale of high-seas adventure” (Marcus J. Guillory, author of Red Now and Laters), two enemies become the unlikeliest of allies as they fight to save their own lives aboard a hell ship headed into the dangerous unknown.

The Civil War is over, though for Jupiter Smith, a former slave and Union soldier, many battles still lie ahead. He returns to the plantation he worked on before the war in search of his woman, but instead finds his old master gone mad, haunting the ruins like a ghost. Out of pity for the now mentally ill colonel, Jupiter strangles him and heads west to seek a new life in San Francisco.

When the colonel’s son, Confederate soldier Archer Smith, arrives home and finds his father murdered, he vows revenge upon Jupiter for all he has lost—following his former slave to the far reaches of the continent.

But things take a new turn as Archer’s desire for retribution is overwhelmed by his dependency on opium, and he ends up the target of a gang of “crimpers”…the very gang that Jupiter works for in San Francisco. When Jupiter fails in an attempt to save Archer, they both end up shanghaied aboard a ship headed on a dangerous mission and ruled by a merciless captain. Will the two Smiths work together to stay alive and return home, or will they become victims of the sea, the crew, and their mad captain?

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One of the Boys
by Daniel Magariel

Daniel Magariel’s ONE OF THE BOYS is a haunting portrait of a father’s abuse of his two sons following a custody battle with his ex-wife. Having “won the war” against their mother, the father vows to “be a kid again” as he brings his two sons to a stuffy Albuquerque apartment. There, the children—who have been beaten into an undying loyalty to their father—find their dad has become an addict, eager to sabotage the boys’ lives for his own amusement, and to stunt any chance they have at growing apart from him. In violent late-night scenes, with an eccentric cast of characters coming and going out of their father’s orbit, ONE OF THE BOYS illuminates the fear and anxiety of living in a household of physical and psychological abuse. Readers witness the tragic impact this type of abusive relationship can have on two impressionable children. Through it all, the book’s narrator, the younger son, fights to be compassionate and salvage the shattered pieces of his family. It’s a daring work by an extremely talented writer.

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One of the Boys
Daniel Magariel

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The Evening Hero
by Marie Myung-Ok Lee

THE EVENING HERO focuses on one man’s journey to achieve the American dream and the secrets that may just upend his life’s work to get there. Dr. Yungman Kwak is an obstetrician in a small Minnesota town and has been for decades. But when the hospital’s holding corporation shuts down, Yungman is forced to leave the job he’s clung to for decades. His son, a “tech-bro” working for the same company seeks to help his father but finds Yungman unwilling to adopt his new ethos. But when a letter arrives for Yungman, threatening to reveal his secrets left behind in Korea, he’s forced to rethink everything. Questioning his life, the American healthcare system, and the American Dream that he’s obsessed over for years, Yungman must reckon with his past to preserve any kind of hope for a future. Toggling between the past and the present, Korea and America, readers learn of Yungman’s roots, his “survival” of the Korean war, and the many scars that war left on him and so many other immigrants. THE EVENING HERO is a sweeping, lyrical novel that offers poignant insights on immigration to the US. Its story and main character elucidate the secrets and risks taken by such groups seeking a new life and how those choices can either make them...or destroy them.

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The Evening Hero
Marie Myung-Ok Lee

A sweeping, lyrical novel following a Korean immigrant pursuing the American dream who must confront the secrets of the past or risk watching the world he’s worked so hard to build come crumbling down.

Dr. Yungman Kwak is in the twilight of his life. Every day for the last fifty years, he has brushed his teeth, slipped on his shoes, and headed to Horse Breath’s General Hospital, where, as an obstetrician, he treats the women and babies of the small rural Minnesota town he chose to call home.

This was the life he longed for. The so-called American dream. He immigrated from Korea after the Korean War, forced to leave his family, ancestors, village, and all that he knew behind. But his life is built on a lie. And one day, a letter arrives that threatens to expose it.

Yungman’s life is thrown into chaos—the hospital abruptly closes, his wife refuses to spend time with him, and his son is busy investing in a struggling health start-up. Yungman faces a choice—he must choose to hide his secret from his family and friends or confess and potentially lose all he’s built. He begins to question the very assumptions on which his life is built—the so-called American dream, with the abject failure of its healthcare system, patient and neighbors who perpetuate racism, a town flawed with infrastructure, and a history that doesn’t see him in it.

Toggling between the past and the present, Korea and America, Evening Hero is a sweeping, moving, darkly comic novel about a man looking back at his life and asking big questions about what is lost and what is gained when immigrants leave home for new shores.

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Photo credit: iStock / fcscafeine

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