Oftentimes, when I want to approach a topic I am not familiar with, I turn to narrative nonfiction. The best narrative nonfiction books are engaging, as they can take a sprawling subject such as healthcare or gun violence, and place the lives of those impacted at the forefront, creating wholly human stories. Here are seven narrative nonfiction reads that are at the top of my list.
7 Urgent and Compassionate Narrative Nonfiction Works
Adam Brookes shines a light on an oft overlooked, unbelievable piece of history in FRAGILE CARGO. On the eve of war between China and Japan, the curators of China’s Forbidden City are faced with the daunting question of what to do with the vast collections of imperial art under their charge. The decision is made to evacuate the irreplaceable art, and with World War II as as a whole as a backdrop, a sixteen-year journey of transporting the art across the country begins. Harrowing yet inspiring, FRAGILE CARGO is an inspiring look at those who dared to protect art and beauty in the face of violence.
The “gripping and meticulously researched” (The Times, London) true story of the determined museum curators who saved the priceless treasures of China’s Forbidden City in the years leading up to World War II and beyond.
Spring 1933: The silent courtyards and palaces of Peking’s Forbidden City, for centuries the home of Chinese emperors, are tense with fear and expectation. Japan’s aircrafts drone overhead, its troops and tanks are only hours away. All-out war between China and Japan is coming, and the curators of the Forbidden City are faced with an impossible question: how will they protect the vast imperial art collections in their charge? A difficult and monumental decision is made: to safeguard the treasures, they will need to be evacuated.
The magnificent collections contain a million pieces of art—objects that carry China’s deepest and most ancient memories. Among them are irreplaceable artefacts: exquisite paintings on silk, rare Ming porcelain, and the extraordinary Stone Drums of Qin, which are adorned with 2,500-year-old inscriptions of cultural significance.
For sixteen years, under the quiet leadership of museum director Ma Heng, the curators would go on to transport the imperial art collections thousands of miles across China—up rivers of white water, across mountain ranges, and through burning cities. In their search for safety the curators and their fragile, invaluable cargo journeyed through the maelstrom of violence, chaos, and starvation that was China’s Second World War.
Told for the first time in English and playing out across a vast historical canvas, this “compelling story of art, war, and adventure” (Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of The Romanovs: 1613-1918) follows the small group of men and women who, when faced with war’s onslaught on civilization, chose to resist.
In THE PEOPLE’S HOSPITAL, Dr. Ricardo Nulia not only makes clear the pitfalls of America’s healthcare system, but provides a potential solution for making good healthcare accessible to all. Dr. Nulia details the stories of five uninsured Houstonians who have all come to Ben Taub, the county hospital he has worked at for more than a decade, for treatment. THE PEOPLE’S HOSPITAL provides a stark look at how individuals are disqualified from health insurance, and offers insight into the benefits of a hospital that functions on a people-before-profits model.
Where does one go without health insurance, when turned away by hospitals, clinics, and doctors? In The People’s Hospital, physician Ricardo Nuila’s stunning debut, we follow the lives of five uninsured Houstonians as their struggle for survival leads them to a hospital where insurance comes second to genuine care.
First, we meet Stephen, the restaurant franchise manager who signed up for his company’s lowest priced plan, only to find himself facing insurmountable costs after a cancer diagnosis. Then Christian—a young college student and retail worker who can’t seem to get an accurate diagnosis, let alone treatment, for his debilitating knee pain. Geronimo, thirty-six years old, has liver failure, but his meager disability check disqualifies him for Medicaid—and puts a life-saving transplant just out of reach. Roxana, who’s lived in the community without a visa for more than two decades, suffers from complications related to her cancer treatment. And finally, there’s Ebonie, a young mother whose high-risk pregnancy endangers her life. Whether due to immigration status, income, or the vagaries of state Medicaid law, all five are denied access to care. For all five, this exclusion could prove life-threatening.
Each patient eventually lands at Ben Taub, the county hospital where Dr. Nuila has worked for over a decade. Nuila delves with empathy into the experiences of his patients, braiding their dramas into a singular narrative that contradicts the established idea that the only way to receive good healthcare is with good insurance. As readers follow the movingly rendered twists and turns in each patient’s story, it’s impossible to deny that our system is broken—and that Ben Taub’s innovative model, which emphasizes people over payments, could help light the path forward.
In THE TOMORROW GAME, Sudhir Venkatesh crafts a deeply reported nonfiction story that reads like a crime novel as he follows two boys living in Chicago’s South Side whose crews are racing to try and obtain a gun first. Venkatesh starts from the origins of the conflict—a teenage boy’s quest to win the respect of his crew through enacting violence—and shows how that decision spirals out, impacting families and the community at large. This search for a gun as well as efforts to defuse the conflict is told in an astonishingly in-depth account of the causes and impacts of gun violence.
A New York Times bestselling author’s gripping account of a Chicago community coming together to save a group of teenagers from gun violence.
In the tradition of works like Random Family and Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Sudhir Venkatesh’s The Tomorrow Game is a deeply reported chronicle of families surviving in a Southside Chicago community.
At the heart of the story are two teenagers: Marshall Mariot, an introverted video gamer and bike rider, and Frankie Paul, who leaves foster care to direct his cousin’s drug business while he’s in prison. Frankie devises a plan to attack Marshall and his friends—it is his best chance to showcase his toughness and win respect for his crew. Catching wind of the plan, Marshall and his friends decide they must preemptively go after Frankie’s crew to defend their honor. The pressure mounts as both groups of teens race to find a gun and strike first. All the while, the community at large—a cast that includes the teens’ families, black market gun dealers, local pastors, a bodega owner, and a veteran beat cop—try their best to defuse the conflict and keep the kids alive.
Based on Venkatesh’s three decades of immersion in Chicago’s Southside, and as propulsive as a novel, The Tomorrow Game is a nuanced, timely look at the toll that poverty and gun violence take on families and their communities.
Pastor and activist Gregory Boyle places focus on finding faith and sharing restorative love in every anecdote of TATTOOS ON THE HEART. More than thirty years ago, Father Boyle founded Homeboy Industries, a program focused on gang-intervention, rehabilitation, and reentry. Through the stories of those who have come through Homeboy Industries, he communicates heartening, universal lessons on the power of compassion and forging community when facing even the most difficult of circumstances.
“Destined to become a classic of both urban reportage and contemporary spirituality” (Los Angeles Times)—Tattoos on the Heart is a series of parables about kinship and redemption from pastor, activist, and renowned speaker, Father Gregory Boyle.
Thirty years ago, Gregory Boyle founded Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention, rehabilitation, and reentry program in Los Angeles, the gang capital of the world. In Tattoos on the Heart, his debut book, he distills his experience working with gang members into a breathtaking series of parables inspired by faith.
From giant, tattooed Cesar, shopping at JC Penney fresh out of prison, you learn how to feel worthy of God’s love. From ten-year-old Pipi you learn the importance of being known and acknowledged. From Lulu you come to understand the kind of patience necessary to rescue someone from the dark—as Father Boyle phrases it, we can only shine a flashlight on a light switch in a darkened room.
This is a motivating look at how to stay faithful in spite of failure, how to meet the world with a loving heart, and how to conquer shame with boundless, restorative love.
Urgent and timely, Jake Bittle’s THE GREAT DISPLACEMENT stands out from other books on climate change by discussing its current impact through a human-centered lens, as opposed to situating it as an event to come in the future. From flooding in Louisiana to displacement caused by California wildfires, Bittle spotlights the forced migration of tens of thousands of families due to the consequences of climate change.
“The Great Displacement is closely observed, compassionate, and far-sighted.” —Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Under a White Sky
The untold story of climate migration in the United States—the personal stories of those experiencing displacement, the portraits of communities being torn apart by disaster, and the implications for all of us as we confront a changing future.
Even as climate change dominates the headlines, many of us still think about it in the future tense—we imagine that as global warming gets worse over the coming decades, millions of people will scatter around the world fleeing famine and rising seas. What we often don’t realize is that the consequences of climate change are already visible, right here in the United States. In communities across the country, climate disasters are pushing thousands of people away from their homes.
A human-centered narrative with national scope, The Great Displacement is “a vivid tour of the new human geography just coming into view” (David Wallace-Wells, New York Times bestselling author of The Uninhabitable Earth). From half-drowned Louisiana to fire-scorched California, from the dried-up cotton fields of Arizona to the soaked watersheds of inland North Carolina, people are moving. In the last few decades, the federal government has moved tens of thousands of families away from flood zones, and tens of thousands more have moved of their own accord in the aftermath of natural disasters. Insurance and mortgage markets are already shifting to reflect mounting climate risk, pricing people out of risky areas.
Over the next fifty years, millions of Americans will be caught up in this churn of displacement, forced inland and northward in what will be the largest migration in our country’s history. The Great Displacement compassionately tells the stories of those who are already experiencing life on the move, while detailing just how radically climate change will transform our lives—erasing historic towns and villages, pushing people toward new areas, and reshaping the geography of the United States.
In order to understand the pioneering ideas and movements of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin, one must look at who they were raised by. Enter Alberta King, Louise Little, and Berdis Baldwin, the women at the center of Anna Malaika Tubbs’s THE THREE MOTHERS. Raising sons while facing Jim Crow prejudices, Alberta, Louise, and Berdis took it upon themselves to put resistance, social justice, and self-expression at the center of all their lessons at a time where their sons’ humanities were sure to be questioned.
In THE LONG ROAD HOME, Debra Thompson intersects the ideas of roots and routes as means of tracing her personal history alongside that of the United States and Canada. She starts in Shrewsbury, Ontario, one of the termini of the Underground Railroad, a place where her ancestors sought refuge after escaping slavery. From there, she travels to four other homes in the United States, examining her relationship with each place concurrently with that location’s history of racism. Finally, she settles in Montreal, a city where Black transnational movements have long existed next to uneasiness with the unfamiliar.
FINALIST FOR THE HILARY WESTON WRITERS’ TRUST PRIZE FOR NONFICTION
From a leading scholar on the politics of race comes a work of family history, memoir, and insight gained from a unique journey across the continent, on what it is to be Black in North America.
When Debra Thompson moved to the United States in 2010, she felt like she was returning to the land of her ancestors, those who had escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. But her decade-long journey across Canada and the US transformed her relationship to both countries, and to the very idea of home.
In The Long Road Home, Thompson follows the roots of Black identities in North America and the routes taken by those who have crisscrossed the world’s longest undefended border in search of freedom and belonging. She begins in Shrewsbury, Ontario, one of the termini of the Underground Railroad and the place where members of her own family found freedom. More than a century later, Thompson still feels the echoes and intergenerational trauma of North American slavery. She was often the Only One—the only Black person in so many white spaces—in a country that perpetuates the national mythology of multiculturalism.
Then she revisits her four American homes, each of which reveals something peculiar about the relationship between American racism and democracy: Boston, Massachusetts, the birthplace of the American Revolution; Athens, Ohio, where the white working class and the white liberal meet; Chicago, Illinois, the great Black metropolis; and Eugene, Oregon, the western frontier. She then moves across the border and settles in Montreal, a unique city with a long history of transnational Black activism, but one that does not easily accept the unfamiliar and the foreign into the fold.
The Long Road Home is a moving personal story and a vital examination of the nuances of racism in the United States and Canada. Above all, it is about the power of freedom and the dreams that link and inspire Black people across borders from the perspective of one who has deep ties to, critiques of, and hope for both countries.
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