Andrea Reads America: Virginia

Andrea Reads America map of books set in Virginia
Andrea Reads America: Virginia

Virginia. The state I now live in, and the state where this whole reading adventure began. As I mention in the About page for this Andrea Reads America project, my husband and I have moved many times: from Georgia to Maryland, to Florida and Maine, to Minnesota, and finally, to Virginia. Each time we relocated, I researched our new home not in welcome bureaus or newcomer guides, but through fiction. Well-set novels taught me about the land and its people, its culture, its history, and its idiosyncrasies.

After our family moved from Minnesota to Virginia in 2012, I read several novels set here, including Adriana Trigiani’s entire Big Stone Gap series, David Baldacci’s Wish You Well, and Tara Conklin’s The House Girl with my Virginia-based book club. Then, as now, I tried to read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and abandoned it.

It was settling in Virginia — settling someplace for the first time in our married lives — that made me start reading my way across the US. We were putting down roots, and I still had wanderlust. Now, 6 years later, I’ve almost completed the reading journey. It was nice to come (almost) full circle and read this state again, now that I live here and know it well.

The Known World book coverNovel: The Known World
Author: Edward P. Jones
Setting: 1840s and 50s Virginia

Set in fictitious Manchester County in Virginia in the 1840s and 1850s, The Known World is about a black slave owner, his slaves, and the world of slavery in Virginia. Shockingly, black slave owners are not fictitious — it did actually happen, though it was rare. The Known World explores what that was like for the owner, his slaves, and his former slave parents who saved for years to free him from slavery. As if slavery weren’t awful enough already, the betrayal of “owning your own” was immense.

The book jumps around a lot in time and sometimes it was hard to keep track of the characters. Overall it was an eye-opening glimpse into a world that would have never occurred to me existed.

Flowers in the Attic book coverNovel: Flowers in the Attic
Author: V.C. Andrews, born Portsmouth, VA
Setting: 1970s mansion in the Virginia mountains

I first read Flowers in the Attic in middle or high school, and it seemed so forbidden at the time. Now that I’ve read it again, I see why! Children locked hidden in an attic while their widowed mother waits for her rich father to die so she can inherit his wealth, an adolescent brother and sister developing sexually with only each other to turn their attention to, a wicked grandmother who only sees sin, not love, in the world. And all set against the backdrop of Virginia mountains a short train ride to Charlottesville, the children bearing the beauty of the seasons from behind windows, never to be outdoors, only seeing the sun and stars and leaves and flowers through glass.

At points it was terrible to read, not because of the story but because of the writing — so! many! exclamation! points! — but it was still a page-turner in its twisted terrible way.

Wish You Well book coverNovel: Wish You Well
Author: David Baldacci, born Richmond, VA
Setting: 1940s southwest Virginia: coal country

Set in the Appalachian mountains of southwest Virginia, Wish You Well is fiction that pulls from Baldacci’s childhood experiences in that region. It is an account of a 1940s family whose lives are isolated from any world off the mountain, who do not earn money to provide for themselves, but who work the land to survive.

Baldacci nailed the dialect – he wrote it masterfully, so that you can hear the characters’ speech, without the dialect being distracting or tiring. And he captured a way of life on the mountain that most of us will never know. Somehow, though, there wasn’t enough depth for me. Or maybe complexity. I can’t pinpoint what it was that had my mind wandering at times, or that kept me from getting truly engaged, but Wish You Well is worth a shot if you want to disappear into the mountains for a while, and particularly if you are interested in the coal mining issues currently going on in the Appalachians (blowing up the mountains to empty them of their coal and then abandon them, piles of rubble, barren and stripped of life).

Big Stone Gap book cover Novel: Big Stone Gap
Author: Adriana Trigiani, born and raised in VA
Setting: 1990s Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia

The Big Stone Gap series is a fun, beach or poolside race-through-the-story and the characters type of read. While there are certainly tensions and conflict, the overall memory I have of these books is that they were lighthearted, and I loved the characters.  The scenery is lovely as well. I’m pretty sure I read the entire series like a chain smoker smokes cigarettes, lighting the beginning of one off the end of another, in the space of a couple of weeks.

Andrea Reads America: Vermont

Andrea Reads America books set in Vermont
Andrea Reads America: Vermont

New England! These books made me miss New England, especially since it’s so hot outside right now. I was happy to immerse myself in winter pages of Vermont, and cozy up in the cottages in New England towns there.

The Secret History book cover Novel: The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt, attended Bennington College in VT
Setting: 1990s in a private New England college in Vermont

I ♥️ Donna Tartt. The Secret History, set in the 90s on the campus of an exclusive private school in Vermont and at the “country house” of one of the students, is a story I am still reeling from, and still trying to piece together.

The idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than almost anything. All truly civilized people — the ancients no less than us — have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old, animal self.

It wouldn’t be a true New England college book if it weren’t set on the campus of an elite — or at least expensive — campus, now would it? Told from the point of view of a Californian, Richard, who applied to the school because he liked the pamphlet, The Secret History follows his entry into an exclusive group of five other students who study ancient Greek under the tutelage of Julian, a teacher who does not take new students, and who takes near sole responsibility for the instruction of the students he has collected: they take classes from no other.

Richard earns their respect in the library one day and slowly makes his way into their inner circle. He soon finds they are deeply rooted in high intellectual thought, rich carnal pleasures, and the exploration of ancient mysteries. They live what they study, from speaking ancient Greek, to Bacchanalian rites, to murder and the vivid feeling of being alive after such acts. Richard, a bystander but not a player, goes along with it all: out of a sense of pride, of finding a group he wants to belong to, or simply because of his “own fatal tendency to make interesting people good.”

I loved this book. It is both beautiful and terrible. It is full of the brutal pain of cold and sorrow, and the euphoria of feeling: of being susceptible to beauty, to the colors of life, to the sense of understanding, and to the sense of belonging.

Midwives book cover Novel: Midwives
Author: Chris Bohjalian, lives in Vermont
Setting: rural Vermont in winter

During a winter storm that turns roads to black ice, a woman’s labor fails to progress during a home birth. Weakened by ill health and unproductive pushing, she appears to have a stroke after hours of pushing. The woman is dead, and the midwife, Sibyl Danforth performs a C-section with a kitchen knife to save the baby. Only, her novice assistant doesn’t believe the laboring mother was dead when the C-section was performed, and so Sibyl, the midwife, is put on trial.

Having birthed both of our children in birth centers attended by midwives rather than at hospitals attended by ob-gyns, I was impressed by how well the author presented the choice to give birth outside of a hospital (thought he didn’t go much into why many women choose against the hospital), and how the medical establishment treats women and families who make that choice. This was a fascinating look at both perspectives, though I wished it would have covered more of why families choose to birth at home or birthing centers rather than at hospitals.

My Garden book cover Book: My Garden
Author: Jamaica Kincaid
Setting: Jamaica Kincaid’s garden in Vermont

Set in Vermont in the author’s garden primarily, but also in flashbacks to her home country of Antigua and a plant-collecting trip to China,  My Garden is Jamaica Kincaid’s thoughts, opinions, and meanderings on plants. Some chapters contain interesting insights about how plants raised for gardens and human pleasure have made their way around the world, and how botany and botanists have played into the history of the society and culture. Other chapters are simply Kincaid writing about plants she adores.

I didn’t love this book. It didn’t seem to care about the reader. However, there were several gardening related passages that I could absolutely relate to, like the wonder and delight that anything I should plant might actually grow:

Even after many years of gardening, I never believe a live plant will emerge from the seed I have put in the ground; I am always surprised, as if it had never happened to me before, as if every time were the first time.


That gardener, any gardener, is not a stable being; that gardener, any gardener, is not a model of consistency.

That second line resonated with me and made me feel like a real gardener. Before reading it, I felt amateur and fickle for not being able to get things right the first time. I’m constantly examining to see how things grow, whether they work where I put them, and then move stuff. Not getting it right the first time used to make me feel like a failure, and now I realize it’s just part of being a gardener.

Andrea Reads America: Utah

Andrea Reads America map of books set in Utah
Andrea Reads America: Utah

Utah is a fascinating state. In the fiction I read, it is a desert land, isolated and desolate, where people go to be left alone, or where the government sends things to be hidden: polygamous Mormon sects, Japanese Americans in internment camps, and testing grounds for nerve gas and other weapons of war. I know from photographs and from visiting that Utah is beautiful — Arches National Park is in Utah. That desert beauty appears in The 19th Wife and The Last Cowboy, and it makes for an interesting tension with the ugly things that happen in those books.

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff Novel: The 19th Wife
Author: David Ebershoff
Setting: Fictitious town of Mesadale, UT

I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since I heard about it on NPR more than 10 years ago, and it was worth the wait. I didn’t know much about the Mormon faith before reading this book, and while Mormons may not appreciate that this fiction is where people might get information about their faith, The 19th Wife taught me much about the history of Brigham Young and Mormonism in the U.S. It also taught me the salacious aspect of what Mormons are often known for — polygamy — and how destructive it was for families and women, and how utterly patriarchal and cult-like.

I should clarify, in case it’s not obvious, that only the men have multiple partners, not the women. Men want to have sex with girls younger than their daughters, and they justify it by saying it’s the command of God, to multiply the people of their faith — the correct faith. Like so much of the BS that goes on in so many religions, it is based in fear-mongering so the people in power can keep their power and control everyone to serve their own needs.

Mormons apparently are not polygamous anymore, but in this novel, there are offshoot sects that still are. Part historical fiction, part modern murder mystery, The 19th Wife tells stories in two different genres.  It parallels a story of Brigham Young’s 19th wife (or 55th, depending on how you count), the true historical figure of Ann Eliza Young, and a modern 19th wife accused of murdering her husband. It was compelling and absorbing, and I really enjoyed the book.

When the Emperoror Was Divine by Julie Otsuka Novel: When the Emperor Was Divine
Author: Julie Otsuka (her grandparents were in an internment camp in Utah)
Setting: 1942 Japanese American internment camp in Topaz, Utah

When the Emperor Was Divine tells the story of a Japanese American family who, like all their neighbors in California, enjoyed a pleasant, suburban, educated life. They are refined, have 2 kids, a dog, roses, friends, white neighbors who show the kids the stars through his telescope.

In one day, all of that changed, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Their father was taken by police and never came home. The mother and children were forced to leave their home and all their belongings and their life behind to be locked in an internment camp in Utah for more than 3 years.

It was 1942. Utah. Late summer. A city of tar-paper barracks behind a barbed-wire fence on a dusty alkaline plain high up in the desert. The wind was hot and dry.

This was the United States. We locked our own people behind barbed wire fence because of the way they looked. It’s shameful.

The Last Cowgirl by Jana Richman Novel: The Last Cowgirl
Author: Jana Richman, local author
Setting: rural valley in Clayton, Utah

I loved this book! Set on a ranch in Utah, The Last Cowgirl is about Dickie, a girl who was a natural and at home in the desert and ranching life, but who hated her life on the ranch because it had moved her from town. Sensitive, capable, and quick to cry, Dickie rejected the lonely land for a traitorous best friend, and then later for a numb life in Salt Lake City where she didn’t look back to the land she loved in her bones, the people who lived there, and the tragedies that happened because of government testing of nerve gas nearby.

I miss desert rain, especially those first few drops that plop into a patch of alkali and bounce chalk into the air.

With family challenges, romance entwined with friendship, and gorgeous scenery of the unpopulated lands of Utah, this book had everything I wanted for a summer read.