TEN NOVELS THAT TRANSPORT A READER
“Every story would be another story and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.” Eudora Welty.
Sometimes the sense of place in a novel is so powerful, the reader is happily planted in the midst of sights, smells, sounds, and does not want to leave anytime soon. The language and skill of the writer in creating time and place makes the reader believe the story. The right details make a successful setting.
In the novels named here setting is an extraordinary component of the tale. Brief quotes give you a taste of how the writer creates a world for the reader to enter. Some of these novels are not best known for their settings. But I promise you, that each will convince you that you are in a place you never before knew or appreciated, and yet you will feel like you know that place, like you have actually been there, even if it no longer exists except upon a page.
1. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (1971)
“At the turn a battered live oak leaned on limbs that touched the ground on three sides.” From New Almaden
Each section of the story is a different location in the American West seen through the eyes of a young woman from the East. Grass Valley, New Almaden, Santa Cruz, and Leadville to start, places in California, Colorado and Idaho.
2. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (1997)
“All the elements that composed it suggested the legendary freedom of the open road: the dawn of day, sunlight golden and at a low angle; a cart path bordered on one side by red maples, on the other by a split-rail fence; a tall man in a slouch hat, a knapsack on his back, walking west.”
Sometimes, I think, there is no place I’d rather be than the Smoky Mountains and the American South during the Civil War. That’s a reader’s luxury. In real life it was mostly a devastated and cruel place. How the characters were able to deal with that devastation and cruelty in such a beautiful place is a wonderful gift to the reader.
3. English Creek by Ivan Doig (1984)
“That month of June swam into Two Medicine country.”
Here the reader visits Northern Montana sheep country before the Second World War. This reader went back to the same place for three books and I would like to go again.
4. The Girl With The Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevelier (2001)
“I came to love grinding the things he brought from the apothecary–bones, white lead, madder, massicot–to see how bright and pure I could get the colors. I learned that the finer the materials were ground, the deeper the color. From rough, dull grains madder became a fine bright red powder and, mixed with linseed oil, a sparkling paint. Making it and the other colors was magical.”
This author creates a central character with keen powers of observation who serves as a guide to life in the seventeenth century Dutch household of a painter.
5. Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving (2009)
“For a frozen moment, his feet had stopped moving on the floating logs in the basin above the river bend; he’d slipped entirely underwater before anyone could grab his outstretched hand.”
In the lumber camps of New Hampshire in the 1950’s, I felt the icy wind and water and the dense growth of the forest so keenly that I appreciated the cookhouse scenes to warm me up. But given that, the land of Twisted River and other locations in this book are places I could visit again and again. Whether in a lumber camp or a Boston restaurant kitchen, the reader is completely in that place.
6. Martha Quest by Doris Lessing (reissued 2001), the first of the Children of Violence series.
I remember being transported and set down in a farm in Rhodesia, a place I knew little about and had never even seen pictures of, at the time I read this. Doris Lessing has recently died and you can honor a brilliant and memorable novelist by reading one of her books.
7. The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin (2012)
“They climbed through cold-embittered forest and sought respite in bright meadows thick with wildflowers and insect thrumming.”
The reader finds respite from the rigors of this tale in this valley in the Oregon Territory at the turn of the twentieth century. It is, in part, the contrast of violent acts with the comforting surroundings of an apple orchard that make this book great.
8. Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen (2008) originally published as a three volume trilogy in the 1990’s, now revised and combined in one volume.
“ In his old cabin lighter up Caxambas Creek, Lucious Watson sat straight up in the shard of moonlight, ransacking torn dreams for the hard noise that had awakened him––that rattling bang of an old car or truck striking a pothole in the sandy track through the slash pine wood north of the salt creek.”
The Florida Everglades at the turn of the twentieth century are angry and raw. In this novel there are many moving passages about the land that strike love and fear for the reader. The tale rises out of the land like humid air and animal noise. Sometimes the reader feels as if another breath will not come, and yet this is a book I hope to read in its new form.
9. The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar (2007)
“When they gazed at the sea, people held their heads up and their faces became anxious and open, as if they were searching for something that linked them to the sun and the stars, looking for that something they knew would linger long after the wind has erased their footprints in the dust”
The reader is thrust into the everyday life of modern-day Bombay India. I almost believed I had seen the city with my own eyes.
10. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. (2010)
“At New Year’s he had given Anne a present of silver forks with handles of rock crystal. He hopes she will use them to eat with, not to stick in people.”
The reader walks beside Thomas Cromwell through the courts of Henry VIII and in the countryside of England in 1520.
Isn’t that what readers love, to walk beside a character, to view the story close-up?
I chose these books because in each case, though only one was read in the last six months, I remembered the settings and their importance to the story. I hope you will choose to read at least one of these books. Excellent depiction of setting makes a reader truly love a book because he/she travels there in the imagination of the mind.