7 Books That Take You Across the U.S. (Without Leaving Your Couch)

published Mar 2, 2022
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The beauty of reading is that, like a Zoom call, you can do important things but you don’t ever have to put on real pants. Okay there are also other beauties of reading, like opening yourself up to unique perspectives and supporting authors and independent bookstores and freeing your mind from the endless phone scroll… and supporting a nationwide effort to get children excited about reading.

The National Education Association (NEA) designates March 2 (Dr. Seuss’ birthday!) as National Read Across America Day, and this year, we suggest you actually read across America with these seven novels that span states. No planes, trains, automobiles, or pants required.

Begin in a rehabilitation home in Rhode Island with Agatha of Little Neon by Claire Luchette

After nearly a decade in a small convent in Buffalo, N.Y., Agatha and her sisters head to Rhode Island to run a halfway house known as “Little Neon.” This is a coming-of-age story story that sneaks up on you — you’d think that Agatha, a devoted sister set on guiding lost souls, wouldn’t be so lost herself. But as she reckons with her previously unquestioned faith and breaks the routine she knew well in her old convent, she comes up against important questions about friendship, leadership, and rediscovering our unique identities after years of following a singular path.

Travel back to 1970s Baltimore with Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau

If you’re going to span the country, why not span decades? Author Jessica Anya Blau paints a perfect picture of a 1970s summer in Baltimore, where you can smell the chlorine and taste the grape popsicles alongside Mary Jane, a teenager babysitting for a family down the street. Mary Jane’s family and the family she works for couldn’t be more different; Mary Jane’s mother approves of church choir, Sunday chores, and “traditional” family values, and the Cone’s household is pretty much the polar opposite. Whether you lived through this decade or not, Blau’s sweet novel will make you crave a summer day in any state.

Dine in Wisconsin with The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang

In Haven, Wisconsin, Fine Chao is the go-to Chinese restaurant — with food so good that the community is willing to ignore rumors about the owners. That is, until Leo, the Chao family’s patriarch, is found dead after a Christmas party. As the murder trial unfolds, small-town scrutiny reveals a different side of the Chao family — and Leo’s three sons may have played a bigger role in their father’s demise than anyone would expect. But aside from being a whodunnit, “The Family Chao” is also a story of first- and second-generation immigrants trying to make it in a town that doesn’t welcome outsiders, and the sacrifices parents make to ensure their children are successful.

Head to Iowa farmland in Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth

Ever jeopardize your position as a federal auditor to pull off the greatest heist an Iowa egg farm has ever (not) seen? No? It may not be on your bucket list, but it makes for a captivating read in Unferth’s 2020 novel about a plot to steal thousands of chickens from one of the town’s biggest egg farms. Not only does this novel give you a taste of the drama happening in Iowa farm country, but it even takes you into the observant, prescient minds of, yes, the hens.

Grow up in rural Indiana in Zorrie by Laird Hunt

Few books offer as deep a connection with homeland as Laird Hunt’s 2021 novel. Zorrie Underwood, twice-orphaned (first by her parents, then by her caretaker and aunt), has lived almost her entire life in Clinton County, a farming town in Indiana. Zorrie’s childhood and young adulthood was shaped by the Great Depression, forcing her to travel west west to find work, only to eventually be called home. Over the span of Zorrie’s lifetime, readers join her in a daily life that some might consider lonely or simple, but that Hunt fills with meaning and beauty.

Spend a few years on the Gulf Coast of Florida in All Day is a Long Time by David Sanchez

David Sanchez’s debut, semi-autobiographical novel uses Florida as the backdrop for a coming-of-age story about addiction and redemption. At fourteen, the narrator (also named David) begins using hard drugs, and the next several years are spent coming in and out of rehabilitation, until he finds solace in a writing class. Though you won’t find much more plot beyond this description, Sanchez builds a vivid inner life of a man struggling to commit to sobriety that compels any reader to root for David on his journey — both Davids.

Take a cross country road trip with Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Luiselli’s haunting road trip novel follows a family driving from New York to Arizona, ultimately looking for Apacheria, the former home of the Apache tribe. Both parents are storytellers in their own way, blending sounds, newspaper clippings, interviews, and other research to build their parallel projects; the father is focused on discovering the lost stories of the Apache tribe, the mother is watching her marriage dissolve while trying to make sense of the unfolding child migrant crisis (the novel’s eponymous “lost children” at the border). This novel describes place and time not just through chapters, but through the miscellanea that each family member is collecting in his or her “memory” box — photos, poems, interview quotes, snippets of sound.

Access California’s elite art world in Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson

Though Wilson’s characters never leave the first class lounge at JFK, readers get a taste of luxury and a peek into the high-stakes California art scene as an unnamed narrator listens to Jeff Cook, an old classmate, reveal his life story during an airport delay. What starts as a chance to catch up turns into an unburdening as Jeff describes how a life-saving encounter with art dealer Francis Arsenault set him on a path of obsession with second chances.