Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on an Irish dairy farm. He shares his list of the best rural novels.
Creating a list of the best rural novels of all time should be more about starting a dialogue than arriving at definite answers. It is difficult to compare works across time, genre, and taste. It is further complicated by trying to define “rural” and determine what might qualify, for the term itself leaves room for a broad range of experiences.
Nonetheless, let’s give it a shot. On the list that follows is simply one man’s ranking from the books he has read thus far that are placed in a rural setting. They are diverse, from the wholesome to the grotesque, from the green hills of the UK to the 19th century American West. They are connected mostly by the belief that they are exceptionally written.
Hopefully, you’ll find something to add to your reading list.
10. All Creatures Great and Small (1972) by James Herriot
This book, and the series that came after it by English veterinarian James Wright (pen name James Herriot), is full of humor, wit, and keen observations. Delivered in strong prose, it deserves the universal appeal and status of a classic that it has garnered. I remember rereading and rereading a scene in which Herriot enters the house of a German while the owner isn’t there, and the hilarious imaginary conversation that ensues. And I’m not a person to remember anything.
9. The Complete Stories (1971) by Flannery O’Connor
In my first year of university I once stood up in class and called Flannery O’Connor a babe. I still stand by that, particularly if we’re talking in literary terms. Set in the declining gothic South, her stories included severe violence and grace, and suggest that the two are usually interlinked. Some of her most famous stories like “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” still have their place in college curriculum. Regardless, why not have them all with this lifetime collection.
8. Darling (1991) by William Tester
I have always contended that the gothic is the most appropriate form for the farm novel, given the harsh economic and social realities experienced by many farmers. William Tester seems to have agreed. Two brothers from a Florida dairy farm are in the same apartment in New York City, each asserting that a cow from their childhood, Darling, loved them best. If you’re squeamish, perhaps stick with James Herriot. If you want to see a stronger writer taking a story to the limits, try out Darling.
7. Of Mice and Men (1937) by John Steinbeck
Of the characters that populate the best rural novels in American literature, Lenny and George are probably two that I have cared about the most. This short novel packs quite a punch, and has caused big men to be nicknamed Lenny for generations. Looking for work on California farms during the Great Depression, Lenny and George are trying to save up money to start a rabbit farm while avoiding the fate that has probably been waiting for them all along.
6. Stoner (1965) by John Williams
This was the last book that I read that genuinely moved me. With simple prose and keen observations of what it means to be human, Stoner gives the lifetime story of a farmer’s son entering academia and trying to carve out his place in the world. Recently, the New Yorker published an article claiming it to be the “Great American Novel You Never Heard Of.” It is certainly one of best rural novels that have slipped under the radar.
So, now you’ve heard of it. Pick up a copy.
5. Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison
Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize, was shortlisted for the National Book Award, and was picked as the best book from 1981 to 2006 by a New York Times survey. It hardly needs me to big it up. Set in the American Civil War, the novel tells the account of a captured slave who is visited by the daughter she chose to kill instead of allow back into slavery. I’m annoyed by the term “Tour de Force,” but will acknowledge that it is an accurate way of describing the language and movement inside Morrison’s masterpiece. It makes many people’s “best book of the century” category, so it deserves a place on the best rural novels list.
4. No Country For Old Men (2005) by Cormac McCarthy
Representing a shift in style for McCarthy towards cleaner, simpler prose (that would eventually lead to The Road  ), this novel brings a powerful elegance to the Texas backcountry and an old sheriff who doesn’t understand the world like he used to.
It is perhaps the book and movie that most closely resemble each other (The Cohen Brothers knew when not to mess with perfection). The enigmatic scene in the end concerning one-of-the-best-villians-of-all-time Anton Chigurh is more clearly set up in book (I believe), the novel suggesting that the morality that separates good and evil is not that different from each other.
3. Here We are in Paradise (1994) by Tony Earley
As a young writing student, I had found my favorite short story when someone handed me a photocopy of “Prophet of Jupiter,” coming from Tony Earley’s first short story collection Here We are in Paradise. It was funny, clever, sad and relatable. Not long after, I picked up a copy of Best American Short Stories 1994 and found his second story of the collection, “Charlotte,” in which a character tries to save his marriage while attending a WWE wrestling match. I never knew that literary writing could be so funny. Mostly set in rural North Carolina, Here We are in Paradise represents some of the best American writing that hasn’t made its way into the canon yet.
2. A River Runs Through It (1976) by Norman Maclean
When I was 14 years old I picked up this book in a classroom and read the first paragraph. I was so impressed by that paragraph that I set the book down, bought a fly rod, and learned to fly fish. Fifteen years later I mentioned that to a man in Iceland. He told me that he really liked the last paragraph. I asked him to refresh me on how it went. He lifted up his shirt and recited it. He had the entire paragraph tattooed on his chest.
William Rainey Harper (pen name Norman Maclean) didn’t start writing until he was 80, and then delivered this beautiful novella that asks just how much are we to be our brother’s keeper. A love letter to fly fishing and rural Montana, Harper’s prose explains the state of mankind through the use of a fly rod.
1. Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy
Not only my selection of the best rural novels, but the greatest example of words ever being put down on paper. It’s the type of work that doesn’t leave anyone ambivalent: you either love it or hate it, and if you have any sense at all you love it. Set in the mid 19th century, the story follows a teenager known as “the kid” as he joins a group of heinous scalp hunters. Such intense violence written with such poetic language is a fete that has earned McCarthy both admirers and imitators.
When Blood Meridian first came out it was largely ignored and received a lukewarm reception at first. Since then, even Reader’s Digest have suggested that it is the greatest American novel ever written. Many, many people have tried to film the book, from Ridley Scott to James Franco (a big Cormac McCarthy fan), but so far every attempt has failed. It has proven too violent and too difficult to capture its raw essence.
There you have it: one reader’s soul laid bare and his list of the best rural novels. In exchange for some new ideas for upcoming reading, it would be kind of you to let me know which books I might have missed, and perhaps what your list would look like. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below, and check out some other good rural reading on The Milk House.