The label “Great American Novel” is often applied to a book that captures something essential about American culture and its people, a story grounded in and informed by the American experience. Others use the term to identify a work as the best representative of the kind of literature being written in America during a particular time period. And of course, a great many other readers and critics dismiss the idea of any book being able to capture the diverse experiences and realities of all Americans. Whatever your opinion, this July 4th you can celebrate our nation’s independence with these books that – if the honorific were actually to be awarded – could be contenders for the title of Great American Novel.
“Freedom” by Johnathan Franzen
The Berglunds, the suburban family at the center of this book, appear perfect on the outside, but looks are deceiving. The story follows them through the last decades of the twentieth century and concludes near the beginning of the Obama administration. Their lives begin to unravel when their son moves in with aggressive Republican neighbors, green lawyer Walter takes a job in the coal industry and go-getter Patty becomes increasingly unstable and enraged. Desire, entitlement, marriage, family – Franzen plumbs these and many other weighty topics in this study of middle class American life.
“Gilead” by Marilyn Robinson
This lyrical and thoughtful novel takes the form of a letter from the dying Reverend John Ames to his son, revealing Ames’ deep reverence for his life, his work and this country. He chronicles three previous generations of his family, including a fiery abolitionist grandfather and pacifist father, both also men of faith. The story stretches back to the Civil War, reveals uncomfortable family secrets and examines the bond between fathers and sons.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
First published in 1960, the racial injustice described in this novel unfortunately has strong echoes in today’s America. Scout Finch, daughter of the town lawyer, likes to spend her summers building tree houses, swimming and catching lightning bugs with her big brother Jem. But one summer, when a black man is accused of raping a white woman and her father defends the man in the courtroom, Scout’s carefree days come to an end. She joins her father in a desperate battle against ignorance and prejudice in their small Alabama town.