Six Fantastic Novels Set in North Carolina
North Carolina Love!
I love reading novels with Southern, Appalachian, and specifically North Carolina settings. Here are six I've loved set in the Tar Heel State.
Have you read any of these? If so, I'd love to hear what you thought.
Do you have any favorite books set where you live?
01 When These Mountains Burn by David Joy
Joy offers an often dark work of Southern literary fiction through which bubbles of hope emerge.
Ray has outlived his beloved wife in the mountains of North Carolina. He has a precious old girl of a dog, a fascination with (and healthy fear of) coyotes, a love of reading, and a no-nonsense manner that makes clear he doesn't brook fools. He has almost resigned himself to the heartbreaking idea that his addict son is too lost to be saved.
There's an undercover cop nearby who's trying to help take down a robust drug ring, and then there's Ray, who uses old-fashioned methods and his knowledge of mountain terrain to address injustices in a straightforward way.
When These Mountains Burn isn't always easy to read, but it isn't over the top, and Joy's characters are fascinatingly faulted and keep you humming right along. I read this in 24 hours while wishing I were making it last longer.
For my full review of When These Mountains Burn, click here.
02 Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown
Taylor Brown's five-star, 1950s North Carolina-set novel offers mountain clans, whiskey runners, folk healers, family conflict, and dark, brooding woodland settings. I loved it.
Rory Docherty has returned to rural North Carolina with a wooden leg and haunting memories of his time fighting in the Korean War.
He's running whiskey to juke joints, brothels, and other seedy spots in his 1940 Ford, driving fast, avoiding federal agents, and living with his grandmother, a healer with strong opinions about Rory's love interest, a snake-handling preacher's daughter in the mill town nearby.
Family secrets and conflicts come to a head as The Gods of Howl Mountain reaches a dark, brooding, beautiful crescendo.
Brown’s descriptions are intensely arresting. He delves deeply and deftly, cutting to the quick and avoiding what in less skilled hands could have been caricatures of North Carolina mountain folk.
I loved every bit of this story.
Taylor is also the author of Pride of Eden, Fallen Land, a title I loved and included in the Greedy Reading List Six Great Historical Fiction Stories about the Civil War, and Wingwalkers.
For my full review, check out The Gods of Howl Mountain.
03 When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash
I loved Cash's Eastern North Carolina setting, the character of Sheriff Winston Barnes, and the pulsing racial, class-based, and family conflicts explored in When Ghosts Come Home.
Sheriff Winston Barnes knows he probably won't be reelected. He does things by the book and isn't flashy, while his aggressive opponent seems to amass more wealth and (dubious sources of) support each passing day. Meanwhile, Winston's wife is in cancer treatment and his daughter has just experienced a devastating loss and is drifting, unmoored. He's got a lot on his plate.
But when a body and an abandoned airplane are found in his quiet, coastal North Carolina town, Winston must try to unravel the mystery of the events at hand.
Rumors, long-simmering conflicts, clashing loyalties, and Barnes's personal tragedy all complicate the discovery of the truth. I was all in for the shocking events that occurred late in the book.
Wiley Cash is also the author of A Land More Kind than Home, The Last Ballad, and This Dark Road to Mercy.
Click here for my full review of When Ghosts Come Home.
04 The Caretaker by Ron Rash
Ron Rash's Appalachian-set novel explores a small town shaken by upended expectations, the Korean War, and selfish rigidity that threatens to undo them all.
Blackburn Gant is the sole caretaker of a hilltop cemetery in 1951 Blowing Rock, North Carolina. He lives a quiet life, which is partially dictated by his physical limitations since suffering through polio as a child.
When his best (and only) friend Jacob is sent to serve overseas in the Korean War, Blackburn promises to look after Jacob's wife, Naomi. The two had eloped just months after meeting, which led to Jacob's being disowned by his wealthy family.
Blackburn and Naomi grow close as they anxiously await word of Jacob's fate halfway around the world. When an important telegram arrives, they fear the worst.
IA series of elaborate falsifications, outrageous subterfuge, and outright lies creates a tangled web for all involved--and the situation just begs for justice to be served to those blinded by selfish desire and rigid expectations.
I loved the glimpses of rural life and of the specific place and time that Rash crafts so well.
The writing is beautifully spare, and the ending is satisfying in multiple ways.
For my full review, check out The Caretaker.
05 The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda
Miranda uses the framework of a famous fictional rescue story to imagine the characters' turmoil and desperate coping mechanisms, crafting a fascinating look at the depths beneath their surfaces.
Olivia (then called Arden) was a small child when she sleepwalked into a storm and was washed away. Three days later, she was recovered in a miraculous series of events that ended up with her rescue and removal from a storm drain.
Now someone from her past has resurfaced, and he could reveal her carefully hidden secrets and ruin everything. When evidence of brutal violence emerges close to home, Olivia wonders if someone is protecting her or possibly seeking some kind of revenge--and if that someone might even be Olivia herself.
I found the ending of the book gloriously terrifying. The last few pages felt a little disjointed from the story. But the familiar echoes of a story like "baby Jessica in the well," the media frenzy, and the public's emotional investment were a intriguing framework for Miranda's story.
For my full review of this book, see The Girl from Widow Hills.
06 The Last Child by John Hart
I loved John Hart's brusque, determined Clyde Hunt, the scrappy and unstoppable young Johnny Merrimon, the sinister underbelly of their rural North Carolina town, and basically everything about this intricate literary mystery-thriller.
Hart knows how to masterfully build a story around unforgettable characters with layers they reluctantly reveal. I didn't expect the resolution Hart allows to unfold at the end. But I was in for whatever he was dishing up, and I was fascinated all along the way.
The Last Child appears in the Greedy Reading List The Six Best Mysteries I Read Last Year.
John Hart has also written many other books, including The Hush, the second in the Johnny Merrimon series, and the wonderfully written, often tough-to-read Redemption Road, as well as The Unwilling.
Hart has written many other books, including The Hush, which is the second in the Johnny Merrimon series, and Redemption Road.
Side note: I'm captivated by Hart's stories, but I admit that I had difficulty sitting through the horrific cruelties perpetuated by multiple characters in Redemption Road. I loved his imperfect, brave, relentlessly tough protagonists, and Hart is a gifted storyteller, but the rock-bottom depravity and evil underpinnings of much of Redemption Road story were upsetting and difficult to read.