I recently had the good fortune of hearing Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout speak about “Why Fiction Matters” at Seattle Arts and Lectures. One of the themes she addressed was a strong sense of place. Not all writers have one, but Strout certainly does. If you’ve read Olive Kitteridge, Amy and Isabelle, or Abide with Me, you know how much a sense of place—specifically Strout’s native New England—informs her fiction writing.
Strout’s talk got me thinking about how much a strong sense of place appeals to me as a reader. I am especially drawn to books set in places I know. Although many of the themes in Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet are universal, the book is grounded in a very particular moment in a very particular place. It’s that strong Seattle setting that I know so well that drew me to the book in the first place and kept me reading.
Here are a few of my favorite novels set in the Puget Sound area. Not all of them evoke that same strong sense of place as Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. But if you’re like me, you’ll still get a kick out of the familiar settings.
Fledgling by Octavia Butler
If Twilight taught us anything, it’s that Washington State is rife with vampires. And yet I was surprised to learn that Snohomish County—Darrington in particular—is home to a society of Ina (Butler’s personal spin on the vampire mythology).
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Enzo, a philosopher trapped in a dog’s body, struggles to keep his family together despite a series of unfortunate events. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll recognize a lot of the places mentioned in the book, which is set in Seattle.
The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch
Miles O’Malley discovers a beached giant squid near his home in Olympia. As the only person to see a live one, he quickly becomes a local curiosity and is later hailed as a prophet. But he’s just a thoughtful boy caught up in his parents’ fighting, an unrequited crush, and a love for the natural world in this beautiful coming-of-age tale.
The Ruby Oliver series by E. Lockhart
This young adult series is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Charming and neurotic Ruby Oliver struggles to cope with family, boy, friend and school drama. She lives in Seattle—on a houseboat no less—and experiences drama all over town.
What are your favorite books with a local setting or with a strong sense of place?
Great list. For the Northwest I really like the short story collection The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D’Ambrosio. If you don’t mind visiting the Great Plains, South Dakota specifically, Twisted Tree by Kent Meyers is excellent if a bit disturbing.
Regarding the northwest, Jack Kerouac offers an intimidating portrait of the high Cascades around the Desloation Peak fire lookout in the first half of Desolation Angels.
But, for some reason, most of the strong-sense-of-place titles that are coming to mind at the moment are all set in the mountain west. A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean, Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig, and The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie all do an amazing job of capturing the spirit of the west’s open spaces.
You’re right, Scott. There are some amazing novels that really capture the spirit of the west. Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain is one of my favorites in that category. I’ll have to look into the other authors you mentioned.
Don’t forget Ken Kesey’s classic “Sometimes a Great Notion.”
The rain, the trees, the fog,
and the whine of the chainsaw.