American Novels for
Social Work Study
Natalia J. Garland
Today I have selected eight American novels which should be of
interest to those in the helping professions. These novels were
selected for psychological and sociological themes as well as for
the quality of writing. Some of the themes include alcoholism,
family conflict or dysfunction, identity and character development,
racial and cultural prejudices, environmental impact (schools,
courts, neighborhood), and spiritual questions.
(1) Bless Me,
Ultima. Antonio is a sensitive Mexican American boy who
grows up in rural New Mexico. He is guided by his parents who
are opposites in character, and by the old curandera (traditional
healer) who comes to live with them. Themes include loss of
innocence, good and evil, alcoholism, death, and cultural and
spiritual issues. The novel was written by Rudolfo Anaya, was
published in 1972, and won the Premio Quinto Sol award.
The rest of the
summer was good for me, good in the sense that I was filled with
its richness and I made strength from everything that had happened
to me. And that is what Ultima tried to teach me, that the tragic
consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that
resides in the human heart.
Lessons. This is a story of a couple, married 28 years,
who drive from their home in Baltimore to a funeral in
Pennsylvania. Their trip becomes an adventure through memories
and fantasies, and prompts an assessment of the present. Themes
include marriage, parenting and grandparenting, and reactions to
disappointment. The novel was written by Anne Tyler, and was
published in 1988.
She made up her
mind that when the funeral was over, she would stride off in her
own direction. She would certainly not drive back with him to
Baltimore. Maybe she'd hitch a ride with Durwood. Gratitude
rushed over her at the thought of Durwood's kindness. Not many
people would have done what he had done. He was a gentle,
sympathetic, softhearted man, as she should have realized from the
Why, if she had accepted that date with Durwood she'd be a
whole different person now. It was all a matter of comparison.
Compared to Ira she looked silly and emotional; anybody would have.
Compared to Ira she talked too much and laughed too much and cried
too much. Even ate too much! Drank too much! Behaved so
sloppily and mawkishly!
She'd been so intent on not turning into her mother, she had
gone and turned into her father.
Dollmaker. A Kentucky family moves to Detroit, Michigan,
to find work during World War II. They struggle to make the
adjustment from an agricultural lifestyle to an industrialized
society. Themes include the value of art versus mass production,
dehumanizing factory work, the pressures of overcrowding in
government housing projects, death of a child, and spiritual
issues. The novel was written by Harriette Arnow, and was
published in 1954.
Gertie for the first
time really looked at the rows of little shed-like buildings,
their low roofs covered with snow, the walls of some strange
gray-green stuff that seemed neither brick, wood, nor stone. She
had glimpsed them briefly when they turned into the side road, but
had never thought of them as homes. She had hardly thought of
them at all, they were so little and so still against the
quivering crimson light, under the roaring airplane, so low after
the giant smokestacks.
(4) The Joy
Luck Club. Mother/daughter relationships unfold into the
preservation of heritage in this narrative-style novel. The novel
is divided into 16 interwoven stories between China and San
Francisco. It centers on women and their daughters, the
adjustment to immigration, and the formation of Chinese American
identity. The novel was written by Amy Tan, and was published in
I always thought it
mattered, to know what is the worst possible thing that can
happen to you, to know how you can avoid it, to not be drawn by
the magic of the unspeakable. Because, even as a young child, I
could sense the unspoken terrors that surrounded our house, the
ones that chased my mother until she hid in a secret dark corner
of her mind. And still they found her. I watched, over the years,
as they devoured her, piece by piece, until she disappeared and
became a ghost.
Learning Tree. A major theme of this novel is that of
equal education for African Americans and the impact of education
on employment opportunities. This theme is embodied by a young
boy, Newt, who grows up in a cohesive black family in Kansas.
Other themes include corrupt law enforcement, teenage love, and
telling the truth. (There is also the statutory rape of Newt,
although the author does not seem to treat it as such.) The novel
was written by Gordon Parks, and was published in 1963.
They continued along
in silence as Rob formed his answer and Newt waited to hear it.
In a little while it came. "Yes, Newt, I do remember things
like they were then. In fact, I think the colors are brighter in
my darkness than they are in your light. I see blue and red and
yellow and green and all the colors. And sometimes I have a
little fun with color in my darkness, like imaginin' you're green
with pink ears and a blue nose and purple hair. Sometimes I fill
up my dark world with people of all kinds of colors like
"Really, Uncle Rob?"
"Yep, boy, it's so. And you know what, Newt? I think
sometimes if all the people in the world were made up of colors
like that instead of just some black and some white, it would be
a happier world. A wonderful world all mixed up with wonderful
colored people, nobody bein' the same as anybody else."
(6) Maggie, a
Girl of the Streets. This is a story of the progression
of family alcoholism. Even though Maggie does not become
alcoholic, she lives her life within a culture of drinking in the
Bowery section of New York City. She is destroyed by seduction,
prostitution, and a tragic death. Other themes include domestic
violence, and defense mechanisms of denial and scapegoating.
The novel was written by Stephen Crane, and was published in 1893.
Pete did not
consider that he had ruined Maggie. If he had thought that her
soul could never smile again, he would have believed the mother
and brother, who were pyrotechnic over the affair, to be
responsible for it.
Besides, in his world, souls did not insist upon being able to
smile. "What d' hell?"
Carrie. Caroline is a country girl nicknamed Sister
Carrie by her family. She goes to Chicago to find work in the
factories, but then survives through relationships with men. A
major theme of this story is how men and women manipulate each
other to get what they want. Beyond self-interest in matters of
sex and money, they live shallow and inadequate lives. Other
themes include self-justification, social status, and the rise of
celebrity. The story ends with a suicide. The novel was written
by Theodore Dreiser, and was published in 1900.
Carrie listened to
this with mingled feelings. Her mind was shaken loose from the
little mooring of logic that it had. She was stirred by this
thought, angered by that---her own injustice, Hurstwood's,
Drouet's, their respective qualities of kindness and favor, the
threat of the world outside in which she had failed once before,
the impossibility of this state inside, where the chambers were no
longer justly hers---the effect of the argument upon her nerves,
all combined to make her a mass of jangling fibres---an anchorless,
storm-beaten little craft which could do absolutely nothing but
(8) To Kill a
Mockingbird. A black man is falsely accused of raping a
white woman in Alabama. He is defended by a white lawyer who is
the widowed father of two children. The story is told through
the young daughter's eyes. Themes include growing up, courage,
racism, a prejudiced jury, alcoholism, and mental illness. The
best and the worst father role models are also portrayed. The
novel was written by Harper Lee, was published in 1960, and won
the Pulitzer Prize.
"He meant it
when he said it," said Atticus. "Jem, see if you can
stand in Bob Ewell's shoes a minute. I destroyed his last shred
of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with. The
man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind always does. So
if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one
extra beating, that's something I'll gladly take. He had to take
it out on somebody and I'd rather it be me than that houseful of
children out there. You understand?"
This list of novels
is not intended to be exhaustive or all-inclusive. I tried to
stay away from novels which were largely autobiographical or which
expressed political ideology. If you have not read the above
novels, perhaps you have a wonderful treat awaiting you. If you
read some of the novels a long time ago (maybe as a requirement
in high school), reading them again as a professional can give
you new insights. (Written 07/04/05: bibliography available.)
Until we meet