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American Novels for
Social Work Study

Natalia J. Garland

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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.

(2) Breathing 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 start.

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.

(3) The 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 1989.


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.

(5) The 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 these."

"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?"

(7) Sister 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 drift.

(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 again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2005 Natalia J. Garland