Why read these books if you’re moving to the USA?
I moved to the US with a handful of knowledge on the fact it was once a British colony, spoke a distorted English, raised Hollywood and contrived Disney. I was unaware that each state concealed a myriad of unique problems. Problems that continue to drastically tear the country apart, and where each side believes it is utterly right.
I knew there was a bitter argument on building the Mexico wall, but I didn’t know the internal policies that were fragmenting the nation.
I knew slavery scarred the continent, but I didn’t realise that in the 20th century the coal mines were populated with ‘free’ slaves and convicts (often untried).
If you want to be able to comprehend why gun possession is such a bitter argument and why the Black Lives Matter movement exploded, you have to breath the US’s history. Books have always been my way to submerge myself in the history of a foreign nation. It could help you too.
This post reviews 9 books that layout some foundations for someone who is moving to the US. Though the content is no doubt shallow, it can be a way to wade into the past and present conflicts that have shaped the US.
1. On Native Americans – There There by Tommy Orange
There There is a story of modern Native Americans living away from reservations and their tribes. Each chapter charts the story of a protagonist who is facing insurmountable challenges brought on in some way due to their status as a Native American. Whether that be alcohol fetal syndrome, domestic abuse, unemployment or chronic health issues.
At first There There is a carefully crafted story of the battle of 12 individuals. On another level the stories drag the reader back to consider the inadequate public policies that still deny Native Americans level footing with other American citizens.
Good for considering fall out effects of unresolved land allotment, unequal welfare benefits and nonchalant attitudes to Native American traditions.
2. On the US’ Swamps – Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Living in the swamps of North Carolina, Kara is abandoned by her family and grows up alone on the fridges of society. Kara is deeply in tune with her swamp, fiercely independent and simultaneously fearful of everyone.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a fictional novel pegged to a murder investigation in Kara’s swamp. Mostly we float through Kara’s coming of age, whilst every so often flitting back to the investigation. I was entranced by this book that tackles the prejudice against poor Americans in the 1960-70s, in this case referred to as “swamp trash.”
I listened on audio book, but chapters are headed by dates that are particularly helpful to chronologise Kara’s life with the ongoing murder investigation.
The ending is golden.
Good for those looking to hear about life in the US swamps in the 1900s.
3. On Mormons and Rural America – Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
Educated: A Memoir is a collection of accounts written by Tara on her upbringing in Idaho in a devout Mormon family. At the beginning we see how she watches her other 6 siblings navigating homeschooling (or absence of), a bombardment of conspiracy theories, all while their parents prep for the apocalypse.
As the story advances Tara narrates terrifying accidents and emotional turmoil as she takes her turn to clasp her way into the modern world. I adored this book because it doesn’t simply cast rural America as an idiotic, but casts them as a family.
Good for remembering that conspiracy theories are on the rise and this memoir shows just how damaging they can be.
4. On Slavery Over Generations – Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing traces generations of a family tree in the shadow of slavery. One side of the family is sold to the US and the other remains in Ghana, the eldest ancestor married to a British slaver as his mistress.
Homegoing is the most complete picture of slavery I’ve ever had. It taught me that slavery between African tribes was commandeered by the British, who began shipping slaves across the Atlantic, that the US forced convicts to mine coal, about unethical missionaries, damaging superstitions and much more.
It’s a very powerful novel and I recommend it to everyone.
Good for seeing the perpetual problems the institution of slavery carried to modern day America and left throughout Africa.
5. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad encapsulates the pursuit of a runaway slave, Cora, in a pre-civil war USA. Cora flees from Georgia through the Underground Railway, an immense series of tunnels carved in secrecy by pro-abolitionist. The actual Underground Railroad was a series of overground routes that ferried runaways to free states with help from a secret network of people.
For people moving to the USA, The Underground Railroad educates mainly on the severe penalties and the fear drawn across state lines in the pre-civil war period. From North to South Carolina to Tennessee we see brutality driven by greed chasing Cora, even into the supposedly free states. Read this novel with a US map handy. It’s a page turner.
Note: the book is heavy on sadism and graphic punishment used on runaway slaves.
Good for learning how a scattered and incomplete abolition of slavery caused immense pain and unspeakable brutality.
6. On Mass Migration within the USA – Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
In the pages of The Grapes of Wrath your heart is torn for migrants of farm workers and the perils of servitude that expels the lowest classes every time there is a crisis. After just a couple of generations the traumas are forgotten and empathy misplaced. There are uncanny parallels with the story of the Joad family leaving Oklahoma to California and the current worldwide immigration crisis. Grapes of Wrath is a lesson on how entitlement is brewed in just a couple of generations of life improvement.
As an immigrant, I am constantly downtrodden by the unforgiving immigration system that has sprouted around the world. This has caused perilous immigration journeys and yet people still go, just like in the Grapes of Wrath.
Note: I would suggest trying the abridged version (304 pages), because if you’re not studying it for an exam, there’s a lot of repetition and symbolism for a light read. Unabridged version is 464 pages of misery.
Good for remembering that the current immigration and refugee crisis is cyclical.
7. On Being an Undocumented American – Just Like Us by Helen Thorpe
Just Like Us is a non-fiction book by journalist Helen Thorpe, who embarks on a case study of 4 high school girls as they pursue college. Two of the girls are Undocumented Americans, but all 4 were brought to the US illegally as children by their parents.
This book engulfs you in the complexities of not being accepted in the only country you’ve ever known. Thorpe entwines public policy between the girls’ stories, as well as incorporating local and national high profile undocumented immigrant news stories. It’s brutally honest and though some policies like the discontinuation of the DREAM act have changed since publication in 2007, the raw soul of the book remains so relevant to thousands of people living in the USA. Just Like Us is educational, tear jerking and a highly effective plea to view immigration rights as a humanitarian issue.
Good for learning immigration policy alongside the stories of the people it directly affects.
8. Post Civil War: The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Color Purple made me weep. The book is narrated through Celie’s letters to God. Set post civil war in the 1900s Celie grows up in an impoverish reality in Georgia. The novel evolves as she navigates intense difficulties, self loathing and abuse.
It is critical for people moving to the USA to read the Color Purple to understand that prohibiting slavery was far from a switch to progress. I also preferred the Color Purple to Underground Railroad because Alice Walker peels a window into Celie’s damaged soul.
Far more soul churning for myself than descriptions of graphic, sadistic abuse and torture.
Good for presenting a troubled path for African American women post civil war.
9. On Asian-American Immigration and First Generation Americans – The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The Joy Luck Club tells the story of 4 women who immigrant to the USA from China, while painting the simultaneous story of their American-born daughters.
Hopping between the reason the mothers fled from China and the conflicts faced by the daughters in America, this is a terrific book to understand the stark life difference granted to first generation Americans.
For people moving to the US, this book can bring to light the common challenges immigrants face. Though specific to China, it mirrors a common thread faced by immigrants who have built there lives from scratch on foreign lands.