Good Minds Suggest: Leif Enger's Favorite Small Town Novels

Posted by Goodreads on September 29, 2018

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Leif Enger, whose novel Peace Like a River was a national bestseller, returns this fall with Virgil Wander, the story of a small-town movie house owner whose perspective is changed after an encounter with death.

Midwestern movie house owner Virgil Wander is "cruising along at medium altitude" when his car flies off the road into icy Lake Superior. Virgil survives, but his language and memory are altered and he emerges into a world no longer familiar to him. Awakening in this new life, Virgil begins to piece together his personal history and the lore of his broken hometown of Greenstone, Minnesota, with the help of a cast of affable and curious locals—from Rune, a kite-flying stranger investigating the mystery of his disappeared son; to Nadine, the reserved, enchanting wife of the vanished man; to Tom, a journalist and Virgil's oldest friend; and a prodigal son whose return might bring either ruin or renewal.

Enger grew up in Osakis, Minnesota, and worked as a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio before writing Peace Like a River. His second novel, So Brave, Young, and Handsome, was also a national bestseller and won the High Plains Book Award for Fiction.

"Little towns like Greenstone have the advantage of a finite cast of characters, most of whom are acquainted and presume to know each other's motives," Enger says. "That makes for a rich stew of conflict, betrayal, and misunderstanding, not to mention romantic longings and acts of outsized decency, but most of my favorite small-town stories are those where old patterns are upended by accidents, fateful twists, or exhumed secrets. Here are five books whose small-town characters defy prediction and to which I keep returning."

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"The third entry (and my favorite) in McMurtry's Thalia series. I've read this book five or six times, and been surprised with each reading at the sensation of laughing out loud with a lump in my throat."

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"This interwoven collection is a clear reminder that we must be kind, since everyone we meet is fighting a grim battle. The titular Olive abrades like Brillo, yet you admire her tenacity and find yourself pulling for her as hard as for any underdog in fiction."

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"Maybe it's because we grew up together in a little town like Battlepoint, or maybe because Lin's prose is a flame that twists and mesmerizes, but my brother's debut novel has the bite of a native tongue and the force of firsthand memory."

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"Another collection of stories, this was my introduction to the Port William Membership of back-country Kentucky. These are people some part of you has always known, in a place your mind will return to like a cold-water well."

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"Read it for the irresistible voice of its dying narrator, Iowa minister John Ames. His examination of his own roots, his faith and doubt, and the unbridgeable gulf between intention and practice are strangely gripping, but it's Ames' humility and gratitude that make the book transcendent."

Want more book recommendations from authors? Check out our Good Minds Suggest series.

Comments Showing 1-15 of 15 (15 new)

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message 1: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Thank you! I’ve added two to my Want list.

message 2: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Thank you! Love small town stories.

message 3: by Lynn (new)

Lynn I'm reading Virgil Wander right now! May I add to your list: William Kent Krueger's superb Ordinary Grace.

message 4: by Doc (new)

Doc Quatermass I prefer fiction, esp Mystery, set in small towns and the countryside. Throw in Winter and set in the older days when the world had flavor and charm (before 1980, though the decline of those two factors began to accelerate in the mid to late '60s).

message 5: by John (new)

John Benson I enjoyed all those books, Leif. Looking forward to reading your next book. I like that you have Lin's book on the list. I have enjoyed reading both of your books for many years now, after reading your combined voices in your murder-mystery series.

message 6: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Lynn wrote: "I'm reading Virgil Wander right now! May I add to your list: William Kent Krueger's superb Ordinary Grace."

I agree: Ordinary Grace was wonderful.

message 7: by Sheri (new)

Sheri Don't miss Dianne Warren's beautiful 'Cool Water'.

message 8: by Sean (new)

Sean Arthur My own novel 'Mountain Blues', just out this year from NeWest Press, Canada, fits in this category of stories of small-town life. A small mountain village must rally to save its hospital emergency ward from closure due to government cutbacks. The novel's protagonist, Roy Breen, is a journalist returning to home country, burnt out and ready for a saner pace of living. He must soon choose between keeping his journalistic distance and joining the villagers in saving their hospital.

message 9: by Robin (new)

Robin S I expected Kent Haruf's name to top the list; yet it's nowhere! Big miss, I think.

message 10: by Doc (new)

Doc Quatermass I enjoyed Kent Haruf's Our Souls at Night. Enjoyed the Netflix movie adaption (as well as the book by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows and Netflix movie adaption of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society). I recently watched the 2005 movie based on Mark Spragg's 2004 book, An Unfinished Life and look forward to reading it and his other fiction as well as his memoir, Where Rivers Change Direction, about his unusual childhood, with no TV or radio but surrounded by vast expanses of rugged outdoor beauty.

message 11: by Linda (new)

Linda A great recommendation! I loved "Ordinary Grace" too.

message 12: by Linda (new)

Linda Yes, I so agree...I love Kent Haruf's books and "Plainsong" remains one of my top favorites.

message 13: by Cathie (new)

Cathie Lovely. I adored Peace like a River and Plainsong

message 14: by Jill (new)

Jill Myers Also, Empire Falls by Richard Russo.

message 15: by Yanina (new)

Yanina I was enchanted by Tom Drury's trilogy:
Hunts and Dreams
The end of Vandalism

A classic by Sherwood Anderson Winesburg Ohio is a marvel.
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor was a wonderful book too.

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