'We may not have much, but we have each other'
October 16, 2017 2:59 PM   Subscribe

In search of books about simple living and appreciating the little things.

I'm not sure if this type of book can be classified, but I enjoy reading it, and I find it helps me slow down, feel cozy, and appreciate all that I have.

Pretty much all of these examples are YA fiction from when I was younger, because my early childhood also involved some doing without, so I related to the characters. But I'm open to adult-level fiction too!

-Characters experience financially tough times and deprivation but stay happy...more or less. Usually 'not enough money' is a key plot element.
-Small or hard-won luxuries are often described in great & loving detail. People are always warming themselves at a little fire, savoring a cup of tea, or enjoying a new shawl, that sort of thing.
-The holidays probably happen at some point (candy for Christmas!)
-Food is mentioned a lot
-Characters may show creativity to overcome hardships (I'll add some ribbon to my old dress and it'll be like new!)
-Interesting plot, but doesn't get super dark and despairing
-Often 'young adult' fiction, or focused on children as main characters, but enjoyable for adult readers


-Little House on the Prairie series
-Little Women
-A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
-The Little Princess
-the Booky series (Depression-era Canada)
-A Moveable Feast, where Hemingway mostly describes eating meals in Paris cafes while living paycheck to paycheck

Almost, but not quite:

-Angela's Ashes (dark, dark, dark)
-The Boxcar Children (reading level is too simple)
-Anne of Green Gables (Cuthberts are frugal, but not hard up)
-Dickens (characters are usually miserable)
-Jane Eyre (Jane doesn't seem to enjoy little luxuries)
posted by castlebravo to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
MFK Fisher's work fits this for me, though it's not fiction, and it's mostly about recipes with anecdotes thrown in.
posted by bilabial at 3:05 PM on October 16 [3 favorites]

Knut Hamsun: Growth of the Soil

George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris and London
posted by notyou at 3:12 PM on October 16 [1 favorite]

The All of a Kind Family books have all of this.
posted by Mchelly at 3:14 PM on October 16 [12 favorites]

A lot of Betty MacDonald's autobiographical works are like that, though maybe not as chipper as you're looking for. She's a great writer and very funny.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:18 PM on October 16 [2 favorites]

The Melendy Quartet is a four-book series that begins with The Saturdays. In The Saturdays, the children pool their allowances so that each takes a turn at having the extravagant amount of something like eighty-five cents. It's the Depression or a world war or something, and they live in Manhattan, so there are lots of fun adventures to be had.

The other books are good, but none live up to the first. And it's the first that really has the theme you're looking for.
posted by janey47 at 3:37 PM on October 16 [3 favorites]

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin, and the subsequently-published stories in New Chronicles of Rebecca. Both available via the Internet Archive.
posted by apartment dweller at 3:41 PM on October 16

(you will want the original 1904 and 1907 editions, respectively.)
posted by apartment dweller at 3:47 PM on October 16

Reading level might be too low, but Five Little Peppers and How They Grew is literally everything else you're looking for.

Little Women fits the bill except for some tearjerking moments.
posted by prewar lemonade at 4:22 PM on October 16 [4 favorites]

It's another Alcott, but An Old-Fashioned Girl. Has the specific making-old-clothes-new trope you mention.

You could also try O Douglas (Anna Buchan). Several of her novels have hard-up characters and mini-treats. Some are on Gutenberg: Pink Sugar - the main character is well-off, but others are poor (review); Penny Plain (review).

In children's books, The Family from One End Street - poor working-class family. Also some of Noel Streatfeild's books - the children in Ballet Shoes are poor, and there's a good Christmas scene in Curtain Up.

Interesting question! I can think of a lot of books where small luxuries are savoured, but most of those characters aren't really poor. For food, you might like Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse - the Wikipedia page quotes JK Rowling saying this was an influence on food in Harry Potter. But although the main character has, I think, been relatively poor, at the time of the book she's living with a rich relation.
posted by paduasoy at 4:35 PM on October 16 [1 favorite]

Mama's Bank Account!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 5:00 PM on October 16 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Five Little Peppers. It may be childish and old-fashioned, but it captures that genre so sweetly.

Where the Lilies Bloom (1974). About four children on their own in Appalachia. They go wildcrafting, and they grow and occasionally kill their own food. They are clever in making small change and bartering and concealing their father's illness from prying neighbors and authorities. It's a book by Bill and Vera Cleaver, but I've linked to the movie on You Tube. (The copy of the book I read as a child included stills from the movie, and we'd pore over the photos so much that the images are as much a part of my memory as the book. Harry Dean Stanton is in the movie.) I reread the book recently, and, boy, did it hold up. It's got the loving detail you're looking for.
posted by Fichereader at 6:30 PM on October 16 [2 favorites]

This might not be exactly what you're looking for, but in the book The Shell Seekers, which takes place in part during WWII in England, there's definitely a theme of appreciating the simple things (and somewhat disparaging those who want traditional material luxuries). It's an adult book but I read it as a child and it helped shaped my views on these things. The author also quotes another book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, from the 1800s: "What a happy woman I am, living in a garden, with books, babies, birds and flowers, and plenty of leisure to enjoy them. Sometimes I feel as if I were blest above all my fellows in being able to find happiness so easily." The book (Shell Seekers, not the other, which I haven't read) eptimizes coziness to me.
posted by pinochiette at 6:33 PM on October 16

Where the Red Fern Grows is about a boy growing up poor who saves his pennies to buy hunting dogs and then hunts with them. There's a lot of sadness in the book (and a lot of killing raccoons), but the life he and his family live is right up with what you're looking for. (His first soda pop!)

I also love books about nuns for this. It's a different kind of poverty, but in The Nun's Story, when everyone gets a glass of wine at Christmas dinner (or chocolate if they don't drink), it's such a happy moment.
posted by gideonfrog at 6:45 PM on October 16 [1 favorite]

not precisely to your specs, but Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain features a great deal of resourceful cosiness (and acorn pancakes, which i still want to eat sometime).
posted by halation at 6:54 PM on October 16 [2 favorites]

The Story of the Treasure Seekers and the Wouldbegoods, both by E. Nesbit. I believe The Railway Children also qualifies.
posted by peacheater at 8:34 PM on October 16

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand doesn't have the financial hardship but there is a lot of savoring of little luxuries and it just feels to me like the books on your list feel, only for adults. So maybe?

More on-point:
  • Daddy Long Legs
  • Pride and Prejudice (well, poor for gentry!)
  • not Anne of Green Gables but maybe Anne of the Island, where she lives with her college friends and they worry about the cost of butter and everyone is eating all the time and making over their dresses? (Seriously my fave cozy read)
  • The Betsy/Tacy/Tib novels, which begin at an appropriate reading level for young children but progress to young adult novels and then just adult novels. Lots of savoring of food, enjoying fires, enjoying music. They're not poor-poor, but they're shopkeeping families in a very small town in Minnesota in 1897, so they're careful with money and have to make do a lot just because there isn't a lot of stuff! There are more luxuries as the series progresses, much like Little House. Plus they star Tib Mueller, feminist hero.
  • Most of Noel Stretfeild's Shoes books fit the bill completely!
  • Cherry Ames, especially the wartime books, might suit you. Cherry comes from a solidly middle-class family, but she's a working woman watching her purse and enjoying her friends and refusing to let a man tie her down. The wartime books deal particularly with hardship and making-do, as Cherry gets posted to various theaters and the nurses have to run a makeshift hospital on a Pacific island or nurse wounded soldiers in airplanes or whatever. There's lots of savoring of small luxuries, and also of friendships with the other nurses (especially in the student books 1&2, wartime books 3-6, and Visiting Nurse - 8 - where she and all her school chums are living in NYC). They're mysteries, but they're not very dark or dangerous. (They were also meant to help recruit girls into nursing in the 1940s and 1950s so they making being a nurse sound AWESOME, all having close friends and working hard at interesting problems and tieing pert bows and hard-won breaks at the cinema and spending the money you earned on exactly the right things so you're never caught short and always have a stylish scarf!) Cherry is never seriously poor, although some of her classmates are, so it might not fit the bill. The books go into things like housekeeping on settlement house wages with all her friends, but it's all jolly good fun scratching together, etc., and not really a sense of worry around it.

    I gotta think some more, all my books are in boxes, so I can't go look at my shelf with all the ones you mention and see which ones are shelved next to them! (Because I shelve fiction favorites by feeling, of course.)

  • posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:10 PM on October 16 [3 favorites]

    Little Men is also great (Jo and the Professor get married and start a home for orphan boys).

    Seconding All of A Kind Family.

    My favorite book in the world is “A Little Princess” which of course leads me to Mandy.
    posted by bendy at 9:38 PM on October 16

    Possum Living. Non-fiction but all about enjoying simple pleasures and making do with less. The writer is a charming and enthusiastic teenage girl. The "advice" is pretty extreme but it's a lot of fun to read and kind of a cult classic for 70s-era miimalists I would say.
    posted by hazyjane at 10:10 PM on October 16


    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_God_We_Trust,_All_Others_Pay_Cash (inspiration for film: A Christmas Story)
    posted by Beholder at 2:31 AM on October 17 [1 favorite]

    Came back to say Gaskell's Cranford.

    Are you interested in autobiography too? Lark Rise to Candleford (link has pop-up), by Flora Thompson, might fit, as might Cider with Rosie (Laurie Lee). The Country Child (Alison Uttley) is part-autobiography, part fiction. These are all about rural childhoods.
    posted by paduasoy at 2:33 AM on October 17

    I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.
    Co-signed on the Betsy-Tacy books.
    posted by mynameisluka at 9:03 AM on October 17 [1 favorite]

    Heidi has a lot of of living joyfully with very little, and secondary characters living in outright poverty. I'm not sure if the reading level is too low for your purposes though.

    Maggie Now by Betty Smith, the lady who wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, also details various characters living with little quite touchingly, through several generations. (I don't think the description there really does the book justice at all). There are some crying parts though. This is one of my favourite books.

    Nthing the Five Little Peppers.
    posted by windykites at 6:12 PM on October 17

    Came back again to say another rural memoir, A Child in the Forest (Winifred Foley). In fiction, The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden (children's book).
    posted by paduasoy at 6:28 AM on October 18

    Thank you all! This is great - I am excited to read so many cozy books this winter!
    posted by castlebravo at 7:40 AM on October 20 [1 favorite]

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