Books about growing up poor in the U.S.
November 13, 2011 5:45 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books, nonfiction or fiction, that accurately and effectively discuss, portray, and/or meditate on the condition of specifically children, or perhaps more broadly families, being poor. Any ethnicity or cultural group, although I am primarily interested in relatively contemporary narratives, 1950 or later, more or less.

Where I'm coming from: I grew up probably lower-middle-class (though these things are kind of difficult to assess) and attended a very fancy college on full scholarship. I'm feeling both out of touch with where I came from and searching for common expressions of my experience, both my experience as a kid and of the growing out of poorness, since I'm on a path that could lead to being at least middle-class if I want to be. I'm also interested in gaining a better understanding of the context, being able to better place my experience within the broader economic system in the U.S. The best book that I've read so far that described the experience of growing up poor and precocious, and feeling torn about moving on, is The House on Mango Street. I recently read Class Matters and was thoroughly unimpressed with the treatment. I absolutely LOVED this essay by Joe. Raymond Carver's stories also come to mind as an appropriate example. More, please?
posted by grokfest to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
This is kind of an embarrassing recommendation, but Bret Hart's Hitman, in addition to being a lot about wrestling, also addresses growing up in a large, poor family in rural Canada. I've recommended this book to other folks I know (who aren't wrestling fans) because I really liked the sociological insight, and I think he (or his ghost writer) is a decent author, with a good eye for detail.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 6:01 PM on November 13, 2011

Oh shoot, didn't see the US element until adter I posted it!
posted by Ideal Impulse at 6:03 PM on November 13, 2011

Joseph T. Howell: Hard Living on Clay Street: Portraits of Blue Collar Families.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:04 PM on November 13, 2011

I don't think it's been published as a book (...yet), but the go-to reference for poverty in America is now John Scalzi's Being Poor
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 6:06 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Angela's Ashes instantly came to mind. A wonderful book. The time span is around the 1930's and takes place in New York and Ireland.
posted by JujuB at 6:10 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might want to read Mountains Beyond Mountains, about Paul Farmer. It's not a treatment of growing up poor (though it definitely engages with the theme of poverty) but Paul Farmer grew up incredibly poor and has gone on, from Duke to Harvard med, to become one of the world's real saints. It's an incredibly inspiring book even if you don't share his background, which makes me think it could all the more helpful for you.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 6:11 PM on November 13, 2011

I thought of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. (Pub date apparently 1943, but pretty close.) I read it for the first time as an adult and the feel of it rang true.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:15 PM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

OK - some really fantastic suggestions so far! The Howell book is definitely going to get read, soon, and that John Scalzi link refers to so many things that either me or my mom dealt with when I was growing up. What do you mean that it's the go-to reference? For whom? It's just really interesting to me because the things listed are so commonplace, common-sense, that while it's wonderful to see them listed, I'm amazed that a simple list is substantive enough to serve as a "reference".

While it's unlikely that I'll read the wrestling autobiography, realistically, I appreciate the suggestion nonetheless, and welcome any other Canadian ones, since while I have no direct knowledge of Canada, my sense is that it's culturally similar enough to the U.S. to apply.

I've read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and I'd say it's one of my favorites. Other depression-era accounts would be okay, though I'm mainly interested in more recent subjects. Angela's Ashes - my mom read that and recommended it - definitely on the list.

And another I've found, for others and for reference, is Dorothy Allison's Two or Three Things I Know for Sure.
posted by grokfest at 6:28 PM on November 13, 2011

Oh, and The Stories of Breece Pancake. Those are right on the money, too. The kind of homesickness and connection to place that he expresses in this excerpt from a letter to his mother is also deeply intertwined in what I'm looking for in fictional accounts:

"I'm going to come back to West Virginia when this is over. There's something ancient and deeply-rooted in my soul. I like to think that I have left my ghost up one of those hollows, and I'll never really be able to leave for good until I find it. And I don't want to look for it, because I might find it and have to leave." - Breece Pancake
posted by grokfest at 6:34 PM on November 13, 2011

Glass Castle
posted by cda at 6:36 PM on November 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

What do you mean that it's the go-to reference?

Oh, just that it's provoked discussion and amplification in lots of places, including here on Metafilter. And it gets referred to periodically.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 6:50 PM on November 13, 2011

AsYouKnow Bob - Oh, okay, that makes sense. I was thinking in a more academic or professional sense, like it was assigned reading in college classes or some such thing, which I guess I could see, too. Thanks for clarifying.
posted by grokfest at 6:57 PM on November 13, 2011

Two heart-wrenching books about inner-city poverty are The Corner and There Are No Children Here.

Ruby Payne's A Framework For Understanding Poverty is interesting, and discusses class differences as well as moving between classes. It's not research-based and there's some controversy around it, but it's food for thought.
posted by christinetheslp at 7:01 PM on November 13, 2011

Random Family is pretty great.
posted by box at 7:05 PM on November 13, 2011

Thanks for the continued suggestions! All on-topic and definitely going to be explored.

One thing that concerns me, and not about any book specifically since I haven't read these yet, is those books that either other or fetishize being poor, impoverished, or working-class. It makes sense that most of the books will be written by either outsiders or former members of this group, considering that both writing and publishing a book that is widely enough read to be mentioned here would require time, energy, and resources not frequently available to people currently economically struggling, but at the same time I do want to avoid books that either treat their subjects as an interesting "curiosity" in a fishbowl or harp on either the author and/or reader's inferiority because of their assumed higher economic status. An important element of some of the books I mentioned before is that being poor is *normal* within the story, or at least not a novelty. Just something I'm thinking about.
posted by grokfest at 7:21 PM on November 13, 2011

Maybe Sula or other Toni Morrison. Being poor isn't necessarily a main theme but it certainly is a big part of the story.
posted by Glinn at 7:27 PM on November 13, 2011

Some people don't really like her, but I think Ruby Payne lays out the various class differences in an objective, but sympathetic way. Not fiction.
And it's fairly hard to find a book that's not written by either an outsider or a former member of such a group. Current members might be interviewed by someone, but not likely to publish.
Nthing Glass Castle.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:54 PM on November 13, 2011

There Are No Children Here, by Alex Kotlowitz.
posted by Buffaload at 7:58 PM on November 13, 2011

One I haven't seen suggested yet is Off The Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:08 PM on November 13, 2011

That last one was mentioned in Freakonomics, I was wondering if someone would remind me of that guy. Definitely looks interesting.

Nonfiction seems to be pretty well covered. I'd especially like fiction suggestions that deal especially with kids and poor families, or grown-up kids who used to be poor.
posted by grokfest at 8:14 PM on November 13, 2011

You mentioned Dorothy Allison. Have you read Bastard Out of Carolina? It's excellent.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:02 PM on November 13, 2011

Are books on the immigrant experience okay? There are a number of those where the main character lives in normal poverty, achieves in school, and goes on to a middle-class American life. Of course many of the concerns of such books are family, culture, and assimilation. But I think they also hit your larger points quite well. Are those okay?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:05 PM on November 13, 2011

Savage Inequalities is one of the greatest books I have read for my undergrad degree.

I seriously think that all the tuition money was worth it for just THIS book.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:52 PM on November 13, 2011

The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver.
posted by Daily Alice at 2:36 AM on November 14, 2011

Rick Bragg has three books that I really like in this vein. The first one, All Over but the Shoutin', is his autobiography and I think it fits what you're looking for. He grew up dirt-poor in Alabama and ended up going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his writing at the New York Times.

The other two, I really enjoyed but are, I believe, outside of your time frame, and kind of more a look back into the history of his family.
Ava's Man (about his maternal grandfather)
The Prince of Frogtown, about his dad.

I also liked The Tender Bar.
posted by wintrymix at 7:10 AM on November 14, 2011

Seconding Glass Castle and suggesting Mary Karr's The Liar's Club.
posted by MsMolly at 11:27 AM on November 14, 2011

Yes - books on the immigrant experience are ok.

Many great fictional suggestions - I've got Bastard Out of Carolina, The Bean Trees, The Glass Castle, All Over But the Shoutin', and The Liar's Club on request from the library. Also most of the nonfiction that was recommended. I'll let this sit for a while longer before picking best answers, so any more recs are welcome. Thanks everyone!
posted by grokfest at 12:31 PM on November 14, 2011

This is set in an older time period (1946 or so), but Hillary Jordan's novel Mudbound is spectacular. This book won the Bellwether Prize, an award founded by Barbara Kingsolver and awarded to an unpublished manuscript that relates to social justice.

Also, have you read any Sherman Alexie? Most of his fiction is about people who are poor. He's a great writer, really funny and quite brilliant.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is another amazing novel.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:42 PM on November 14, 2011

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian - Sherman Alexie.

Also, I got interested in British television a while ago, and I found that the British perspective on class was actually very helpful for my thinking about the whole issue, because British film-makers admit that class differences exist in ways that Americans don't often like to. And I know that's both a different medium and a different country than you're asking about, but it's been helpful to me so I thought I'd throw it out there.

And if you're at all interested in following that lead, look up the actor Christopher Eccleston. He's from a working class, northern family (which in U.S. terms is roughly equivalent to being from the deep South), and a lot of his work focuses on class in some way. Specifically, look at: Our Friends in the North, Jude, and The Second Coming.
posted by colfax at 7:57 PM on November 14, 2011

I'm surprised this hadn't been recommended yet, but: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich.
posted by Rhaomi at 2:24 AM on November 15, 2011

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