Book Recommendations Wanted!
June 13, 2013 6:46 PM   Subscribe

After rereading the Little House on the Prairie series, I want more books of a similar style! Particular specifications and a few more examples within. Note: Anne of Green Gables need not apply.

I want engrossing books that follow the daily lives, activities and social mores of women, especially if they are living in tough conditions (or having adventures!) I enjoy a clear, straightforward storytelling technique that focuses more on characters' activities and feelings and not so much flowery descriptions of the scenery (thus, no Anne).

I would prefer books with a female protagonist, in the third person, that are full of historical detail without bashing the reader over the head with the facts. I'm more interested in what the characters do than in complex, dramatic inter-personal politics or intrigues. Romance is fine in small doses but I'd rather it weren't the main focus.

I can handle long descriptive passages if they are skippable. They can be kid's books as long as they're novels and they aren't condescending. I'm also open to reading memoirs and autobiographies. I'm primarily looking for books set in the western world.

So, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, following the lives of poor women in the early 1900's, was one I really loved. Gone With the Wind, following Scarlett through the Civil War, was fascinating (long descriptions aside). Any others you can recommend would be great!
posted by windykites to Media & Arts (51 answers total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
I think Willa Cather's O Pioneers! fits your requirements. It's one of my favorite books.
posted by gatorae at 6:55 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Based on your love of Gone With The Wind, I have to say Forever Amber, particularly because the protagonist's experiences during the plague are similarly gripping and detailed. And Amber's a bit of a spiritual cousin to Scarlett -- ambitious and terrifically devil may care. It was spectacularly racy for the time in which it was written (1944) but everyone I know who has read it, including my saintly mother, has declared it utterly unputdownable. And if you like Forever Amber and similarly frank stories about the seedier side of London, you would probably also like The Crimson Petal and the White.

On preview: Oh, these books are so far away from wonderful Willa Cather! But definitely fun on the side of the GWTW spectrum.
posted by mochapickle at 7:02 PM on June 13, 2013

It is definitely a young adult book, but I loved Catherine, Called Birdy.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:03 PM on June 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michael Faber.

Set in Victorian-era England. Fascinating depiction of class differences, pulled together by a cracking yarn (sex workers! Family empires! Intrigue!) Protagonist is a smart-as-a-whip female prostitute.
posted by Salamander at 7:03 PM on June 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Eh, beaten to the punch! :)
posted by Salamander at 7:04 PM on June 13, 2013

Have you read the Dear America books? Each one follows a different child (usually a girl) in a historical context - the Oregon trail, the Mayflower, the Salem witch trials.

They are children's books, but there are a number of them, and I've enjoyed them all.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 7:08 PM on June 13, 2013

Have you read Jane Austen's Emma?
The Clan of the Cave Bear might also interest you.

More on the romance side, I really enjoyed Celeste De Blasis's books Wild Swan and The Proud Breed. Both were excellent historical fiction.

James Michener's books are also great - but more male focused. I particularly liked Shogun.
posted by mazienh at 7:08 PM on June 13, 2013

Little Women
Caddie Woodlawn
Mrs. Mike
posted by bunderful at 7:12 PM on June 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

"And Ladies of the Club" by Helen Hooven Santmyer

Super, super long and absolutely fabulous. It has everything you are looking for.

I am dying to discuss it! It is incredible.
posted by jgirl at 7:13 PM on June 13, 2013

I'm reading Middlemarch right now and finding it very enjoyable - you might too. There's very little extraneous description, just lots of interaction.
posted by bleep at 7:14 PM on June 13, 2013

I wrote a book about this.

I think you'd like:

The Bread Givers, Anzia Yezierska
The Betsy-Tacy series of books by Maud Hart Lovelace
The Kristin Lavransdatter series by Sigrid Undset (there's lots of intrigue, but the historical detail is FASCINATING and the new translation has a wonderful detached sort of third-person style)
And for some reason it strikes me that you might enjoy memoirs/biographies such as The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me (Lillian Gish) and Robert Massie's newish biography of Catherine The Great.
posted by mynameisluka at 7:14 PM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's been about a million years since I read it, but I remember the Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy as the English version of the Little House series.
posted by amelioration at 7:18 PM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

All of a Kind Family! I think of it as the urban Jewish version of Little House. Love those books.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:19 PM on June 13, 2013 [9 favorites]

A Girl of the Limberlost
posted by Ouisch at 7:23 PM on June 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

If the Little House books weren't too beneath you, you might also enjoy Marguerite Henry's Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West.
posted by drlith at 7:32 PM on June 13, 2013

Poisonwood bible and in the time of the butterflies!
posted by nanhey at 7:35 PM on June 13, 2013

A Woman of Independent Means
posted by Daily Alice at 7:42 PM on June 13, 2013

Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford might appeal. Though it's written in first-person, the narrator is mostly narrating the activities of the other characters, and it's basically a collection of charming (though often bittersweet) episodes in the life of a village populated mostly by women.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 7:55 PM on June 13, 2013

This couldn't be further from the American frontier setting of Little House, but what about The Red Tent? It's a retelling of the Biblical Patriarch stories from an ultra-realist female perspective. I think it's in first person, though.

Ooooh, seconding The Poisonwood Bible (which is also not in third person, but in first person switching between different women's perspectives). If you're OK with that shifting perspectives idea, you might also like Tracks, by Louise Erdrich, which also takes place in the Dakotas and somewhat around the same time/in the same framework as the latter Little House novels. (It's set on an Indian reservation in the 1910's and 20s.) It's a little more literary in tone than some of the other books mentioned here, but not a lot of flowery descriptions or anything.
posted by Sara C. at 7:56 PM on June 13, 2013

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (it's Australia, but the pioneer life there for women has similarities to the American frontier)

Also maybe try the Booky trilogy, by Bernice Thurman Hunter. While ostensibly a kids series, the depiction of the family's poverty and depression era Canada is very very gritty.

We Took To The Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich
posted by gudrun at 8:09 PM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding Mrs. Mike.
That's a great read.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:10 PM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

East, not West, but Memoirs of a Geisha comes to mind.

Also remember loving Catherine, Called Birdy. The Betsy-Tacy books might be a little too young for an adult.
posted by radioamy at 8:12 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Harp in the South trilogy. Tough conditions, historical and is mainly concerned with the mother and daughter iirc (at least in that volume, haven't read the prequel).
posted by Trivia Newton John at 8:21 PM on June 13, 2013

Perhaps "So Big" by Edna Ferber or "Excellent Women" by Barbara Pym?
posted by rdnnyc at 8:25 PM on June 13, 2013

The Country Kitchen is Michigan's version of Little House. It's a memoir of farm life in the 1880s. Not the least bit flowery, but sometimes floury. You might have to get it used, but it's worth it. It has a sequel, Home Grown, but that was never reprinted, so you'd have to pick up an original copy.
posted by Tall Telephone Pea at 8:36 PM on June 13, 2013

The Year We Were Famous, based on the author's great-grandmother and great aunt, who tried to raise money to save their farm by walking from Washington State to New York in 1896.
posted by scody at 8:38 PM on June 13, 2013

Domina by Barbara Wood? Girl in Victorian London wants to become a doctor, eventually moves to America. Ticks your third person and historical detail boxes. There is a fair amount of romance, but I'd say it's definitely not the main focus - there's a lot more going on in her life besides that. It's been a while since I read it so I don't remember whether there are long flowery descriptive passages or not, but the story rolls along at an excellent clip.
posted by sigmagalator at 8:50 PM on June 13, 2013

Christy, by Catherine Marshall- a young woman going off to teach in Appalachia
posted by PussKillian at 8:51 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also came in here to recommend the Betsy-Tacy books. You might also like I Capture the Castle and The Pursuit if Love and Love in a Cold Climate, though I'm not sure if they're third person or not. They are very much of their time.
posted by apricot at 8:59 PM on June 13, 2013

I just re-read The Witch of Blackbird Pond (young adult fiction) and it is one of my favorite books from young adulthood for the same reason Little House on the Prairie was also a favorite. If you do a search in a library catalog, I find that they have a recommend feature that tries to match similar type of books. This is how I look for more books in the same theme I just enjoyed reading.
posted by loquat at 9:05 PM on June 13, 2013

My Antonia by Willa Cather - though it is told in the first person, the narrator is a young boy interacting with a group of really interesting girls and women.

Have you read Jeanette Walls' books? I haven't read her newest, but Half Broke Horses is about her grandmother growing up on a ranch in Texas in the 20s and 30s.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:10 PM on June 13, 2013

loquat's recommendation of The Witch Of Blackbird Pond caused me to remember The True Confessions Of Charlotte Doyle, which I won't tell the story of in order to avoid spoilers. (As a kid I remember being a little bit scandalized at how the narrator transforms from a prim little rich girl to, well, I'll let you figure it out.) But it centers on a 19th century female protagonist going through tough conditions and having adventures. I think it's first person, though it's an action-packed YA page turner short on flowery descriptions of landscapes.
posted by Sara C. at 9:40 PM on June 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

Little Heathens!

Also the Boxcar Children, on the off chance you haven't read it.
posted by peep at 10:52 PM on June 13, 2013

I would recommend author Isabel Allende - she's written several books about women in the old west and also South America.
I really loved The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich.
This is not in the West, but Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire is a retelling of the Cinderella story and paints a very vivid picture of the Netherlands during the Tulip Mania.
posted by krikany at 11:13 PM on June 13, 2013

You need to read Marge Piercy - this is exactly what she does. Braided Lives (about women in college right before the sexual revolution), Gone to Soldiers (follows 10 characters, mostly women and mostly not military, during WWII), and and Sex Wars (about the women of the suffrage movement) are all great. She also wrote one about the French Revolution, City of Darkness, City of Light, that I didn't love, but you might.
posted by lunasol at 11:31 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Came in to say, and am now seconding: My Antonia by Willa Cather and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich (though the latter has a lot more going on than just "girl having an adventure..." including multiple storylines in multiple time periods.)

Also just read The Antelope Wife by Ms. Erdrich and it was fannnntastic, but again features her trademark magical realism so there are a lot of different threads of story, many taking place in modern times but rooted in the American west/midwest.

Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman. Young adult novel set in 13th century england, but still a great story of a plucky young girl and simple, compelling storyline.

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple by Karen Cushman. Young girl/woman moves with her mother from Massachusetts to California during the gold rush.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi. Plucky young woman crossing the Atlantic from England to America 1832, high seas adventure and coming of age ensues.

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell. Young indigenous woman is stranded on an island off of California for many years and learns to survive, set in the late 1800s.

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George (and two subsequent novels "Julie" and "Julie's Wolf Pack". Young Yupik woman (Alaska native) runs away from an arranged marriage and lives in the wilderness, learning to communicate with wolves.
posted by dahliachewswell at 11:34 PM on June 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Seconding lunasol's recommendation of Marge Piercy. I read, "The Longings of Women" and it was great!
posted by MeatheadBrokeMyChair at 3:35 AM on June 14, 2013

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich is seen by some as the Native American counterpart to the Little House books. It follows a 7 year old Ojibwa girl and her family, and is full of details about daily life.

Totally seconding Julie of the Wolves and Island of the Blue Dolphins.
posted by fancyoats at 5:52 AM on June 14, 2013

I came to recommend Lark Rise to Candleford too, it's actually more documentary/social commentary than outright storytelling, especially the first book, but it's brilliantly immediate and evocative and the characters are very vivid. And much less schmaltzy than the BBC TV adaptation.
posted by freya_lamb at 5:52 AM on June 14, 2013

A Lantern In Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich--here's the online version of it. I read it when I was about 12 and have never forgotten it.
posted by Amy NM at 6:04 AM on June 14, 2013

Strongly seconding the Booky series. Fantastic books that really immerse you in the Great Depression without hitting you over the head with it, as you said. Also very touching.
posted by yawper at 7:16 AM on June 14, 2013

Reaching back to childhood: Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson. A story of twin sisters in coastal Maine (?). I felt I was there, culling oysters, despite being firmly moored in the Middle West.
posted by Liesl at 7:30 AM on June 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson includes a lot of lovely day-to-day details about early 20th century Vienna. Female protagonist, plenty of adventure, no flowery descriptions.
posted by corey flood at 8:21 AM on June 14, 2013

The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald (of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle fame) is witty and tenacious. Betty and her husband move to a chicken farm without prior farming experience and proceed to make the best of it. Great writing and descriptions of learning to farm, fix up the property, and exploring the region/meeting neighbors. Betty is one tough cookie with a great sense of humor. It's not in third-person, but it's full of detail and very few dull moments. I have very similar taste as you and I've read this a few times and it's always kept my interest.

It was made into a movie with Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert (not as good as the book, of course, but still charming) and then morphed into the goofy Ma & Pa Kettle tv series based on Betty's neighbors in the book.
posted by E3 at 8:55 AM on June 14, 2013

The Land of the Burnt Thigh by Edith Ammons Kohl. Takes place in South Dakota too, and meets all of your criteria (two lone, strong women trying to make it on the prairie).

You'll appreciate "Free Land" and "Let the Hurricane Roar" by Rose Wilder Lane. In fact, many details will sound familiar.

Came here to also recommend "Witch of Blackbird Pond" and the All of a Kind Family series. When I go home tonight, I'm going to reread them.
posted by Melismata at 9:09 AM on June 14, 2013

another vote for Caddie Woodlawn !
posted by mefireader at 9:17 AM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Perhaps you'd like What Katy Did and its sequel. Or, Eight Cousins by Louisa M Alcott about an orphan girl in 19th century Massachusetts. For something different the Abbey Girls series is based on the authors experiences on the early 20th century English country dancing revival.
posted by plonkee at 9:52 AM on June 14, 2013

And another vote for "Caddie Woodlawn". I had never heard of this book growing up (girl books, eww), but read it for my daughter's bedtime story years ago and loved it. Very much like LHOP, but I liked the character of Caddie better than I liked Laura, and I think the writing is better.
posted by briank at 12:20 PM on June 14, 2013

I really liked Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and if you liked A Tree Grows in Brooklyn you might like it, too (replace New York with Georgia, set in the 1930s).
posted by stellaluna at 3:49 PM on June 14, 2013

Another second for Willa Cather's "Prairie Trilogy," O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Ántonia (1918), which feature frontier women as protagonists and are beautifully written, too.

On the YA front, I love Eleanor Estes' Moffat family books - The Moffats (1941), The Middle Moffat (1942), Rufus M. (1943) and the later follow-up The Moffat Museum (1983) (I've only read the first two so far but I'm sure the others are just as good). Set in the early 1900s, they follow the charming adventures of four children and their hardworking widowed mother and were very popular in the 1940s. They are wonderful, funny, engaging gems with strong female characters and lots of realistic detail about daily life. The Middle Moffat focuses on Janey.
posted by mediareport at 11:14 AM on June 16, 2013

Two more strong recommendations: Alice Munro's short story collections are marvelous, with each story often as rich as an entire novel (that's kind of a cliché about her writing, but remains true). I started with Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage and became a huge fan. She's a perfect match for your description, with stories set in both the past and present. Also: Kate Chopin's short stories, which I think are better than The Awakening. She was writing in the late 1800s but has a surprisingly modern, proto-feminist sensibility. The period detail is fun, but the real meat is the descriptions of the internal states of the female characters.

(I just want to add that mynameisluka's book looks really great: The Heroine's Bookshelf: Life Lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalls Wilder)
posted by mediareport at 11:33 AM on June 16, 2013

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