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Setting as a Character? Check These Reads Out!

Explorations of home and place are one of my favorite genres of creative nonfiction, but the setting is a necessary piece of every form of writing. Here are ten works where the author used their settings to the highest potential.

The Ozone Journal, by Peter Balakian

As the 2015 Pulitzer Poetry winner, Balakin masterfully uses place to set the tone for his innermost thoughts. This collection follows him from Native American villages in New Mexico to his excavation of Armenian mass graves, from his time spent in America’s big cities, to the slums of Nairobi and Aleppo. Most pieces are titled by a place and a year, setting the stage for Balakian’s soulful analysis of his experiences and understanding of history, culture, art, and war. Through his poetry, he finds human preservation amid such devastation.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Although this is a work of fiction of a family homesteading in Alaska, Kristen Hannah draws from many of her own experiences growing up on the Alaskan frontier to create the thrilling, treacherous, and beautiful world of the Alaskan wilderness. Describing the book as “A Love Letter’ to the state, Hannah uses the intensity of the world and people of Alaska to balance the beautiful and heartbreaking moments of the family of a Vietnam war veteran navigating trauma, relationships, and survival.

A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

In the poetry of another Pulitzer winner, Mary Oliver finds peace in the natural world of her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Through light but powerful writing, Oliver captures the intimate moments of her relationship with nature and delivers them wonderfully to her reader for their own experience. In every moment from considering the microscopic details of plants, to wondering if she’s lived enough, Oliver shows her deep love for the geography and wildlife that makes her home.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

In a story made up of glittering, fading aristocracy and gritty World War II flashbacks, Evelyn Waugh immerses her reader in the fictional world of Charles Ryder: a man grappling with the loss of his ornate youth to wartime England. Waught captures this in a decaying but ever-present family friend’s mansion. In this work, Waugh shows off her ability to make time, location, and even physical buildings ever-evolving characters.

The Roots of a Thousand Embraces by Juan Felipe Herrera

In this experimental work, Juan Felipe Herrera explores a bit more metaphoric of a place than the rest of the books on this list. In this collection of prose poems, Herrera explores his own life and experiences as a child of Mexican immigrants through what he’s learned from Frida Kahlo and her own life “in between Mexico and the United States - in the open space of the jaws; between the mandibles of the jaguar and the nuclear turbine.” In this deeply intimate piece, he finds healing, meaning, and inspiration in the life of the famed artist.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinka Braithwaite

Through this dark and witty fictional piece, Braithwaite tells the story of a killer and her sister who cleans up after her. Set in Abuja, Braithwaite shows great control of her narrative by describing the setting not by long description, but through her characters, their routine, culture, and details are known by only someone who loves a place.

Kettle Bottom by Diane Gilliam Fisher

As a descendant of Appalachia, Fisher tells the often-forgotten true account of the West Virginia Mine wars of 1920-1921. The dark year was one in a long history of union battles throughout Appalachia, the catalyst for the conditions that exist there today. Through an in-depth narrative, Fisher brings herself to “long stretches underground” as she tells a rich story of culture, conflict, and setting through poetry. This incredibly well-researched work immerses the reader into the homes of the coal mines, and the livelihoods that the miners fought so hard to keep.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

In this first-person creative nonfiction novel, John Berendt tells such a vivid account of a murder that shook 1980s Savannah, Georgia. Berendt writes with a wealth of vivid detail, and while much of the story is played out through the wide cast of compelling characters, his incorporation of the setting into the plot makes the story unforgettable. He holds back no detail, writing in such a way that convinces the reader they know the spaces he plunges them into. As reviewer Sarah Pinborough writes “Berendt brings us all the oddities and marvels of the city and her inhabitants, so much so that I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt like I’d been there already the first time I went."

Directions to the Beach of the Dead by Richard Blanco

In this travel-journal-turned-narrative-poetry-collection, Richard Blanco approaches writing about the home from a new angle. While most books on this list are places the author knows well, Blanco documents his journey to new places and temporary resting spots and reflects on whether he could make these places a new home. With his ability to write saturated accounts of fleeting moments, Blanco takes his reader with him to experience stops in Livorno, Italy, hikes through Guatemalan volcanoes, to reflect on everything from the family memories to glittering nightlife he left behind in Miami.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthoney Doerr

Although this book is not lacking in praise for its prose, I would be remiss not to include Doerr’s masterpiece in this list the story of a French girl, a German boy, and a Nazi general, Doerr documents World War II through all of their eyes. With each one, he does a wonderful job of integrating the landscapes around them into the plot, as all three of them leave old homes, move across Europe, and find new resting spots. Doerr’s lavish descriptions balance the atrocities of war, as he writes of everything from the beautiful french countryside to the crumbling towns around them.

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