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The road novel is often described as a distinctly American genre. In an interview on the road trip story, historian Allen Pietrobon traces it back to wagon trains and even to George Washington. From Jack Kerouac On the road at John Steinbeck Travels with Charley: In Search of America, white male authors have been writing road novels since the advent of the freeway. But what about writers of color, women, and LGBTQ + writers?
As Pietrobon points out, prior to the Civil Rights Act, road travel for people of color was perilous. I would say the dangers persist to this day. For example, in Gretchen Soren Driving in black: African-American Travel and the Civil Rights Path and Candacy Taylor’s Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel to America, the authors take a critical look at the dangers of the road for black Americans.
With that in mind, there are a ton of road novels that stray from the tradition of writers like Kerouac and Steinbeck. These contemporary road novels examine the ways in which a person’s body influences their ability to move on the roads. They also encourage readers to think differently about the road novel as an American genre.
It is summer and the road is announced. The United States is tentatively reopening its doors, but there are still a lot of fears about flying with COVID-19 there. For this reason, many people are considering taking road trips. Before you hit the road, take a look at these books that tackle the road romance genre (though some of them are memoirs and others are genre mixes). They will challenge you to take a detour from the fantasies of Route 66 and think deeply about the asphalt arteries that connect the vital points of this country to each other.
Archives of lost children by Valeria Luiselli
As a family of four driving from New York to Arizona, their journey through the United States merges with everything from a growing family divide to international immigration policy. The novel interweaves various ephemera – such as snapshots and song lyrics – with the story itself. Many critics have described Archives of lost children like a great American novel, some even recognize it as a travelogue. Luiselli’s masterful tale of family and nation is a fascinating and important travel novel for our time.
bastards by Stephen Graham Jones
Stephen Graham Jones’ coming-of-age novel follows a family of werewolves as they travel through the southern United States. The anonymous protagonist learns everything from werewolf etiquette to the importance of not wearing spandex during a transformation, picking up tidbits of family history as he travels the freeways with his aunt and son. uncle. Typical of Jones’ work, bastards could be categorized as bildungsroman, horror, or even dark comedy – and, of course, it’s a road novel too. However you put it, the book is surprisingly tender in its treatment of teenage insecurities and family loyalty.
Sing, not buried, sing by Jesmyn Ward
Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel is a novel haunted by racism. Of course, there are ghosts: two African American boys who were killed in their teens – one murdered in a “hunting accident” and the other killed out of pity after a failed prison escape. But as teenage protagonist Jojo and his troubled mother make the dangerous journey to retrieve Jojo’s father from jail, the dangers of the road come to the fore. As the family tries to return home, Ward’s novel explores systemic racism while engaging the nefarious undercurrents of racism so often overlooked in the mainstream road novel.
The Wangs against the world by Jade Chang
âCharles Wang was angry with America. In fact, Charles Wang was crazy about history. So begins Chang’s humorous exploration of family, finances, and failure. The Wangs against the world follows the Wang family as they drive their only remaining car (the only one that hasn’t been taken back) from Los Angeles to New York City in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The first sentence of the novel alludes to the ironic humor to follow; its second sentence belies the novel’s interest in the larger context of global capitalism and immigration. It’s a stimulating book that masquerades as light summer read, and it’s worth every page.
Lightning trail by Rebecca Roanhorse
What better mix of genres than road novel and post-apocalyptic fantasy YA? While there was a controversy surrounding Roanhorse’s (Ohkay Owinge Pueblo) use of the DinÃ© mythologies, Lightning trail is a suspenseful page turner of a novel. The world has been shaken by a natural disaster, and the latent powers of 16-year-old Maggie Hoskie are revealed after the murder of her grandmother. As she travels the roads of the crumbling United States in search of the monsters (literally) that killed her grandmother, Maggie’s journey becomes so much more than just a tale of revenge. Just warning: this is the first book in a series that is not yet complete.
America for beginners by LÃ©a Franqui
When Pival Sengupta leaves Kolkata to embark on a road trip across the country from New York to California, she is motivated by more than a thirst for travel. Instead, she’s looking for her son, who came out to his parents a year before he disappeared. Pival’s husband told her their son was dead, but his journey was born out of his refusal to believe he was really dead and his desire to understand. As her road trip gives her a better understanding of the United States, Pival also gains insight into herself and her son. This moving novel is told with a combination of humor and beauty.
The Last Great Road Bum: a novel by HÃ©ctor Tobar
HÃ©ctor Tobar’s novel blurs the lines between reality and fiction. It takes writer Joe Sanderson’s papers on his travels across the United States – and, more broadly, the world – as the basis for a novel about Sanderson’s travels. Interestingly, at the heart of the novel is an investigation of the privilege that has historically been so central to rhythm generation and to “classic” American literature in general. Tobar, who is an award-winning novelist and journalist, sifted through Sanderson’s personal papers for over a decade in order to write this novel. It’s a freewheeling travelogue on the one hand, and a thoughtful exploration of masculinity, race, and the literary world on the other.
Between two kingdoms: memory of an interrupted life by Suleika Jaouad
Suleika Jaouad was diagnosed with leukemia in her early twenties and spent nearly four years surviving an array of treatment options. Between two kingdoms recounts what happened after those years as Jaouad hit the roads in search of the life she had been forced to put on the back burner. This memoir follows her as she searches for people who corresponded with her during her treatments, retracing her road trips alongside her journey to rebirth.
Love is an ex-country by Randa Jarrar
Randa Jarrar is a queer Arab-American Muslim woman who is also a performer and actress. This collection of essays is told in a poetic and irreverent style. Taking the body as the lens through which to explore a multitude of issues ranging from joy to race to sexuality, Love is an ex-country is a good read. This is a real road trip through the United States, but it is about much more than that. Not only does Jarrar write with fearless honesty, there is also an urgency and timeliness to this book that makes it incredibly compelling.
Paola Ramos’ book on contemporary Latin identity is organized by region (Southwest, South, Midwest, and Northeast). Find Latinx incorporates detailed descriptions of the place with engaging interviews and photographs in its exploration of the various factors that make up the âlatinxâ identity. Unconventional, of course, as far as the road story is concerned, but this book bears witness to the richness of individual experience and its integral role in the formation of cultural identity.
There is another book I must mention, although it is specifically do not a road novel. Mia Bay Traveling Black: a story of race and resistance is a powerful collection of essays exploring what it means to travel the world as a black woman.
If you fancy more books on the go, here are a few suggestions that should get you started on your reading journey.