New York City, we are friends. We are buds. We are good. But you are not New York State. You are your very own wonderful thing, and while you are great, you also hog the spotlight in a big way. The rest of New York is full of mountains, lakes, and cows. Lots and lots of cows. I come from the cow area, so I can tell you an awful, awful lot about cows. But hey, maybe you want to read about other things! If so, here are seven books set in New York State that have to do with the many other fascinating things going on up north. (Like ghosts!)
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt
Critics like to call this an “American Gothic” novel. I like to call it “a fairly accurate representation of what it was like to live and mature in the boonies.” The story follows two women who fall into the orbit of New York State’s history of occult and supernatural occurrences, including hauntings, cults, and a landscape that’s both forbidding and beautiful. The title, as you may already have guessed, refers to the red gentleman with the cloven hooves who makes occasional appearances through a spirit medium throughout the book.
No Other World by Rahul Mehta
Kiran Shah is American born to Indian immigrants, and living in western New York isn’t his ideal life. Aside from being Indian in a white part of the world, he’s gay and unsure how to navigate that part of his identity. Caught in the intersection between two cultures, neither of which seems to have all of the validation and support that he seeks, he’ll need to leave the nest to discover who he really is.
The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber
Central New York State can be very white, and so can many books set in New York state. However, the area is host to pockets of diversity that enliven it culturally, and Diana Abu-Jaber was born in one of these. In this early work of hers, she explores her father’s Lebanese heritage in a series of childhood anecdotes about food, interspersed with the very family recipes that helped keep her family connected to their roots. Read for the touching (and often very funny) family stories, but take notes for the food. This is a book that divides its time between the bookshelf and the kitchen.
Mohawk by Richard Russo
Richard Russo is a shoo-in for a list like this, since more than one of his famous works are books set in New York State. Mohawk was his debut, and it’s impossible to ignore how much sentiment Russo has for this area and its history. Here, he focuses on a dozen lives in a leatherworking town that’s circling the drain. As factory work disappears, the blue collar workers who relied on it must deal with the change in the wind, as well as with the health and environmental concerns that the factories actually caused. Although the theme is serious and, in many ways, tragic, the book’s tone is ultimately hopeful, so don’t let that scare you off!
Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon
One thing that many people know about central New York is that it’s full of prisons. This epistolary novel is set between Harlem and a jail in upstate New York where Antonio, a Black man wrongly accused of the murder of his father, waits a decade for justice. Meanwhile, his only conduit to the outside world—both its rewards and its sadnesses—is his girlfriend Natasha. Both characters are in their teens when the novel starts, but they must grow up quickly to deal with the unfairness of their situation.
The Farm by Joanna Ramos
When the super-wealthy want babies, they hire out in this bestselling and all-too-real babymaking dystopia. Jane is a Filipina immigrant with a young daughter to support, and the Farm is willing to pay her to have a baby. The money she’d get could turn her life around…but is it going to be worth the cost?
This Is One Way To Dance by Sejal Shah
This standout and thoughtful group of memoir essays about belonging, ethnicity, and place is both beautiful and challenging. Like No Other World, this work centers roughly on Western New York, where racial and ethnic divisions are deep and the prevailing culture often values conformity. However, it also travels afield, furnishing us with a perspective that ranges to the Midwest to the East Coast.
Tired of all this non-NYC-ness? Want gritty books about the city? We love those too! Go see our list of seedy Big Apple stories.