9 Modern Novels Set in Appalachia

Cassie Gutman

Staff Writer

Cassie Gutman is happiest when surrounded by books and dogs. Originally from a small, funny-named town near Louisville, Kentucky, she now edits words for a living near Chicago and would like to be paid in ice cream. You can find her on Instagram @happybooklovers or on Twitter @cassiepgutman.

Cassie Gutman

Staff Writer

Cassie Gutman is happiest when surrounded by books and dogs. Originally from a small, funny-named town near Louisville, Kentucky, she now edits words for a living near Chicago and would like to be paid in ice cream. You can find her on Instagram @happybooklovers or on Twitter @cassiepgutman.

Amazon Publishing

Isabel is a successful sculptor living in Chicago. But when her estranged mother dies, she’s forced to face her brutal childhood growing up in the West Virginia hills, a past that not even her husband knows. Back on the land she has inherited, she’s flooded with memories of the forest where she roamed free, of her beloved lost brother, and of the house where she grew up. Her mother has left her another legacy, too, which reveals secrets that Isabel is only beginning to understand. From Joy Castro comes a heartbreaking and triumphant novel of old wounds and family secrets.

Books about Appalachia are becoming more popular, and I have to say that I feel some kind of way every time I see a new book out taking place in Kentucky. For a while, it felt like I could never find books that felt like they were set near my home and about people like me. But they are gaining momentum, and even though there are some excellent classic novels out there set in the Appalachian region, it does seem like people have a pretty set expectation and go-to when talking about books set in Appalachia. 

It’s partly in the discourse because of that one book. (If you’re looking for books other than Hillbilly Elegy you can read about the history of Appalachia and those living there, head here for a ton of great recommendations, including What You’re Getting Wrong About Appalachia.) But it’s also popping up in fiction more frequently, and I wanted to recommend some more modern novels you can turn to when you’re looking for a book about Appalachia. Each of these books was published more recently than 2010, so if you’ve already read the standards that are typically recommended, these newer release novels will be a great next place to turn to when looking for books set in the Appalachian region. 

Book cover for Heat and Light

Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh

Bakerton is a small Pennsylvania mining town that has seen better days, and the community is still reeling from the mines closing. So when a deposit of natural gas is revealed in town, the question of whether to drill becomes the biggest topic of the century. The book is told through the eyes of many community members and what the opportunity would mean for them and what would harm them, touching on real-world issues for many Appalachians like undrinkable tap water and nonstop machinery noise.

Book cover for Any Other Place

Any Other Place by Michael Croley

This collection of short stories compiles characters who all find themselves displaced, from a daughter in the reels of grief to a newlywed dealing with potentially disastrous climate change effects. Home and belonging are strong themes here that resonate for the characters in various situations, looking to turn to their comfort of home in eastern Kentucky.

Book cover for Stay and Fight

Stay and Fight by Madeline Ffitch

What begins as an escape for Helen to rural Ohio to live off the land with her boyfriend turns into a solo gig after he gives up in the face of a long winter. So Helen is left to fend for herself, helped by her boss Rudy and her neighbors, Karen and Lily, who live at the Women’s Land Trust. But the couple is expecting a baby boy, so they must move, and end up with Helen, where they all agree to split the work and make their new lives work together. This novel is about found family and fighting for those you love, despite all and sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Book cover for Lum

Lum by Libby Ware

Columbia — Lum, for short — has built a life of her own in the Blue Ridge Mountains, an area of the Appalachians, after being set apart from others for so many years. She was born intersex and told from a young age that would make her unmarriageable, so now, as an adult, she’s still trying to find her place to fit in and mostly used to keeping to herself. But when the Blue Ridge Parkway is planned, a major road development slated to come right through the mountains, disrupting her family and community and causing them to splinter in pieces, she knows she must do something to help unite them all even when people shun her.

Book cover of Saint Monkey

Saint Monkey by Jacinda Townsend

Audrey Martin, only 14 years old, knows exactly where her life is going, and she knows it won’t be out of Kentucky. But the one place she feels she can make a change is in church, playing the piano. But everything changes when Audrey is approached by a booking agent and offered the chance of a lifetime — to join the jazz scene in Harlem. But Caroline, Audrey’s best friend, is still in Kentucky and never receives that same call, and slowly she sees her dreams slipping farther away as a young Black girl in Kentucky, and she fears that if too much more time passes, her dreams will be lost for good.

Book cover of The Killing Hills

The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt

Mick Hardin, an army agent, is home on leave with his wife who is about to give birth. Meanwhile, Mick’s sister has recently been appointed sheriff in their small rural Kentucky community, and she’s working on her first murder case. Local politicians are pushing her to call the FBI, not believing she can handle it, so she calls in Mick to help wrap things up fast. What they find is more than they ever thought could have been possible, and it seems that the murders aren’t over yet. Everyone is a suspect, and everyone has reason to watch their backs before they become the next victims.

Book cover of The Prettiest Star

The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels

Content warning for extreme homophobia.

Brian left his small hometown in Ohio long ago for NYC, for the freedom to live his life as a gay man and not be chastised for it. After several years in the city and reeling from the fear of and grief caused by the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, he decides to return home, painful and emotional as it is for him. His town hasn’t changed much, and coming home is hard in so many ways for him, but mostly in the unacceptance and rejection and hate he experiences. This is a book of emotions and reckoning with your past, no matter how ugly.

Book cover for Even As We Breathe

Even As We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

Twenty-year-old Cowney Sequoyah is spending the summer of 1942 working on the grounds of Grove Park Inn in western North Carolina. He struggles with balancing his lives — his work life at the inn, which is currently housing diplomats as prisoners of war, and his home life on the Qualla Boundary (Cherokee Indian Reservation). When one of the diplomat’s daughters goes missing at the inn, Cowney is in the center of it all, once again torn between worlds, and trying to piece it together before he’s blamed for everything.

Book cover of Betty

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel

Inspired by the true life of her own mother, McDaniel tells the story of Betty Carpenter, born to a Cherokee father and a white mother as the sixth of eight siblings. They have a life of poverty and hardship, but Betty finds solace in writing, and she is able to finally reckon with her dark family secrets, the secrets in their small Ohio town, and the secrets she’s held entirely to herself, through her newfound love of storytelling.

If you’re looking for even more books about Appalachia, including nonfiction, check out this list for more recommendations.