Only the Strong Survive

Mt. Pleasant LibraryStaff Picks

Only the Strong Survive

Resilience as a defining character trait in fiction

This list came out of a reference question that I got recently -- a patron I've gotten to know over the years asked for books about people dealing with hard situations -- and doing something about them.

The question bounced around in my head for a few days.  She was graciously willing to wait for an emailed list, since it was the end of the day when she asked the question...and it finally hit me. She wanted books about survivors. Not quite Robinson Crusoe, but someone who navigated the mess of the world and came out better for it.

So, with many thanks to Emilie for the inspiration, here are my survivors:

Janet Fitch, White Oleander. When her charismatic mother is imprisoned for murder, 12-year-old Astrid is thrust into the Los Angeles foster care system. Every new home is its own challenge, threat and learning experience. Astrid's resilience and adaptability, combined with Fitch's beautiful prose, make this book unforgettable.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale. Offred had a real life once -- a husband and a daughter and a job and a bank account. And then the world changed. Birthrates were declining, and people were frightened. Now women are carefully guarded and restricted, both prized for and trapped by their ability to bear children. The 'handmaid' of a high-ranking official, Offred watches a world that's gone mad and looks for a way to escape.

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower. In a near future that is stunningly, frighteningly familiar-looking, a young woman leads a band of misfits and refugees -- from violence, racism, corporate slavery and starvation -- through a drought-blasted, anarchistic California. Guided by her instincts and a nebulous new faith she calls "Earthseed," Lauren walks inexorably toward a safe and generous place in a ruthless, broken version of America.

Ford Madox Ford, Parade's End. One of the most celebrated novels of the First World War, Parade's End follows Christopher Tietjens, a man of beautiful, inflexible and old-fashioned honor, through the "crack across the table of history," from the security of the Edwardian upper-class to the unfathomably changed post-war world.

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible. Completely absorbed by his own righteousness, evangelical missionary Nathan Price transplants his family to the Belgian Congo in 1959, on the eve of the colonial regime's collapse. Told from the perspectives of his wife and four daughters, The Poisonwood Bible is the story of people who are forever altered by the country they came to 'save.'