Ten novels describing what grinding poverty is really about

I started thinking about this awhile ago.  When I read The Bridge in the Jungle.  If I get some more good suggestions I will update… so put them in comments please.

  1. Beppe Fenoglio, Ruin, He is an amazing writer about the Piedmont area of Italy, and his short novels from the 1930s and 1940s are well-worth reading.  I first read Ruin as a random selection while browsing in San Jose Public Library.  I mean random: I said to myself I would pick a random short novel off the shelf to read.  Ruin was it.  Wow.  Here’s a nice appreciation of a new French translation.
  2. B. Traven, The Bridge in the Jungle, I found this outside of George Akerlof’s office as he was culling his book collection. Phenomenal writing, and a great mystery goes with it: nobody really knows who B. Traven was (a German anarchist living in Mexico?). Reading this means you are then justified in watching Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, one of the all-time great movies.
  3. Daniel Mason, A Far Country.  A very flattering New York Times review suggests looking at the film Black Orpheus to better appreciate the book: who could disagree with that happy suggestion?
  4. Alan Garner, The Stone Book Quartet  What I like about Garner’s four very short novellas is that despite being about very poor English country-folk, there is magic, mystery, fulfillment and beauty all around.  Everything is from the point of view of an adult’s memory of how it feels to be a child; so a ride down a hill on a sled is like a climb of Mt. Everest… we all know that feeling, of those special moments in our childhood, and we know that our children experience events in similar ways. Reading Garner is a wonderful way of capturing that feeling.
  5. Uwem Akpan, Say You Are One of Them.  OK, ultra-depressing poverty, Africa-variety. This is to shock naive young students: yes, this is all real, and you are playing video games.
  6. Jean-Marie Le Clézio, Poisson d’or , not my favorite novel, but pretty grim.  And in intermediate level French.  But as numerous readers on GoodReads note, you never really develop much attachment to the protagonist, partly because she seems a little robot-like.
  7. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah.  I have not read this in 25 years, but I vividly recall the shock of reading how corruption is linked, metaphorically, to shit.  As a novel about corruption, it does the job well.
  8. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser.  I’m surprised there is no African ripoff, really.  This is both a novel about being really poor, in a world where plenty of people are very well off, and a novel that poor people want to read (i.e. like much 19th century literature from Dickens onwards…).  Great way to understand people’s lives under industrialization.
  9. God’s Bits of Wood by  Ousmane Sembène.  I was assigned this in college, many years ago.  It stands the test of time pretty well, especially for understanding factory-style poverty.
  10. The Pearl.  Steinbeck.  I think it illustrates the whole “poor have cognitive difficulties” approach very nicely.  Would be interesting to go through it carefully and count all the bad choices people make.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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