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Resources for Teachers

Novels Set in American Religious Communities

This page will introduce you to novels set in a wide range of American religious communities.  These texts can help you teach on lived religion by offering your students psycho­logical por­traits of individual spirituality and ethnographic portraits of community life.  They must always be taught as literary fictions, not transparent representations of reality, but students can nevertheless learn a great deal about the religious lives and experiences of diverse Americans by reading novels set in diverse communities.

It is important to note that this is not a comprehensive or carefully curated list.  We have included texts that speak to diverse traditions, but we certainly haven't covered everything.  We would love to hear your suggestions of additional texts to include.  And we have not read or taught each one of these texts.  We would love to hear about your experiences teaching them, and to hear your concerns about any text that offers a biased or disrespectful portrait of a religious tradition or community.  Please help us maintain this list, and make it a powerful tool for teachers.

Also, you can click here for a list of short stories exploring faith, religion, and tradition (many of which are available to download as pdfs).

Finally, please note that most of the texts below are appropriate for high school students.  For elementary and middle school students, you might want to check this website of multicultural children's literature, or the Anti-Defamation League's bibliographies of multicultural and anti-bias books for children.  These sites are not focused on religious diversity, per se, but they include a number of books for younger readers that speak to the religious experiences of diverse Americans.

 

Buddhism and Buddhist Communities:

 

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

The Dharma Bums was published one year after On the Road made Jack Kerouac a celebrity and a spokesperson for the Beat Generation. Sparked by his contagious zest for life, the novel relates the adventures of an ebullient group of Beatnik seekers in a freewheeling exploration of Buddhism and the search for Truth.

 

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

This novel traces the lives of a group of young women brought from Japan to San Francisco as “picture brides,” from their arduous journey; to their backbreaking work picking fruit in the fields and scrubbing floors; to their struggles to master a new language and culture; to their experiences as mothers, raising children who will ultimately reject their heritage; to the deracinating arrival of war.

 

You Are Not Here and Other Works of Buddhist Fiction edited by Keith Kachtick

Only a few of the stories in this collection touch on Buddhist teachings explicitly, but they nevertheless dramatize the spirit of Buddhism -- often with wit, always with verve, and each in some distinctly vivid way.  Collectively they paint a living portrait of the face of Buddhism, and readers may discover that that face is a strangely familiar one-and that every journey only ever leads home.

 

Chinese Folk Religion and Immigrant Communities:

 

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston

A Chinese American woman tells of the Chinese myths, family stories and events of her California childhood that have shaped her identity.

 

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

In 1949, four Chinese women begin meeting in San Francisco for fun. Nearly 40 years later, their daughters continue to meet as the Joy Luck Club. Their stories ultimately display the double happiness that can be found in being both Chinese and American.

 

Christianity and Christian Communities:

 

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy's discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem one Saturday in March of 1935. Baldwin's rendering of his protagonist's spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.

 

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

In 1851 Bishop Latour and his friend Father Valliant are dispatched to New Mexico to reawaken its Catholicism. Moving along the prairies, Latour gently spread his faith, contending with the unforgiving landscape, derelict and sometimes openly rebellious priests, and his own loneliness. They leave converts, enemies, and occasionally ecstasy in their wake, but it takes a death for them to make their mark on the landscape forever.

 

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying is Faulkner’s harrowing account of the Bundren family’s odyssey across the Mississippi countryside to bury Addie, their wife and mother. Narrated in turn  by each of the family members—including Addie herself—as well as others the novel ranges in mood, from dark comedy to the deepest pathos.

 

Children of God: An American Epic by Vardis Fisher

Using historical figures as fictional characters, Fisher tells the story of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, who, respectively, founded and preserved the religion of the Latter Day Saints.

 

Evensong by Gail Godwin

Margaret is the first woman pastor of All Saints Episcopal Church, her husband Adrian of a progressive high school. They are in a marital slump, yet are forced to turn their attention outward and respond to the needs of their North Carolina community. The appearance of three colorful misfits—an aggressive fundamentalist, a chatty 80-year-old itinerant Benedictine monk, and a 16-year-old delinquent—brings matters to a head.

 

Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin

Father Melancholy's Daughter is widely recognized as one of the author's most poignant and accomplished novels -- a bittersweet and ultimately transcendent story of a young girl's devotion to her father, the rector of a small Virginia church, and of the hope, dreams, and love that sustain them both in the wake of the betrayal and tragedy that diminished their family.

 

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

In a village in Puritan New England, Hester Prynne is a young woman who has borne an illegitimate child. Hester believes herself a widow, but her husband, Roger Chillingworth, returns to New England very much alive and conceals his identity. He finds his wife forced to wear the scarlet letter A on her dress as punishment for her adultery. Chillingworth becomes obsessed with finding the identity of his wife's former lover.

 

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

In the summer of 1953, two eleven-year-old boys—best friends—are playing in a Little League baseball game in Gravesend, New Hampshire. One of the boys hits a foul ball that kills the other boy’s mother. The boy who hits the ball doesn’t believe in accidents; Owen Meany believes he is God’s instrument. What happens to Owen, after that 1953 foul ball, is extraordinary and terrifying.

 

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Based on real events during the Salem Witch Trials in Puritan New England, Arthur Miller's play uses the destructive power of socially sanctioned violence unleashed by the rumors of witchcraft as a powerful parable about McCarthyism.

 

The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor

The orphaned Tarwater and the schoolteacher Rayber, defy the prophecy of their dead uncle--that Tarwater will become a prophet and baptize Rayber's young son, Bishop. A series of struggles ensues: Tarwater fights a battle against his faith and the voices calling him to be a prophet while Rayber tries to draw Tarwater into a more "reasonable" modern world. Both wrestle with the legacy of their dead relatives and lay claim to Bishop's soul.

 

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

Hazel Motes spends most of the book trying to get God to go away. As a child he's convinced that "the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin." Yet when he returns from Korea, he can't go anywhere without being mistaken for a preacher.  Itis a savage satire of America's secular, commercial culture, but the book's ultimate purpose is Religious, with a capital R--no metaphors, no allusions, just the thing itself in all its fierce glory.

 

Keeping Faith by Jodi Picoult

When seven-year-old Faith White and her mother, Mariah, swing by the house on the way to ballet class, they find that Daddy is home and he's brought a playmate. After Dad has moved out, Faith begins talking to an imaginary friend who, it seems, is God. And God is not male but female. Faith is able to effect miraculous cures and is also occasionally afflicted with stigmata. When the media gets wind of this, the circus begins.

 

Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds

From the author of Bitterroot Landing--hailed by the Richmond State as "a splendid contribution to Southern literature"--comes a stunning story woven around the themes of innocence and miracles in everyday life. When the granddaughter of the founder of an isolated religious community in South Carolina is discovered to be pregnant, no amount of punishment will make her recant her statement that a holy child grows inside her.

 

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead is an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America's heart. In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human condition and the often unbearable beauty of an ordinary life.

 

A Little Lower Than Angels by Virginia Sorensen

Set in Nauvoo, Illinois, this is the story of a single family, a woman and her Mormon husband.  As an outsider, she is puzzled by the city's mysteries. Gradually, however, she discovers that a neighbor's obsession with the LDS prophet is due to her polygamous marriage to him. Even so, Mercy Baker cannot foresee the complications that her own baptism will bring.

 

Hinduism and Hindu Communities:

 

The Mango Season by Amulya Malladi

Every young Indian leaving the homeland for the US is given the following orders by their parents: Don’t eat any cow, don’t go out too much, save your money, and most important, do not marry a foreigner. Priya Rao left India when she was twenty to study in the US.  Now, seven years later, she has to return and give her family the news: She’s engaged to Nick, a kind, loving American man. It’s going to break their hearts.

 

The Hindi-Bindi Club by Monica Pradhan

For decades they have remained close, sharing treasured recipes, honored customs, and the challenges of women shaped by ancient ways yet living modern lives. They are the Hindi-Bindi Club, a nickname given by their American daughters to the mothers who left India to start anew—daughters now grown and facing struggles of their own.

 

Islam and Muslim Communities:

 

Once in a Promised Land by Laila Halaby

This is the story of Jassim and Salwa, who left the deserts of their native Jordan for those of Arizona. Although the couple live far from Ground Zero, they cannot escape the dust cloud of paranoia settling over the nation. When Jassim kills a teenage boy in a terrible accident and Salwa becomes hopelessly entangled with a shadowy young American, their tenuous lives in exile and their fragile marriage begin to unravel.

 

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

An epic tale of fathers and sons, of friendship and betrayal, that takes us from Afghanistan in the final days of the monarchy to the present.  This is the story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father's servant. It is about reading, betrayal, and redemption, and it is also about the power of fathers over sons-their love, sacrifices, and lies.

 

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf

Syrian immigrant Khadra Shamy is growing up in a devout, tightly knit Muslim family in 1970s Indiana, at the crossroads of bad polyester and Islamic dress codes. Along with her brother Eyad and her African-American friends, Hakim and Hanifa, she bikes the Indianapolis streets exploring the fault-lines between “Muslim” and “American.”

 

Ask Me No Questions, by Marina Budhos.

Since emigrating from Bangladesh, fourteen-year-old Nadira and her family have been living in New York City on expired visas, hoping to realize their dream of becoming legal U.S. citizens. But then her father is detained at the U.S.-Canadian border after September 11th, and Nadira and her sister are forced to abandon their home and live with neighbors as their family falls apart. Only Nadira can put it back together.

 

Skunk Girl, by Sheba Karim.

Sixteen-year-old Nina Khan not only has to deal with being the only Muslim and South Asian in town, she also has a perfect future-doctor sister, strict parents, and a hairy stripe down her back. Though Nina has devoted friends, she feels like the odd one out until she meets Asher Richelli, an Italian transfer student. Nina struggles to be an American teenager while staying true to her parents’ conservative viewpoints and Muslim faith.

 

The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight

Imagine a Muslim punk house in Buffalo, New York, inhabited by burqa-wearing riot girls, mohawked Sufis, straightedge Sunnis, Shi’a skinheads, Indonesian skaters, Sudanese rude boys, and more. Their life together mixes sex, drugs, and religion in an Islamo-punk subculture -- “taqwacore,” named for taqwa, an Arabic term for consciousness of the divine.

 

Judaism and Jewish Communities:

 

The Romance Reader by Pearl Abraham

Hemmed in by the strict codes of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, the daughter of a rabbi escapes to the world of romance novels and begins to chafe at her family and her faith.

 

Herzog by Saul Bellow

Moses E. Herzog is a tragically confused intellectual who suffers from the breakup of his second marriage, the general failure of his life and the specter of growing up Jewish in the middle part of the 20th century. He responds to his personal crisis by sending out a series of letters to all kinds of people. The letters constitute a thoughtful examination of his own life and that which has occurred around him.

 

The Chosen by Chaim Potok

This is the tale of two boys, their fathers, their friendship, and the chaotic times in which they live. Though on the surface it explores religious faith of Jews in 1940s Brooklyn--the intellectually committed as well as the passionately observant--the struggles addressed in The Chosen are familiar to families of all faiths and in all nations.

 

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

Asher Lev is a Ladover Hasid who keeps kosher, prays three times a day and believes in the Ribbono Shel Olom, the Master of the Universe. Asher Lev is an artist who is compulsively driven to render the world he sees and feels even when it leads him to blasphemy. Chaim Potok traces Asher’s passage between these two identities, the one consecrated to God, the other subject only to the imagination.

 

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint defined Jewish American literature in the 1960s. Roth's masterpiece takes place on the couch of a psychoanalyst, an appropriate jumping-off place for an insanely comical novel about the Jewish American experience.

 

Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska

This masterpiece of American immigrant literature is set in the 1920s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and tells the story of Sara Smolinsky -- the youngest daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, who rebels against her father's rigid conception of Jewish womanhood. Sarah's struggle towards independence and self-fulfillment resonates with a passion all can share.

 

Mazel by Rebecca Goldstein

Mazel means luck in Yiddish, and luck is the guiding force in this novel spanning three generations. Sasha Saunders is the daughter of a Polish rabbi who wins renown as a Yiddish actress in Warsaw and New York. Her daughter Chloe becomes a professor of classics at Columbia. Chloe’s daughter Phoebe becomes a mathematician who is drawn to traditional Judaism and the sort of domestic life her mother and grandmother rejected.

 

Native American Spiritual Traditions and Communities:

 

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris

Michael Dorris has crafted a fierce saga of three generations of Indian women, beset by hardships and torn by angry secrets, yet inextricably joined by the bonds of kinship. Starting in the present day and moving backward, the novel is told in the voices of the three women: fifteen-year-old part-black Rayona, her American Indian mother, and the fierce and mysterious Ida, mother and grandmother.

 

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King

Alberta is a university professor who would like to trade her two boyfriends for a baby; Lionel is forty and still sells televisions for a patronizing boss; Eli and his log cabin stand in the way of a profitable dam project. These three are coming to the Blackfoot reservation for the Sun Dance and there they will encounter four Indian elders and their trickster companion, Coyote.  Nothing in the small town of Blossom will be the same again…

 

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Tayo, a World War II veteran of mixed ancestry, returns to the Laguna Pueblo Reservation. He is deeply scarred by his experience as a prisoner of the Japanese and further wounded by the rejection he encounters from his people. Only by immersing himself in the Indian past can he begin to regain the peace that was taken from him.

 

The Complex Ties Between Christianity and Native American Traditions:

 

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

Antonio Marez is six years old when Ultima comes to stay with his family in New Mexico. She is a curandera, one who cures with herbs and magic. Under her wise wing, Tony will test the bonds that tie him to his people, and discover himself in the pagan past, in his father's wisdom, and in his mother's Catholicism.

 

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Once again, Geraldine Brooks takes a remarkable shard of history and brings it to vivid life. In 1665, a young man from Martha's Vineyard became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. Upon this slender factual scaffold, Brooks has created a luminous tale of love and faith, magic and adventure.

 

So Far From God by Ana Castillo

Sofi's three-year-old daughter dies in an epileptic fit but is resurrected at her own funeral, reporting firsthand about the afterlife. Magic and divine intervention touch each of her other daughters: the mainstreamed Esperanza; Caridad, whose path leads toward folk mysticism; and Fe, who--seized with a screaming convulsion when her fiancé jilts her--is quieted only months later through the intercession of her resurrected sister.

 

The Rain God by Arturo Islas

Set in a fictional small town on the Texas-Mexico border, this is the saga of the children and grandchildren of Mama Chona, the indomitable matriarch of the Angel clan who fled the bullets and blood of the 1911 revolution for a gringo land of promise. Islas paints an unforgettable family portrait of souls haunted by ghosts and madness--sinners torn by loves, lusts and dangerous desires.

 

Drowning in Fire by Craig Womack

Growing up within the Muskogee Creek Nation, Josh experiences a yearning he cannot tame. Skinny and shy, he feels both inflamed and ashamed by his attraction to other boys.  Josh struggles to reconcile the many voices he hears—from the messages of sin of the non-Indian Christian churches his parents attend, to the stories of his older Creek relatives, which have been the center of his upbringing, memory, and ongoing experience.

 

West-African Based Spirit Traditions and Communities:

 

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwige Danticat

Born after her mother was raped, Sophie is raised by her Tante Atie in Haiti. At 12 she joins her mother in New York. Neither Sophie nor Martine can escape the past, resulting in a pattern of insomnia, trauma and mental anguish that afflicts both of them and leads inexorably to tragedy. Danticat’s tale evokes Creole life, where voudon rituals and superstitions still dominate even as illiterate inhabitants utilize 20th-century conveniences.

 

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Set in South Carolina in 1964, this is the story of Lily Owens. When her “stand-in mother” insults three of the town's fiercest racists, they both escape to a town where they are taken in by three black beekeeping sisters who introduce Lily to a world of bees, honey, and the Black Madonna who presides over their household. This is a remarkable story about divine female power and the power of love.

 

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

 

Interfaith Issues and American Religious Politics:

 

The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman

This remarkable play takes the form of a series of juxtaposed monologues from residents of Laramie, WY, after the fatal beating of Matthew Shepard in 1998. Shepard's friends are heard from, as are the friends of his convicted killers. Masterfully woven together to breathtaking effect are statements from Laramie's religious leaders-some of whom condemn the murder, others of whom condemn the victim.

 

Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence

The controversial subject of evolution versus creation causes two polar opposites to engage in one explosive battle of beliefs. Attorney Clarence Darrow faces off against fundamentalist leader William Jennings Bryan in a small Tennessee town where a teacher has been brought to trial for teaching Darwinism.

 

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland to New York City. Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York, though still not entirely free. Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates in this a wondrously novel. 

 

 

Un-Definable American Spirituality, and Too Lovely to Leave Out:

 

Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger

Franny is an intellectually precocious late adolescent who tries to attain spiritual purification by obsessively reiterating the "Jesus prayer" as an antidote to the perceived superficiality and corruptness of life. She subsequently suffers a nervous breakdown. Her brother, Zooey, attempts to heal Franny by pointing out that her constant repetition of the "Jesus prayer" is as self-involved and egotistical as the egotism against which she rails.