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This page will introduce you to novels set in American religious communities.  These texts must always be taught as literary fictions not transparent representations of reality, but students can nevertheless learn a great deal about the religious lives of diverse Americans by reading novels set in diverse communities.

Most of these texts are appropriate for high school students.  To find books for younger students, you might want to check out the World Religions for Kids’ Book Recommendations, or the Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature, or the ADL’s list of multicultural and anti-bias books for children (the last two aren’t focused on religion, per se, but they include some books on religious diversity).  Also click here for a list of short stories exploring religion and spirituality, many of which are available to download as pdfs.  And please click here for curriculum projects on religion and literature by our past Religious Worlds summer scholars.


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.


Folk Religion in Chinese-American 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.

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

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Dimple Lala has spent her whole life resisting her parents' traditions. But now she's turning seventeen and things are becoming complicated. She's recovering from a year-old break-up and her best friend isn't around the way she used to be. Then, to make matters worse, her parents arrange for her to meet a "suitable boy." Of course, it doesn't go well... until Dimple goes to a club and finds him spinning a magical web of words and music. Suddenly the suitable boy is suitable because of his sheer unsuitability. Complications ensue.

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

All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney

Allie Abraham is a straight-A student, with good friends and a close-knit family, and she's dating popular Wells Henderson. However, Wells's father is Jack Henderson, America's most famous conservative shock jock, and Allie hasn't told Wells that her family is Muslim. As Allie witnesses growing Islamophobia in her small town, she begins to embrace her faith. Who is Allie, if she sheds the façade of the "perfect" all-American girl? What does it mean to be a "Good Muslim?" And can a Muslim girl in America ever truly fit in?

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.

​​Mariam Sharma Hits the Road by Sheba Karim

The summer after her freshman year in college, Mariam is looking forward to working and hanging out with her best friends. But when a scandalous photo of her friend appears on a billboard in Times Square, Mariam and her friends start driving south, making all kinds of pit stops along the way--from a college drag party to a Muslim convention. Along with the adventures, the fun banter, and the gas station junk food, the friends have some hard questions to answer on the road.

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.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

A Place for Us centers on an Indian-American Muslim family, gathered in their Californian hometown to celebrate the eldest daughter, Hadia's, wedding. It is here that Amar, the youngest of the siblings, reunites with his family for the first time in three years. Rafiq and Layla must now contend with the choices that lead to their son's estrangement - the reckoning of parents who strove to pass on their cultures and traditions to their children; and of children who in turn struggle to balance authenticity in themselves with loyalty to the home they came from.


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 Color of Water by James McBride

McBride retraces his mother's footsteps and recreates her story. Fleeing pogroms, her family emigrated to America and ultimately settled in Suffolk, Virginia, a small town where anti-Semitism and racial tensions ran high. Throughout his mother's narrative, McBride shares recollections of his own experiences as a mixed-race child of poverty, his flirtations with drugs and violence, and his eventual self- realization and professional success.

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

Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie 

One day legendary bluesman Robert Johnson appears on the Spokane Indian reservation, in flight from the devil and presumed long dead. When he passes his enchanted instrument to Thomas-Builds-the-Fire — storyteller, misfit, and musician — a magical odyssey begins that will take them from reservation bars to small-town taverns, from the cement trails of Seattle to the concrete canyons of Manhattan.

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.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich 

One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked.  Her thirteen-year-old son Joe tries to heal her, but she will not leave her bed.  Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning.

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…

There There by Tommy Orange

A wondrous and shattering award-winning novel that follows twelve characters from Native communities: all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow, all connected to one another in ways they may not yet realize.  They converge and collide on one fateful day and together this chorus of voices tells of the plight of the urban Native American

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.


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.


African Diaspora 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

Snow in August by Pete Hamill

Set in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood in 1947, this novel revolves around the relationship between an 11-year-old Irish Catholic boy named Michael Devlin and Rabbi Judah Hirsch, a refugee from Prague.

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 Just too Good to Leave Out

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

When global climate change and economic crises lead to social chaos in the early 2020s, California becomes full of dangers. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives inside a gated community with her preacher father, family, and neighbors, sheltered from the surrounding anarchy.  Lauren must make her voice heard to protect her loved ones from the imminent disasters. But what begins as a fight for survival soon leads to something much more: the birth of a new faith . . . and a startling vision of human destiny.

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

In 2032, Lauren Olamina has survived the destruction of her home and family, and realized her vision of a peaceful community in northern California based on her newly founded faith, Earthseed. The fledgling community provides refuge for outcasts facing persecution after the election of an ultra-conservative president who vows to "make America great again." Lauren's subversive colony--a minority religious faction led by a young black woman--becomes a target for President Jarret's reign of terror and oppression.

Franny and Zooey by J.D. 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.


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