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This past week, I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about books about tragedy and real-life struggles.
Some are specific events, while others aren’t based on any one thing but on unfortunate things that happen frequently in the world.
If you’re a regular reader, you know that it was my look into the Story of the Story of A Little Life that inspired these musings, as well the discussion on The Discomfort of Enjoying Books Based on Real-Life Tragedies.
Books about abuse often seem to garner the reaction that they are gratuitous or exploitative of the topic and real-life victims.
And I agree that it’s extremely important that these books never veer into the territory of “misery porn.”
But it’s just as important that we as readers take our responsibility as seriously as the authors: the responsibility to approach a topic with empathy, to grow our understanding, and to sensitively bear witness to the sufferings of others.
Inspired by True Events
The truth is that most excellent stories have some basis in real-life events.
There are reasons why “ripped from the headlines” and “based on a true story” remain big selling points in television and film.
We know something about these stories and we want to understand them.
So I could never build an exhaustive list of the books that are based on real-life tragedies–specific or non-specific–but here are some that I’ve read recently.
Books About Tragedy and Struggle to Build Your Empathy
Below are just a few books that have inspired me to learn more about real-life struggles and tragedies.
Not all are about real people or events, but all are related to or inspired by events that happen in real life.
This tale of Louis Zamperini’s trials during World War II is so harrowing, you’ll have to remind yourself that it’s not fiction—because you won’t believe that one person could survive all that he did: a plane crash, months at sea on a raft, shark encounters…and that’s just the start. This book was hard to read, but also hard to put down. It stuck with me long after I finished it and provided perspective when day-to-day concerns threatened to overwhelm. It’s worth the reread for that reason alone.
Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo immersed herself in a slum of Mumbai to tell the stories of the people who live there. Annawadi sits ironically in the shadow of a billboard reading “The Beautiful Forevers” and is pressed on all sides by the growth of the city that is leaving it behind. Boo herself is not part of the story, and she doesn’t need to be. The lives, hopes, and hurts of the families are richly painted and bring home the individual struggles and systemic obstacles that stand in the way of people rising above the inequality into which they are born. For those of us in the U.S., the stories of struggling families in this faraway country feel closer to home than ever in today’s political climate and stratified economy.
The story of Achak Deng, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” who as a child was separated from his family during the Second Sudanese Civil War. He encounters danger, violence, disappointment, and surprising moments of humor and humanity as he flees to unknown places in search of safety and a life. This book couldn’t truly be called non-fiction—Dave Eggers himself describes it as “fictionalized autobiography” because of lapses in Deng’s memory and imagined conversations. Eggers writes in Deng’s voice to tell of the horrors faced by these children in Sudan and the difficulties they face as immigrants in the United States.
In Mengele’s Zoo at Auschwitz, people with unique characteristics–albinisn, twins, and dwarfism among them–were singled out for human experiments. Fictional twins Pearl and Stasha devise ways to endure their torture and maintain hope of survival and life outside the Zoo–until one of them disappears. After the camp is liberated, the search for life, normalcy, and each other is paramount. Mischling is not a book for everyone. As with any story about the Holocaust, the horrors endured by so many people are difficult to stomach. While the book could have veered into “torture porn” territory (and fair warning: there are a few descriptions that are hard to take), readers are spared most of the details of the experiments. Instead, we are brought into the small moments, spaces, and relationships of the individuals ripped from their lives and fighting to maintain their own humanity while under the control of others who are determined to strip it from them.
Roxane Gay’s life was changed forever at 12. The victim of a gang rape, Gay began building a fortress around herself, attempting to both keep herself safe and regain control. Instead, she found herself in what she calls an “unruly body,” one that, in its obesity, provides some measure of safety while also shrinking her world in various ways. At the same time, she asserts herself as fully human in a world that is determined to dehumanize her: highly intelligent, fully able to love and be loved, and in no way ignorant of the health and nutrition facts people throw at her. Gay is brutally honest and raw in this memoir about her struggles to understand and care for herself–weight, past, and all.
As a day at the zoo winds down, Joan and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, make their way toward the exit and realize that the fireworks they heard earlier were, in fact, gunshots. Joan and Lincoln spend the next three hours running, navigating the false wilderness and exhibits that provide hiding places–for themselves and for their hunters. This book had me on the edge of my seat–I read it in a matter of hours–and I could feel the weight of the four-year-old in her arms, as well as the desperation to keep him quiet and make him understand the situation without causing hysteria. I have to admit to some reservations about the zoo after reading this book! My only complaint was some questions that were left unresolved by the end of the book–it could have used another chapter or two.
Kindred is famous for being the first science fiction novel written by a black woman. That’s significant, but the science fiction part of this story–the time travel–isn’t what makes it so compelling.
In the 1970s, a 26-year-old black woman is suddenly pulled back through time to save the life of a young boy who grows to be a slave owner in 1800s Maryland. Yanked without warning between present and past and back again, she returns multiple times throughout his life (as only minutes or hours pass in her own), and she realizes that she must keep him alive so he can father her great-grandmother. But through this, she also must live the life of a slave and face all the indignities, hardships, and heartbreaks that come with it.
This is an illuminating look at the lives of slaves, cognizant of our modern ideas that the people who were slaves must have been tougher than people now, somehow superhuman in their ability to endure. But the wounds from the whips and chains and inhuman disregard for their lives and families were real, and Butler sensitively examines the ways in which the people were beaten and worn into submission.
Light on the sci-fi aspects (sudden unexplained time travel is the only element) and a fast, worthwhile but difficult read (due to the subject matter). Highly recommended.
On the heels of the devastating loss of their infant son and brother, the Bright family makes the decision to move to Philadelphia to join (and eventually inherit) an uncle’s funeral home business. Told from the alternating perspectives of mother Pauline, elder sister Evelyn, middle sister Maggie, and youngest sister Willa, the family soon faces another devastation: the Spanish Flu pandemic that literally leaves bodies at their doorstep and an orphaned infant in their care.
The family isn’t immune to the losses wrought by the flu and World War I, and in their grief they grasp for hope and purpose in different ways, keeping secrets to protect themselves and one another. This is a heartfelt, engrossing look at a little-discussed historical event that had a profound effect around the world. Certain elements of the story are somewhat predictable, but that didn’t affect my investment in the fates of the family members, who are flawed but sympathetic.
This is a book that initially didn’t grab my interest with the title, cover, or description. For some reason, I picked it up anyway, and it stands out as a favorite. Victoria has aged out of the foster care system and finds herself working in a flower shop. She discovers that she has the unique talent of matching people with the perfect flowers. While I remember loving this book, it’s been a number of years since I read it and I don’t remember many details of the story! I hope to reread it soon and see if I love it as much on a second read.
In 1942 Paris, Jewish people are rounded up and sent away–often to their deaths. Sarah, 10 years old, hides her little brother in a cupboard, locking the door and promising to return. What follows is the story of her desperate journey back to him, alternating with the story of a journalist 60 years later who is investigating the round up. This is another book that stuck with me but that I’ve lost the details of. There are many great World War II books, and I’ve read a few in recent years. I’d like to reread to see if this one holds up.
While I loved Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, this one sticks with me even more. The tale of two women brought together under oppressive circumstances in Afghanistan. As dangers grow both in and out of their home, their bond and resourcefulness are the things that see them through. I am both fascinated and horrified by the circumstances of many women in Afghanistan. This story brings readers into one home to see how two women manage to make a life under such oppression–and the sacrifices they must make for those they love.
Four friends move to New York after graduating from college with big dreams of successful careers. JB is an artist, Willem an aspiring actor, Malcolm an architect, and Jude a lawyer. The story brings the reader into the lives of each of the men, finally landing on Jude. It’s at this point that it’s clear that this is not just another post-collegiate New York story. Jude is insular and mysterious, and as the story progresses, the degree of his damage and suffering emerges.
A Little Life covers decades in the life of the men and it is one of the most devastating, riveting books I’ve ever read. Many readers count it among their favorites–just as many say they loved it but could never read it again. For more, also check out The Story of the Story: 15 Things You Didn’t Know about A Little Life.
Sarah Laden, a young mother and widow, finds herself caring for her best friend’s son after a shocking revelation rocks the town. Sarah must come to grips with what she thought she knew about her friend, as well as what this boy and her own family need from her and how they might be able to recover–together.
This is one of the more difficult books I’ve ever read–it’s on par with A Little Life, both in subject matter and difficulty, though the story is very different. It is quite well done, though trigger warnings abound. This one is (mercifully) more hopeful and redemptive than A Little Life, and it will stay with you forever.
Picoult’s story about a school shooting isn’t perfect, but it does delve into all of the questions that come up after such events. What brought the shooter to that point? What actually happened in that school? Who is to blame–and where are the gray areas? There are never easy answers in such a tragedy, and the aftermath brings unimaginable grief, along with mixed feelings, unexpected sympathies, and few real answers to any of it.
Nine-year-old Oskar Schell is many things–and precocious is definitely one of them. His father died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 and you will grieve with Oskar as he wanders New York searching for the lock that fits the key he found in his father’s closet. This book is about Oskar’s search for peace, his efforts to stay close to his father, and his fight to keep hold of his memories. Foer’s writing style isn’t for everyone, and Oskar is sometimes too brilliant to believe, but the handling of memory and grief here is both creative and sensitive.
While the hype on the back of this book is kind of irritating (it’s not the most magical story ever and it’s definitely not a laugh riot), Little Bee is a beautiful, painful, horrifying novel—one worth reading. The story of the connection between Little Bee, a young Nigerian woman, and Sarah, an English wife and mother, unfolds slowly, alternating between their perspectives. Little Bee’s parts shine with lovely language and humorous insights, while Sarah’s fall a little flat, but I feel like this is part of the contrast of their experiences and how they respond. An important read that brings the horrors, fears, and hopes of asylum seekers to the doorstep.
When 16-year-old Starr is witness to a police officer shooting her unarmed best friend, she is torn between staying silent and speaking out. Starr lives in two worlds: the world of her affluent private school and that of her black neighborhood that is rocked by the shooting. The case quickly makes national headlines and as tensions rise, Starr feels the pull to tell her side of the story and refute attacks on her friend’s character, even as she faces intimidation from police and local gangs. This powerful novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement delves into the shootings of unarmed black people by police officers, the lack of justice in the aftermath, and white privilege. It is not just for a YA audience but is a must-read for everyone. One of the best of 2017.
Homegoing is an epic generational novel following the family lines of two half-sisters born in Ghana 300 years ago: one is married off to an English slave trader while the other is sold into slavery. Each chapter follows a new descendant of the women, illustrating how events and injustices of the past reverberate through the lives and struggles of future generations. An astonishing, emotional novel that deftly answers the question of how the descendants of slaves continue to be oppressed by the institution of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism, even 150 years after abolition. One of my best reads of 2017.
Ishmael Beah was a regular 12-year-old boy in Sierra Leone when the war came. He went to school, hung out with friends, and loved to dance and rap in local talent shows. All of that was lost in an instant as the rebels rampaged through villages, killing everyone they found. He found himself on the run. After surviving for months, at times with a small group of boys, at times completely alone, starvation and desperation brought him to a village that seemed safe.
Instead, he was pressed into service by the government army, drugged, and trained as a killer. Beah tells his story in a way that is both matter-of-fact and fully cognizant of the innocence that was stolen from him and so many other children. A word of warning: this was so hard to read–at times I struggled to continue, knowing that things were only going to get worse. That it’s a true story, for Beah and for thousands of other children, made it feel important to finish.
In this letter to his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses how the United States was built on and by the bodies of black people, and how those bodies continue to be endangered, used, and abused to maintain a system that thrives on their subjugation. Coates recalls recent incidents of police brutality as well as the long history of race and its importance to those in power–“the people who believe themselves to be white.” Powerful, emotional, and filled with brutal, uncomfortable truths that demand to be known and acknowledged.
What would you add to this list?