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Maya Angelou. (Photo: AP/The Virginian-Pilot, Huy Nguyen)
Maya Angelou. (Photo: AP/The Virginian-Pilot, Huy Nguyen)
Maya Angelou. (Photo: AP/The Virginian-Pilot, Huy Nguyen)

How much American literature Brits studied in school largely depends on their age. If you’re over 45, you may have studied one classic (To Kill A Mockingbird, usually) but unless you specifically took American Literature at school or college, that was probably it. Younger Brits had Maya Angelou, John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller or Harper Lee, but that comes to an end in 2015 for GCSE candidates, as those authors will be replaced with “Modern works from Britain.” (Similar changes are being made to AS and A levels.)

To gain a greater appreciation for America’s history, character and the American Dream, I recommend Brits read at least a smattering of the American greats. If you have kids in the American education system, a high school reading list is often a great place to start.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
While not the easiest book to read because of the old language, The Scarlet Letter superbly depicts life at the time of the Puritan settlements. It tells of Hester Prynne, a young woman accused of adultery in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts. Since Hester’s husband is presumed missing at sea, the child she bears cannot be his; she is therefore punished by her community and forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” stitched on her breast. The book is an olden day suspense story and masterfully subtle in the telling.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Set in the Chicago stockyards and meat-packing district, this novel follows Lithuanian immigrants in the early 1900s. Poverty, back-breaking, underpaid work, crime and corruption eventually lead to the fall of protagonist Jurgis and various characters in his circle. At the time of publication it shocked readers and led to important social reforms. Readers today will still reel at the sheer vulnerability and potentially terrible plight of those coming here with nothing more than a dream.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
This fast-paced, tense short novel follows itinerant ranch workers George and Lennie as they look for work and dream of buying a plot of land on which to farm. Set in the Great Depression era, it is a touching story of friendship with a shocking ending. The movie, starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, is equally excellent, but I strongly recommend reading the book first.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The first in the autobiographical series from the recently deceased African-American author, this book tells a harrowing story of racism, bigotry, sexual abuse, parental abandonment and homelessness. Ms. Angelou then becomes San Francisco’s first black streetcar conductor&mdashlat the age of fifteen! At sixteen, she is pregnant, but manages to graduate high school. The book ends with the birth of her son, but there were more books to come (and we all know that this author eventually realizes her American Dream).

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
First published in 1984, this book is a series of vignettes told through the eyes of Esperanza, a twelve-year-old Chicana (Mexican-American) living in a poor, crowded Latino district in Chicago. Covering a year in Esperanza’s life, this is a coming-of-age story with sharp observations of life in her community, particularly the role of women. The protagonist’s dream is to get out and have a house of her own, which for Esperanza represents the privacy she never finds with three siblings and various other temporary residents in her house.

The Jew Store by Stella Suberman
Not quite as well known but easily my favorite small town America tale. Set in the 1920s, the book tells the story of a pre-revolutionary Russian Jewish family that immigrated to New York City along with many others like them. In search of the American dream, however, the author’s father moves the family to Concordia, Tennessee where he opens a dry goods store (a haberdashery as we might call it). Although they were the first Jews to live in Concordia, where there was the expected prejudice and ignorance, the author writes with warmth and the book is inspiring rather than depressing.

See more:
The Ultimate Expat’s Library: Books for Brits in America
The Pogues’ James Fearnley on His Memoir, Jamming with Hollywood Stars and L.A. Life
Honours vs. Honors: A Brief Guide to College in America

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By Toni Hargis