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The Lois Level Reads Virginia

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Books Written By Virginians and Set in Virginia

(Virginian, for the purposes of this section=born, lived, or studied in Virginia)

Ever watch “The Waltons” on TV? It was based on a real family. They lived in Schuyler, Virginia, and the home and a museum are there, which you can visit. This book is a good Young Adult pick, and in case you forgot the T.V. movies from the 1970’s (or weren’t alive then), it’s a Christmas story.

Set on a small island in the Chesapeake Bay, Jacob Have I Loved pairs well with Chesapeake Requiem, below.

Read more from The Lois Level here: Katherine Paterson’s Ode to the Chesapeake Bay

Earl Swift is a long-time reporter for The Virginian Pilot, southeastern Virginia’s local newspaper. He spent a year living and working on one of the islands in the Chesapeake Bay to write this book.

Earl Swift also wrote about what he encountered on the James River, which was the first North American river explored by the English colonists.

Sapphira and the Slave Girl is not Willa Cather’s most famous novel, but it is somewhat remarkable in portrait it paints of slavery in a book written by a Southerner.

Winchester, Virginia is also the home of Patsy Cline. This book is about that part of the story.

Here is the original document about a real incident along with the novelized version.

Including every historical document would undermine the purpose of this post, but in this case it is only fair, especially as Nat Turner’s version was commercially published.

Truevine will make you stop and think: were these men “kidnapped” into a better life? This book is a fascinating story about “Jim Crow”* Virginia and also a study of a now defunct circus culture that, in its way, provided great opportunity for the “unemployable”.

*The US apartheid laws that existed in the south from the end of the Civil War until the 1960’s are commonly referred to as “Jim Crow” laws.

I had to put this next to Truevine. I’m starting to think that Virginia deserves the reputation I mostly associate with Chicago and New Jersey!

I don’t think Charlottesville, Virginia is specifically mentioned in Skipping Christmas, the basis for the film Christmas with the Kranks, but I was living in Charlottesville when I read this book, and it is Charlottesville, where Grisham currently lives, that he is describing.

Barbara Kingsolver sets her novels in different places. This one is not the most famous, but it is set in Virginia.

After I saw Hidden Figures, I read the book, and learned so much about Southeastern Virginia and its military roots. I’d always known that “race relations” were a little bit better in Southeastern Virginia because of the US Federal government is a major employer and have had fair(er) hiring practices longer than Virginia has in general. This book really helped me understand the whole story.

There is a good Young Readers’ Edition of Hidden Figures that is also a good read for adults who don’t have time for the full-length book. Reaching for the Moon is a full-length autobiography written by one of the three women featured in Hidden Figures suitable for about ages 12 up to adult.

Ms. Johnson’s story is a good example of a family successful circumventing the restrictions of Jim Crow (American apartheid) laws so that she was able to pursue her talents and was ready when opportunities came along.

She was a native of West Virginia but lived in Hampton, Virginia from 1953 until her death in 2020.

Donald McCaig lived in Bath County. He also wrote 2 authorized novels related to Gone with the Wind, Rhett Butler’s People and Ruth’s Journey: The Novel of Mammy.

Note that there is a prequel to this book, set in the Chesapeake Bay area, that seems to be out of print.

I’m glad to see Patrick Henry get some love here. I don’t seem to hear much about him anymore, but in school we had to memorize his famous speech, which ended with the line “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

This book on George Washington has become a highlight of historian Henry Wienger’s career; he is the first “Patrick Henry Fellow”, and he writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.

Long time Virginia resident Rita Mae Brown has written historical fiction about Virginia notables, including First Lady Dolley Madison and a fun series of detective novels co-written with her cat.

Sneaky Pie for President may not the most famous of Brown’s Virginia centered mysteries, but my daughter’s cats, who have employed me during her extended absence from Virginia, like the title.

To me, Ellen Glasgow is the Edith Wharton of the south, writing novels often set in the capital city of Richmond, which also had the dubious honor of being the capital of the Confederate States of America, while it existed. Note that Virginia was the only state that was itself divided by the Civil War, and permanently, which is why eventually there will be a whole separate page on books from West Virginia.

Lee Smith is known for her several novels set in Virginia and other parts of Appalachia. Her memoir, also set in Virginia, is below.

Sally Mann has made a life and a career in sleepy Lexington, VA, right in the middle of the Commonwealth as well as photographing as much of the rest of the South as she can.

Nonesuch Place was written by a city planner for the city of Richmond. That’s job dedication, y’all! Richmond is the capital of Virginia. Just in researching this article, we have seen that it produced Tom Robbins and Tom Wolfe. Edgar Allan Poe grew up here, and it was the capital of the Confederate States of America, conveniently located just about two hours’ drive (today, if the traffic isn’t too bad) from Washington DC.

Clearly, this is a place worth investigating.

Author Kristen Green is a native of Prince Edward County, which CLOSED ITS PUBLIC SCHOOLS for FIVE YEARS rather than integrate. I mean, seriously?

I could not believe it when the riots happened in Charlottesville, of all places. I lived there for two years while I was studying at the University of Virginia, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson, for heaven’s sake!

Who told y’all to act like this?

I’m glad Gov. McAuliffe wrote this book to document what happened, but I’m so sorry that it did happen.

Here are two novels set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the western part of the state, one a rags to riches story, and another a riches to rags, sort of.

Virginia definitely has a lot of serious horse people.

Edward P. Jones mostly writes about Washington DC, but he did attend The University of Virginia and wrote this fascinating book about a former slave and farm owner in Virginia.

Russell Baker is from Loudon County, in Northern Virginia.

Set in Virginia’s capital, Richmond.

I’m going to be honest, I have mixed feelings about including Cooke because he was a Confederate officer during the Civil War, and as far as I can tell, spent the rest of his life writing works to support the point of view of the Confederacy; however, it is important to have a record from the people were there. Nearly all of his books are still in print and some of them are in the public domain (free on ebook), so Cooke is a real treasure trove if you are interested in an authentic voice from someone who was there, misguided or not.

The capital of the Confederate States was in Richmond, VA, and General Robert E. Lee was also a Virginian. Cooke was definitely in the center of things.

Remember that people had a different writing style in the mid 19th century, so these books may take some getting used to.

Set in Yorktown, Virginia, where the American Revolution ended with the surrender of the British forces.

Yorktown, Jamestown, and Williamsburg are located near each and can be visited with a single ticket.

This book is a part of a series, but Elizabeth Massie is a Virginian.

“Mango Lassie” is certainly not a phrase I associate with Virginia but it’s a memoir set in Middleburg.



 

Books Written by Virginians but not set in Virginia

I often think of Edgar Allan Poe as Virginia’s step child, but he was more Virginia’s foster child as his adoptive father seemed to never fully accept him. The University of Virginia doesn’t like to admit that they kicked him out, but they are in good company as Poe was also kicked out of West Point.

If you’ve never read Poe (most Americans read him at least a little in school), be forewarned that the vocabulary is really hard; it’s a good idea to use audio versions to get started as the vocal inflection of the reader will help you understand.

If audio is not your thing, use an e-reader with the dictionary enabled.

Poe is credited with inventing the detective story and helping to define the short story.

More from The Lois Level:

Why You Should Read Short Stories

Yes, V.C. Andrews, the woman who has been writing from the grave for decades, was a resident of Virginia Beach. It seems appropriate to put her next to Poe.

If you do not understand the above statement, read this article from The Guardian, The Grip that Death Could not Loosen.

I never had any clue that Tom Wolfe was a Virginian, but he was born in Richmond.

Willa Cather wrote Sapphira and the Slave Girl, which is set in Virginia, but My Antonia, her most famous book, is set in Nebraska. Although she is associated with the west because of the setting of most of her books, she was from Winchester, VA, same hometown as country music singer Patsy Cline.

I read this book years ago with no idea that Tom Robbins is from Virginia. Although he was born in North Carolina, he grew up in Richmond.

I’ve read this book, and didn’t have the remotest clue that the author is a Virginian.

William Styron’s most famous Virginia book is left, but Sophie’s Choice, while most definitely NOT set in Virginia, is by far his most famous.

Jan Karon is from North Carolina but has lived in Albemarle County since 2000.

Sheri Reynolds

Reynolds lives on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

If you like fantasy, you may want to try James Branch Cabell. According to Wikipedia, this Richmond native was influential in his day. His work is also satirical…sounds like they may be some good reads…. They seem to all be in the public domain; digital copies are free.

As of this writing, Tilghman’s newest book, which looks pretty interesting. It’s about an interracial couple who move to France to make wine.

This book about the Louisiana Purchase (i.e. the western half of the current United States) also looks interesting. You know Thomas Jefferson was mocked for that?

Prolific author Rita Mae Brown publishes in several genres and lives in Crozet, which is near Charlottesville. Examples of her Virginia books are included, but the individual book for which she is most famous is Rubyfruit Jungle.

Jerry Bledsoe writes books about true crimes in North Carolina, but he was born in Danville.

Books about Virginia by Non-Virginians

Daniel Defoe was not even American, he was British, but the Virginia colony makes a surprise appearance near the end of this short novel and showed why coming to Virginia was worth risking it all for some people…the chance of survival was low, but for those who did, the rewards were great.

If you struggle with older (classic) texts, Moll Flanders is a great place to start. It is relatively short, almost a novella, and even today you will be shocked by some of the messes Moll gets herself into in the seventeenth century.

Always a fun read.

Obviously, I’m not the first to recognize The Hemingses, but what makes it stunning to me is how it demonstrates the difficulty of speaking for a group of people who left no records because they had no literacy. The author’s effort to give the Hemings family a voice while following rigorous academic methods and attempting not to ascribe them feelings she can’t prove…it’s astounding.

The story itself is important, but what has even longer lasting importance, which is saying a lot, is the method Gordon-Reid uses to accurately (as possible) give a voice to the voiceless.

This book made me really think about and begin to understand what we take from people when we refuse to give them literacy.

You can’t live in Virginia and not know that Thomas Jefferson basically took his slave, Sally Hemings, as a second wife, but what also blows my mind are the pragmatic reasons he did…it’s not what you probably think….

And it goes deeper than you think. There is more than one blood tie between the Hemingses and Jefferson’s legitimate (white) family.

And here we have what George Washington was up to in Northern Virginia. There are also Young Readers’ and Children’s editions of this book available.

William Wells Brown was the first African American to publish a novel, in which he imagines the lives of Thomas Jefferson’s rumored (then, proven now) slave daughters.

Read The Lois Level’s Loved The Kitchen House? Try These.

Jennifer Potter offers a work of straight nonfiction, with emphasis on research done in England, on the real women who had the guts to come on their own and try to make a life…or in some cases, just stay alive, in Jamestown.

Overall, I prefer Marooned over The Jamestown Brides, but Potter does flesh out some areas that the latter book skims over, including the role of women in the colony and the historic record that is in England.

Marooned is one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read, and I might say that even if I weren’t born and raised in Chesapeake, named for the Chesapeake nation that appears frequently in this book. You always think of the colonists as making their way in the wilderness with only a few random natives running around, but actually, they slammed themselves right into a large confederacy of nations (ironically, given Virginia’s role in the Civil War) and ended up in a situation just as complex as any in Europe…and with no clue about where they were or with the people they were fighting.

Liberty University, founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, is in Lynchburg, Virginia. Kevin Roose spent a semester as a student there living with the universities strict rules, and wrote about it.

Yup, these gentlemen lived over a mountain from each other….

Felicity was one of the four original American Girl dolls, and her character is set in colonial Williamsburg, the original capital of Virginia and also near Jamestown, the first colony.

A lot of history related to the birth of the United States happened in Williamsburg, and the nation’s second oldest college, The College of William and Mary, is here.

The mainland surrounding the Chesapeake Bay and the islands within it are divided between Virginia and Maryland. This topic deserves its own post, but here are two entries, in addition to the ones above, that seem to focus on Virginia.

Chincoteague Island is in Virginia. Assateague Island, which is also associated with horses, is partly in Virginia and partly in Maryland.

Misty is first in the series of horse books set in this area…and here is the guide for visiting Chincoteague to see the annual running of the horses, if you’ve always wanted to go.

Well known American Young Adult novelist Ann Rinaldi’s book about Patrick Henry’s family suggests that Henry stole his famous line from his wife!

About Virginia

Virginia is my home state. All of my key documents were issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia, including my birth certificate, my marriage certificate, and all my diplomas, including high school. I hope my death certificate will be issued by Virginia too.

Virginia is considered a mid-Atlantic state. Like many of the Eastern states, we have the ocean on the east side and the Appalachian Mountains on the west. Virginia is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay to the east, Washington DC and Maryland to the North, West Virginia, Kentucky, and a corner of Tennessee to the west, and North Carolina to the south. The peninsula that curves around the Chesapeake Bay is part Maryland and part Virginia, so that’s why the outline of Virginia has a little weird thing that looks like an island when pictured as a separate state. There are some other islands in the Chesapeake Bay that are part of Virginia too although many are being quickly washed away through erosion.

More presidents have been born in Virginia than any other state, 8 of them, in fact, so here are Eight Facts to go with them:

  1. Virginia is called “The Old Dominion”. Has to do with being the first English colony.

  2. THE FIRST PERMANENT ENGLISH COLONY WAS AT JAMESTOWN, VIRGINIA, NOT PLYMOUTH, MASSACHUSETTS. Look it up. There was an even earlier attempt in present day North Carolina, but England lost them. Look up “The Lost Colony”.

  3. The first Thanksgiving was in Virginia, not Massachusetts (check the link above).

  4. Virginia is formally called a “commonwealth”, not a state, as in the “Commonwealth of Virginia”. Virginia, plus the three other states that call themselves commonwealths (Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania) do so to emphasize that the government is meant to uphold the common good. All four states got the idea from England, which is also a commonwealth.

  5. Virginia was the first “permanent English colony”* but the 10th state admitted to the union/federation by ratifying the Constitution of the United States. As I recall from the numerous movies we had to watch about it in school, Virginia was the biggest and one of the most powerful colonies/states, so they were not too excited about sharing their power with these little upstart states.

    *North Carolina had the first English colony, but as mentioned, they got lost. More on that when The Lois Level Reads North Carolina. The first European colony was established by the Spanish in present day Florida. Here is an unbiased report from the National Geographic.

  6. If you look at U.S. maps prior to the American Civil War, you will notice that the outline of Virginia looks different and that there is no West Virginia. The counties that form present-day West Virginia didn’t rely on slavery for part of their economy, so they didn’t want to secede from the U.S. with the rest of Virginia. So while at the same time that the United States was fighting Virginia and the rest of the south to keep them from leaving the U.S., they allowed West Virginia to secede from their own state. And yeah, Virginia acted like big idiots from slavery times right up until the 70’s when it came to racial harmony. I think we’re doing better now. Mostly.

  7. Virginia has more personalized license plates than any other state: 16%. We always have been individualists!

  8. Virginia is for lovers. While true (I met my husband at Virginia Beach), it isn’t a formal motto but has been the Virginia tourism slogan since 1969, and has made the “Madison Avenue” walk of fame as an iconic American advertising slogan. Yes, there is really a “walk of fame” for advertising slogans on Madison Avenue in New York City.

    Have a book or author The Lois Level missed?

    Here at The Lois Level, we noticed that it’s really hard to find book lists for those interested in reading about a specific place. So often, the setting of books is not even mentioned in the reviews, but we think you are interested in learning about places, whether it’s your birthplace or somewhere you’ve never been, through reading.

    Please let us know what you think!

    Please comment at the bottom or on Facebook with suggestions. The idea is to make each state’s page as complete as possible but focused enough so that the page gives the reader an overall sense of place.

    Guidelines:

    In the case where the author has written several books set in the state, the most famous or recently published one will be selected. Multiple books will be shown only if there is a reason to do so (e.g. significant topics, different genres, etc.).

    The author may be listed in more than one category, usually because the author’s most famous book is not set in the state. The famous book is listed to help readers recognize the author, but additional, less well known books, will be listed for those who want to read more about the state.

    The intended audience for the The Lois Level is adult general readers, so books considered primarily for academic use will not be listed. For the same reason, authors who are completely out of print will usually not be included.

    Children’s books are limited to those that have adult appeal. Normally picture books are not included.

    Recent and significant biographies of state notables are included with priority given to those written by state natives/residents or to individuals whose major contributions were state related.

Share your thoughts! We want to hear your perspective and most definitely your reading recommendations!