A dear friend of mine likes to opine, “I don’t read fiction,” though she actually does. She reads Narnia books aloud to her children as well as parables to her Sunday school class. She also listens to country music and enjoys Friday night movies with her family, which, in essence, is listening to other people sing and read fiction aloud to her.
I once pressed her on the matter, and her response was succinct: “I read only true things.”
Before that conversation, I had never considered the notion that fiction might not also contain true things, and as I started running through the plots of favorite novels in my head, I realized that I read fiction for the very reason my dear friend avoids it: I want to read true things, as well, and so much of what I encounter in the pretend worlds of Middle Earth and Watership Down and even Pemberley brings to light the truth about good and evil in this world. Granted, plenty of tainted tales out there hurt rather than help a reader, but a similar poison can be found in a number of nonfiction books written by a variety of wealthy, false prophets. Whatever we read, we are wise to remember that not every idea we meet dressed in a hardcover is beneficial, and an ISBN proves nothing more than a signed-and-paid-for spot in the Library of Congress catalog.
It is with deep admiration for truth in stories that I compiled a list of recommended reads for the summer, and — sorry, dear friend — every single book on that list is fiction. Below are 10 of the best, truest tales I have ever read, and it is my hope that, in reading them, you too will be encouraged — by Josip Lasta, Adam Bede, Bigwig and a whole host of wonderfully crafted fictional characters — to open your mouth for the mute, defend the weak and the fatherless, preserve justice for the afflicted, and rejoice in the Truth that sets all of us free.
A quick caveat: I am going to assume that most readers have traveled “there and back again” multiple times, so I am setting aside every beloved tome by J. R. R. Tolkien, his contemporaries and his imitators in order to make room for less-renowned titles.
In no particular order, my humble but highly recommended reads for your summer enjoyment:
Island of the World by Michael D. O’Brien — If you read only one book this summer, let it be this one. In the words of my husband, “This book is life-changing,” and every head of every household should read it. Follow poet Josip Lasta through his life in the Croatian interior under both Nazi and communist occupation. This is a painful read, one that challenges our limits alongside Josip’s, but it encourages men to be men in a world hell-bent on emasculating them.
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry — This book is warm in its welcome, even familial, and in sharing the stories of her own family and community, widow Hannah Coulter will help you rejoice in the gift of your own. This book celebrates farming culture and the work ethic of our grandparents on whose frugal stewardship so many of us thrive today.
Adam Bede by George Eliot — Adam is the best of men. If only he loved the best of women. But as we watch this carpenter struggle and endure through one of the greatest trials life can serve a man, we readers get to marvel at his fidelity, celebrate his courage and rejoice in his trust in the Lord. In particular, this book reveals the dangers of fostering vanity in youth.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas — Ma foi! This may be the greatest adventure story ever written, and it brings into focus the eternal truth, “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord.” But be warned: Not every character in this 19th-century romp makes the best choices when it comes to recreational drugs.
Watership Down by Richard Adams — Yes, this is a story about rabbits, but it is really an epic military tale about brotherhood and courage in the face of great adversity. If you are looking for an imaginative read with equal parts adventure and heart, this one is for you.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson — This book ponders and promotes faithfulness and love, and it contains some of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read. Written as a series of letters from an aging pastor to his young son, it has not a word out of place. Go slowly and steep in the fatherly wisdom on every page. A timely bonus: the pastor reminisces about preaching practices during the Spanish flu epidemic.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky — This will not be a fun read. In fact, you may not like the protagonist for at least the first hundred pages of the book, but that is because it is hard to stomach a murderer who thinks, feels and behaves so much like us. But Christ died for sinners, and there is hope even for murderers like you and like me.
Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rølvaag — Essentially “Little House” for grownups, this book is not a happy read but gives an up close, realistic view of a Lutheran Norwegian pioneer family settling in the Dakota Territory. The author is frighteningly just in his storytelling, depicting the saint and sinner in each of his characters and, consequently, in each of us.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte — Oh, you’ve already read it? Good. Read it again. Everyone needs to visit with a friend as true as Helen and roam the moors with a companion as steady as Jane.
The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz — The sainted Rev. Bo Giertz is Lutheranism’s greatest storyteller, and in this book, he tells the tale of a single parish in Sweden from the point of view of three different pastors in three different generations. It is a powerful, pointed look at life together in the church, and it exhorts pastors and parishioners alike to put their trust in the Word of God alone as the source of all goodness and truth. I doubt that even my dear non-fiction-reading friend would begrudge a plot such as that.