A Blog of Seattle Arts & Lectures

10 novels featuring a national park

Book Bingo: Set in a Place You’ve Always Wanted To Visit

Summer Book Bingo is a partnership with The Seattle Public Library and Seattle Arts & Lectures to provide free summer reading fun for adults. Swing by your local Seattle library branch or any one of SAL’s partner bookstores to grab a Bingo Card, then spend your summer reading great books—you can win fabulous prizes!

Feeling summer wanderlust set in? In this guest post from Julia Cook, she pairs ten national parks with the literature they’ve inspired, suggesting the best places to get your boots muddy and pull out a book (plus fill in your “Set in a Place You’ve Always Wanted to Visit” Bingo square).

By Julia Cook

When people find out I used to be a park ranger, they inevitably ask, “Have you ever wrestled a bear?” A resounding no, considering my post was a Civil War fort off the coast of South Carolina, where my wrestling was confined to mosquitos, giant American flags, and the occasional neo-confederate.

Summer in Seattle is a base camp, with everyone watching the clock until it’s safe to hit the trail.  But did you know there’s a national historic site in the middle of Pioneer Square?  You don’t have to break a sweat to Find Your Park; if you’re careful, you can avoid mosquito bites completely. And, lucky for me, not all park rangers have to wrestle a bear.

So as we near the 100th birthday of our National Park System, we must remember it’s not just a celebration of the outdoors. It’s a celebration of the history, the wildlife, and the geography that make our country unique. It’s your chance to earn a cool plastic badge. Most of all, it’s a time to tell our story, and unearth those stories not yet told.

Each of these 10 novels features a national park, so whether you’re leaving town or just leaving your bedroom, you’re welcome to put your feet up and enjoy the view.

The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson

This fictionalized account of the author’s time in Old San Juan puts him squarely between parapets of Castillo San Cristóbal, part of the San Juan National Historic Site. The fort, older than America itself, encircles the colorful city and was built to protect Puerto Rico from outsiders. At the time of its writing, however, Thompson witnessed an invasion that truly changed the island’s character: the onslaught of western tourists. As he boozes and schmoozes his way through friendships and freelance work, this protagonist learns the island’s a bit darker than its sunny new image.


Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

In her debut novel, Ms. Russell combines a penchant for absurdist fable-tales with the sweltering situations that occur daily in the wilds of southwest Florida. On the ten thousand islands, off the coast from Everglades National Park, the Bigtree family runs a theme park that sounds like Sea World for the swamps: there’s alligator wrestling, personified trees, and a proprietor addicted to show business. The plot reads almost like a ghost story, where family bonds are stretched by Odyssian journeys, old rivalries, and the invisible threat of changing times. Russell is no stranger to national parks; in 2014 The New Yorker published “The Bad Graft,” about a relationship that tumbleweeds out of control during a trip to Joshua Tree.


Shiloh by Shelby Foote

The National Park Service maintains hundreds (yes, hundreds) of sites pertinent to the Civil War, where visitors can walk soldiers’ paths and read civilians’ accounts.  But perhaps no work of fiction holds truer to the conflict than Shiloh, which traces the decisive two-day battle from the perspectives of privates and low-level officers.  Though often overlooked, the Western theater gave rise to General Ulysses S. Grant, the commander Lincoln needed to finally defeat the guerrilla prowess of the Confederacy. Foote describes a breathtaking wilderness that’s largely still intact, making this book a must-read for anyone traveling east of the Mississippi.


True Grit by Charles Portis

In a classic Hero’s Journey, fourteen year old Mattie Ross leaves her sleepy Arkansas farm to avenge the murder of her father. She’s got a horse, she knows who did it, she won’t stop until she has him. And the best part of this book—aside from that scene with the snakes—is that Mattie sees nothing unusual about this at all. For everyone who raises the typical objections, Mattie moves on to the next option just as swiftly. Portis’ characters traipse through Fort Smith National Historic Site, traversing the Trail of Tears and the Santa Fe National Historic Trails on their unique wild west journey.


The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church

As she writes in her recent essay for Powell’s Books, the setting of Ms. Church’s debut novel comes from her New Mexico childhood, where she grew up learning about local wildlife and picnicking in Bandelier National Monument. The plot is a familiar one: female undergraduate falls in love with a powerful man and puts her own aspirations on hold to support his. But professor Alden Whetstone’s project is a unique one, namely the construction of the first atomic bomb.  The laws of physics govern this novel; as the years tick by, its protagonist, Meridian, must ask herself what outcome inertia holds.


Gloryland by Shelton Johnson

A park ranger for over 22 years, Johnson is intimately acquainted with the way national lands can tell our stories. His research on Buffalo Soldiers led him to write this account of the fictional Elijah Yancy’s journey from a sharecropping family in Spartanburg, SC west to Indian Territory and finally to Yosemite National Park, where he serves as one of the first park rangers. Elijah grapples with racial prejudice, the rigors of life in the U.S. Cavalry, and humanity’s ongoing search for inner peace.


A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean

Growing up in the wilderness left indelible impressions on Maclean, from his summer jobs as a logger to the stories he didn’t dare tell until he was a septuagenarian. SAL speaker Annie Proulx wrote the foreword to its 25th anniversary edition, and publications across the country are celebrating its fortieth birthday this year. In two novellas, Maclean relates religion and fly-fishing, reflecting on the death of his brother and the impact it had on himself and his father. 


Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers

The latest from one of our most celebrated contemporary novelists has been in the making for six years, as Eggers grappled with a Last Frontier that seems, to his protagonist, “like Kentucky, only colder and far more expensive.” In this scene, excerpted from The New Yorker, newly-single Mom Josie arrives on the outskirts of Kenai Fjords National Park with her two children; the three eventually get roped into attending a cruise ship magic show. Available for pre-order, this novel comes out July 26.


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

It should come as no surprise that most (if not all) of our sixteenth president’s early haunts have been made into national parks, including his birthplace in Kentucky and the cabin in Indiana where Lincoln’s mother would die (in this retelling, at the hands of vampires). For the follow-up to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Grahame-Smith pored through primary sources, drawing on his love for biography and the works of David McCollough. The result is a book that’s as surprising as it is hilarious, but if you’re still not convinced, try The Gold Bug and Other Stories by literary stalwart Edgar Allan Poe. The horror master, who befriends Lincoln in Vampire Hunter, was stationed at Fort Moultrie (part of Fort Sumter National Monument) and wrote three stories about the lowcountry isle.


Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

At age 58, Steinbeck hit the road with his standard poodle, Charley, and wrote his only New York Times bestseller. For 75 days, Steinbeck sought out the spirit of his country on the open road, with stints in Acadia (Maine), The Badlands (South Dakota), Yellowstone (Montana), and The Redwoods (California), among others. Since its publication in 1962, Steinbeck’s account has been proven as a work of (mostly) fiction, but the dream of Route 66 continues to fascinate the newest generation of travelers.

Julia Cook is a freelance content creator based in Capitol Hill. You can find her writing on the pages of Seattle Weekly, Seattle Review of Books, and Pittsburgh City Paper, plus a forthcoming short story collection. A Junior Civil War Historian and Junior Ranger at several National Parks, Julia recommends you complete the worksheet even though it’s harder than you think it will be and rangers will almost always give you a strange look for doing so. Follow her on Twitter.

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