Now that Seattle is an official UNESCO “City of Literature,” we should probably get to know some of the books that have come from our city. I’m not saying all Seattleites need to read these books—but you should be able to enjoy that warm flush of Seattle pride whenever you see one of them on a shelf.
Boys in the Boat
by Daniel James Brown, 2013
This one has been popular lately. It’s the story of the University of Washington rowing team that competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The author himself isn’t from the area, but you’d never know it. Boys in the Boat is filled with settings that a local Seattleite will find very familiar, and Brown captures the spirits of the students, loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers who made up pre-war Seattle.
by Jack Kerouac, 1965
According to legend, Jack Kerouac dropped in at the Blue Moon Tavern whenever he passed through Seattle. His PNW stints expand beyond barhopping, too—Kerouac manned a fire lookout tower on Desolation Peak one summer, where he penned Desolation Angels. The book fuses Beat poet energy, Eastern philosophy, and Pacific Northwest vibes. It’s a rollicking book, and those with hiking boots can still pay a visit to the fire lookout where it was written.
Into the Wild
by Jon Krakauer, 1996
This one is widely known, thanks in large part to the movie—but what’s less known is its author’s ties to the Pacific Northwest. Jon Krakauer lived in Seattle from 1980 through the mid-1990s. Christopher McCandles, Into the Wild‘s protagonist, also spent time in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, and Krakauer’s familiarity with our region shines in those passages.
by Charles Johnson, 1990
Middle Passage is a historical novel that recounts the final voyage of an illegal American slave ship. Although the plot doesn’t relate to Seattle, its author, Charles Johnson, has been an English professor at the University of Washington since 1976. Set in 1830, the book explores the United States’ illegal slave trade through the story of Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave who unknowingly boards a slave ship bound for Africa in order to escape a forced marriage. Middle Passage won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1990.
This Boy’s Life
by Tobias Wolff, 1989
Tobias Wolff’s memoir is all about western Washington. His parents divorced in the early 1950s, which stranded Wolff and his mother in post-war Seattle. He soon moved out of the city and grew up in the tiny town of Concrete, on Highway 20, where This Boy’s Life takes place. It’s a moving read, and its author has won a PEN/Faulkner award for fiction and has taught at Stanford and Syracuse.
by Raymond Carver, 1983
Perhaps the most “high-brow” of the authors in this list, Raymond Carver is a respected literary writer. Cathedral is a collection of short stories that embrace everyday life in the Pacific Northwest. Characters talk over dinner and discuss whether they should buy a used refrigerator. In the title story (a common inclusion in college English classes), the protagonist meets his wife’s blind friend and helps him draw a cathedral. It’s mundane stuff, but all of it is made important and deeply powerful by Carver’s insights.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie, 2007
Sherman Alexie, Seattle-based poet, essayist, and author, brings modern-day Native American culture into the mainstream in this young-adult novel. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the first-person narrative of 14-year-old, Native American Arnold Spirit Jr. It’s not quite in Seattle (“Junior”) lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation, but it’s local enough—and the attention is has received has made it one of Washington’s better-known books. Some schools have banned the book due to its frank treatment of alcohol, poverty, bullying, violence, and sexuality.