Explore the best books by Kentucky authors – must-read literary creators from the Bluegrass State! Discover the best books to add to your reading list.
Kentucky is known for its bodies of water that run for miles, fascinating horse races, and, of course, hardwood. Aside from these, the Bluegrass State is also overflowing with literary tradition. Why wouldn’t it when it has a rich culture and history? Kentucky hosts a wide array of voices. From rural tales to urban narratives — Kentucky authors transcend genres. Check out our guide with the best American authors for more.
- Best Books by Kentucky Authors
- 1. The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
- 2. The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow
- 3. Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry M. Caudill
- 4. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
- 5. A Parchment of Leaves by Silas House
- 6. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
- 7. All the Living by C.E. Morgan
- 8. All About Love: New Visions by Bell Hooks
- 9. Trucks Roll! by George Ella Lyon
- 10. In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason
- 11. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson
- 12. Blackberries, Blackberries by Crystal Wilkinson
- 13. Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
- 14. The Seven-Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
- FAQs About The Best Books by Kentucky Authors
Best Books by Kentucky Authors
1. The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
The Sport of Kings is an American contemporary masterpiece of two families. One family was of South descent and founded Kentucky, while—the other — was a descendant of enslaved people. The 550-page narrative goes from Virginia to Bluegrass and tells the story of the Revolutionary War.
The book doesn’t shy away from the cruelty of that time, with vivid depictions of racism and cruelty. It delves into basic human nature, questions humanity, and presents interesting subplots. Morgan’s gripping work calls readers to reflect on history and the present.
“A soul loves most what is lost.”C.E. Morgan, The Sport of Kings
2. The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow
The Dollmaker revolves around a woman’s love for her values and family. It depicts a family’s struggles against internal and external conflicts as they assimilate into a new environment. They fight against prejudices and tragedies.
Readers are beckoned to root for the family as they deal with and overcome various challenges. Arnow does this by creating relatable, well-developed characters in this 600-page book novel. Through themes of urban versus city living, faith, and other burdens, Arnow presents a social criticism that’s sincere.
“If a religion is unpatriotic, it ain’t right.”Harriette Arnow, The Dollmaker
3. Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry M. Caudill
Harry M. Caudill is a celebrated writer from Appalachia. He’s also a historian, mountaineer, and lawyer fond of sharing his research on the Appalachian region. In Night Comes to the Cumberlands, Caudill puts the spotlight on the people of the plateau and explains the region’s progress or lack thereof.
He covers the place’s economy and environment with photographs of cruel coal mining in the Cumberlands. Through the book, he calls out to the many exploitations of the once promising land, openly showing his devastation of the Cumberlands now being a wasteland. For instance, he underlines the stark irony that America’s largest public power business, the Tennessee Valley Authority, sits close to the Cumberland Plateau.
“It is unthinkable that a rich and enlightened society should permit its unfortunate members to starve in the midst of plenty, but once the justifications are admitted, the difficulties still stand undiminished.”Harry M. Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands
4. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver’s first book, The Bean Trees, follows a young woman searching for what life has to offer outside the world she has always known. She successfully leaves her rural Kentucky life and cares for an abused Indian American child.
Readers are then taken to an unusual but moving tale that explores inclusion, bias, and family. It’s also a humorous read that stays true to its heartwarming message. Through the book, Kingsolver reminds readers why being good, kind, and decent is crucial.
“Mi’ija, in a world as wrong as this one, all we can do is to make things as right as we can.”Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees
5. A Parchment of Leaves by Silas House
Silas House is a writer and musician originally from Eastern Kentucky. In A Parchment of Leaves, House paints a vivid description of the Appalachian mountains. It’s a tale of love, culture, and the clash between tradition and progress.
The story is about Vine — a Cherokee woman who falls in love with her White beau, Saul. Readers follow them as they progress through their relationships that inevitably give rise to the intricate dynamics of identity, race, and nationality.
“Sometimes just being still is the best thing you can do for yourself.”Silas House, A Parchment of Leaves
6. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
In this profound novel, Wendell Berry invites readers into the life of its eponymous character, Hannah Coulter, who reflects on what her life has been. Primarily, she talks of her experiences living through the transformative events of the 20th century in the rural town of Port William, Kentucky. The novel is a beautifully written prose on love, loss, community, and the enduring connection between humans and the land they call home.
Hannah’s voyage spans generations. Readers get a deep sense of nostalgia via her narrative and learn to appreciate the simplicity of rural life. Hannah Coulter is a testament to Berry’s storytelling mastery and ability to capture the essence of Kentucky’s rural heritage.
“You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it.”Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter
7. All the Living by C.E. Morgan
Another book from the known C.E. Morgan, All the Living, is a story of lovers and their griefs against the backdrop of a small town. Readers are drawn to the complex emotions of Aloma and Oren’s relationship through a raw and authentic narrative. Themes of loneliness and desire are heightened via the characters’ interpersonal struggles.
Morgan effectively uses the poignant atmosphere of the Kentucky countryside, almost making it a main character in the story. Doing so steeps readers in emotions, making the novel more evocative. All the Living is an excellent addition to your book club list if you’re after literature that explores human emotions and the feeling of emptiness that permeates intimate relationships.
“The old poets knew all along: the wilderness has an awful tongue, which teaches doubt.”C.E. Morgan, All the Living
8. All About Love: New Visions by Bell Hooks
The main thesis of All About Love is a 272-page exploration of what love is in all its aspects. In contemporary discourse, love is a subject that’s often overlooked. So, as one of the renowned professors and writers, Gloria Jean Watkins (pen name “bell hooks”) offers a fresh perspective on love.
This book is a compelling dissection of the many dimensions of love. Hooks skillfully deconstructs various factors that erode the soul. In the book, she mentions injustice in dysfunctional families, the prevalence of lying, the obsession with power and domination, rampant greed, and death.
Of course, she also calls attention to self-love, friendship, and familial love. With personal revelations that lend credibility to her words, she inspires readers to contemplate the profound changes our society needs to make love bloom.
“To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients — care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”Bell Hooks, All About Love
9. Trucks Roll! by George Ella Lyon
Trucks Roll! is a boldly illustrated book designed for young children. With its engaging and rhythmic rhyming texts, this book takes young minds on a thrilling read into the world of trucks. Each page is a colorful and amusing adventure, as various types of trucks come to life through Lyon’s lyrical words. Through the pages of this book, children learn how trucks move and appreciate hardworking truckers who keep the world moving.
George Ella Lyon, a former Kentucky Poet Laureate residing in Lexington, Kentucky, brings her poetic prowess to children’s literature. Her ability to craft engaging rhymes and Craig Fraxier’s illustrations capture these vehicles’ might.
“Trucks’ wheels go ’round and ’round. Trucks’ pistons go up and down. Trucks roll!”George Ella Lyon, Trucks Roll!
10. In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason
In Country is a compelling story of a young girl’s mission to make sense of her father’s death in the Vietnam War. The novel is about Sam Hughes’s life. She’s a recent high school graduate who never had the chance to meet her father.
The Western Kentucky author’s novel is pioneering in its willingness to confront the often unspoken legacy of the Vietnam War. While it reads like a coming-of-age story, it isn’t that straightforward, leading readers to be more invested. In Country masterfully weaves historical fiction with a young girl’s personal journey, making it an intimate exploration of the human experience and the quest for meaning amid tragedy.
“She had always taken his death for granted, but the reality of it took hold gradually.”Bobbie Ann Mason, In Country
11. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is Hunter S. Thompson’s stand-out book. It also cemented his legacy as gonzo journalism’s pioneer. His work defies conventional reporting and dunks readers in a wild and often surreal narrative. Thompson’s audacious writing style blends fact and fiction, plunging readers headfirst into counterculture. Themes pivot around drug use, political unrest, and disillusionment with the American Dream.
The term “gonzo journalism” itself was coined within the pages of this book. It refers to Thompson’s unique approach to reporting. In gonzo journalism, the journalist becomes an active participant in the story. Thompson’s prose is both electrifying and unapologetically raw. It’s a visceral exploration of the dark side of American society.
“Too weird to live, too rare to die!”Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream
12. Blackberries, Blackberries by Crystal Wilkinson
Crystal Wilkinson grew up in Indian Creek, Kentucky. She was handed to her grandparents when she was just a baby. The catch? They were the only African-American household there during that time. Years later, Wilkinson became the 2021 Poet Laureate for her coming-of-age stories of Black girlhood.
Blackberries, Blackberries is one of the novels she penned inspired by her experiences. Short stories that, although fleeting, still bring out authentic narratives. It’s about acceptance, love, and other relatable topics delivered in a balanced way.
“She returned as somebody even I didn’t recognize — a spirit barely alive imprisoned in her body, a husk.”Crystal Wilkinson, Blackberries, Blackberries
13. Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
Explore the life and experiences of the titular character in Jayber Crow. It’s a seemingly simple narrative — in the small town of Port William, the protagonist decides to be a barber. Readers then discover that this novel is not just a story. Instead, it reads like a gentle meditation on what makes a good life.
Berry’s prose flows effortlessly, inviting readers to immerse themselves in Jayber’s contemplative journey. The novel is also a historical fiction peering into rural life in mid-20th-century America. Berry’s fiction mirrors the human condition, spirituality, and the interconnectedness between individuals and the land they call home. Readers gain access to a treasure trove of life lessons and insights through the protagonist’s eyes.
“Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.”Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow
14. The Seven-Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
Although Thomas Merton is originally from France, his conversion to another religion took him to the Mountains of Kentucky. As a Trappist Monk there, he explores the meaning of life. The book unfolds against the backdrop of his early years in Paris, his academic pursuits in England and New York, and his eventual conversion to Catholicism at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
Merton’s narrative is contemplative and deeply reflective, offering readers a first-row seat into his quest for meaning and inner peace. His eloquent prose invites readers to ponder the complexities of faith, doubt, and the transformative power of divine grace. Merton’s enduring influence as a writer and spiritual thinker establishes him as one of Kentucky’s most celebrated literary figures.
“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt.”Thomas Merton, The Seven-Storey Mountain
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FAQs About The Best Books by Kentucky Authors
How has Kentucky’s landscape and culture influenced the themes and narratives of its literature?
Kentucky’s rural charm inspires narratives exploring family, community, and human spirit themes. The cultural richness of Kentucky, with its bluegrass music, horse racing, and southern traditions, infuses stories with a unique sense of the place. The struggles and triumphs of Kentuckians, their connection to the land, and their often complex relationships with each other are prominent motifs in the state’s literature.