Allan Gurganus' 6 favorite books with sympathetic characters in dangerous settings

The author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All recommends the classic Robinson Crusoe, and more

Allan Gurganus
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan))

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards (NYRB Classics, $17). Edwards, an Isle of Guernsey civil servant, wrote one book, which he finished two years before his 1976 death and left in a box under his boardinghouse bed. Presented as the reminiscences of an elderly Channel Islander, the novel is as soulful as it is stark. It has the irresistible energy of Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony," all while showing us how to grow a vegetable garden in island seaweed. Its cast of incoming villains includes one gigantic sea lion and a host of invading Nazis.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (Bantam, $6). This early modernist masterwork anticipates contemporary loneliness. Can a single psyche, doing solitary on an island for decades, ever learn to love itself? Yes. Then relief arrives: TGIF!

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett (Dover, $4). In this 1896 story collection, one of America's most ignored and original prose stylists brought to complicated life a windswept New England fishing village, portraying — via love and work — the community's interdependent lives.

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Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn by Evan S. Connell (North Point, $19.50). This chronicle proves how a superb American novelist — in this case the author of Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge — can write a great work of American history. Connell made sense of the insanity of the Battle of Little Big Horn and anatomized the psychopathology of Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Son of the Morning Star shows how the military mind and the criminal mind too often too perfectly intersect.

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes (NYRB Classics, $15). Published in 1929, Hughes' rousing 19th-century sea adventure involves kidnappers, excitable children, and brilliant shipshape prose doing 40 knots.

The Land Breakers by John Ehle (NYRB Classics, $18). This overlooked epic novel honors the 18th-century Scots-Irish settlers who first tried farming rock-strewn Appalachia. Several families struggle to "break" a landscape long owned by bears, stalked by nameless diseases, and crawling with so very many snakes. The miracle of community is created as we watch.

Allan Gurganus' Decoy, an acclaimed novella about a town rocked by a flood, is now a stand-alone paperback.

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