The Century Project: Fiction, 1900-1999, Pt. 9: The 1980s
--by Hanje Richards
The Century Project: Part 9, Fiction from the 1980s
The Copper Queen Library is the oldest continuously-operating public library in Arizona. I often tell visitors this fact, and it got me thinking… We have intentionally kept a lot of older books here in our lovely old building. We have a lot of books that were published in the early years of the 1900s, as well as mid-century books and titles all the way to the end of the century still on our shelves.
Our blogs and displays often focus on the new and contemporary, but what about all the history reflected by the books in this wonderful 100+ year old building?
Here are some of the books from our collection published in the 1980s that have become classics:
The Accidental Tourist (Anne Tyler) – In this 1985 novel, the plot revolves around Macon Leary, a writer of travel guides. He and his wife Sarah, separately lost in grief, find their marriage disintegrating until she eventually moves out. When he becomes incapacitated due to a fall, he returns to the family home to stay with his eccentric siblings – sister Rose and brothers Porter and Charles – whose odd habits include alphabetizing the groceries in the kitchen cabinets and ignoring the ringing telephone. When his publisher, Julian, comes to visit, Julian finds himself attracted to Rose. They eventually marry. Macon hires Muriel Pritchett, a quirky young woman with a sickly son, to train his unruly dog and soon finds himself drifting into a relationship with the two of them. When Sarah becomes aware of the situation, she decides they should reconcile, forcing him to make a difficult decision about his future.
The Bean Trees (Barabara Kingsolver) – This 1988 novel finds Kentucky native Taylor Greer in Oklahoma near Cherokee territory where a woman leaves an American Indian infant with her. The remainder of the novel traces the experiences of Taylor and the child, whom Taylor has named Turtle. Covering Turtle's early childhood, the story includes a colorful cast of characters, including a Guatemalan couple and Mattie, the owner of Jesus Is Lord Used Tires.
Beloved (Toni Morrison) – Published in 1987, this novel is set in 1873 just after the Civil War and is based on the story of the African-American slave Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in 1856 in Kentucky by fleeing to Ohio, a free state. A posse arrived to retrieve her and her children under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which gave slave owners the right to pursue slaves across state borders. Margaret killed her two-year-old daughter rather than allow her to be recaptured. Beloved's main character, Sethe, kills her daughter and tries to kill her other three children when a posse arrives in Ohio to return them to Sweet Home, the plantation in Kentucky from which Sethe had recently fled. The daughter, Beloved, returns years later to haunt the house in which she was killed. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988, was adapted in 1998 into a film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey, and was ranked in a 2006 New York Times survey of writers and literary critics as "the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years." The book's epigraph reads "Sixty Million and More," the number of slaves estimated to have died in the Atlantic slave trade.
Breathing Lessons (Anne Tyler) – Tyler’s eleventh novel was published in 1988 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and Time Magazine's Book of the Year award in 1989. The story describes the joys and pains of the ordinary marriage of Ira and Maggie Moran. Maggie’s mission is to connect and unite people, whether they want to be united or not. Maggie is a meddler, and as she and her husband, Ira, drive 90 miles to the funeral of an old friend, Ira contemplates his wasted life and the traffic, while Maggie hatches a plan to reunite her son Jesse with his long-estranged wife and baby. As Ira explains, "She thinks the people she loves are better than they really are, and so then she starts changing things around to suit her view of them." Though everyone criticizes her for being "ordinary," Maggie's ability to see the beauty and potential in others ultimately proves that she is the only one fighting the resignation they all fear.
The Color Purple (Alice Walker) – Taking place mostly in rural Georgia, this 1982 epistolary novel focuses on female Black life in the South during the 1930s. As the novel opens, Celie, the protagonist and narrator, is a poor, uneducated, fourteen-year-old girl living in rural Georgia who begins writing letters to God because of her intolerable home situation. Structurally, the novel’s narrative tells Celie’s story and includes her letters to God, as well as letters sent to Celie from Africa by her sister, Nettie. In 1983, Walker received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) – A dystopian novel published in 1985 by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, the story is set in the near future in a totalitarian theocracy which has overthrown the US government. By telling the tale of Offred, it explores themes of women in subjugation and the various means by which they gain agency. Atwood won the 1985 Governor General's Award and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987 and was nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize, and the 1987 Prometheus Award.
The House of the Spirits (La Casa de los Espíritus) (Isabel Allende) – This 1982 novel was first conceived by Allende when she received news that her one hundred year-old grandfather was dying and began writing him a letter that ultimately became the novel’s first manuscript. The story spans four generations in the life of the Trueba family, tracing the post-colonial social and political upheavals of the Latin American country they live in. The story is told primarily from the perspective of two protagonists (Esteban and Alba) and incorporates elements of magical realism. Some readers claim that the novel is a roman à clef. According to them, The Poet in the novel is probably Pablo Neruda, and both The Candidate and The President are Allende's cousin once removed, Salvador Allende.
Ironweed (William Kennedy) – Published in 1983, this novel won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is the third book in Kennedy's Albany Cycle. I is set during the Great Depression and tells the story of Francis Phelan, an alcoholic vagrant originally from Albany, New York, who left his family after accidentally killing his infant son while he may have been drunk. The novel focuses on Francis' return to Albany, and the narrative is complicated by Phelan's hallucinations of the three people, other than his son, whom he killed in the past. The novel features characters that return in some of Kennedy's other books.
Lonesome Dove (Larry McMurtry) – This 1985 Pulitzer Prize–winning western novel is the first published book of the Lonesome Dove series (Dead Man’s Walk, Comanche Moon, Lonesome Dove, Streets of Laredo) but the third installment in the series chronologically. A love story, an adventure, and an epic of the frontier, the story focuses on the relationship of several retired Texas Rangers and their adventures driving a cattle herd from Texas to Montana.
Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley) – This 1983 novel follows the trajectory of Morgaine (often called Morgan le Fay or Morgan of the Fairies in other works), a priestess fighting to save her matriarchal Celtic culture in a country where patriarchal Christianity threatens to destroy the pagan way of life. The book follows the lives of Gwenhwyfar, Viviane, Morgause, Igraine and other women who are often marginalized in Arthurian retellings. Here, in stark contrast to other retellings of the Arthurian tales (which consistently paint Morgaine as a distant, one-dimensional evil witch or sorceress with no real explanation given for her antipathy), King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are supporting rather than main characters and Morgaine is a strong woman with unique gifts and responsibilities at a time of enormous political and spiritual upheaval who is called upon to defend her indigenous matriarchal heritage against impossible odds.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera) - A philosophical novel published in 1984 about two men, two women, a dog and their lives in the Prague Spring of the Czechoslovak Communist period in 1968. Challenging Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence (the idea that the universe and its events have already occurred and will recur ad infinitum), the story’s thematic meditations suggest the alternative – that each person has only one life to live, and that which occurs in life occurs only once and never again – thus the “lightness” of being. Lightness explores the artistic and intellectual life of Czech society during the Communist period through the characters of Tomáš, a surgeon; his wife Tereza, a photographer anguished by her husband's infidelities; Tomáš’ lover Sabina, a free-spirited artist; Franz, a Swiss university professor and lover of Sabina; and Simon, Tomáš’ estranged son from an earlier marriage. The "unbearable lightness" in the title also refers to the lightness of love and sex, which are themes of the novel. Kundera portrays love as fleeting, haphazard and perhaps based on endless strings of coincidences, despite holding such significance for humans.
White Noise (Don DeLillo) - An example of postmodern literature and widely considered his "breakout" work, this 1985 novel won the National Book Award and brought DeLillo to the attention of a much larger audience. Set at a bucolic Midwestern college known only as The-College-on-the-Hill, the story follows a year in the life of Jack Gladney, a professor who has made his name by pioneering the field of Hitler Studies (though he doesn't speak German). He has been married five times to four women and has a brood of children and stepchildren (Heinrich, Denise, Steffie, Wilder) with his current wife, Babette. Jack and Babette are both extremely afraid of death; they frequently wonder which of them will be the first to die.