11 Novels Starring Essential Workers

Mail carriers, grocery workers, and healthcare providers aren’t just the heroes of the pandemic—they’re also the heroes of their own stories

Person with mask in grocery aisle
Photo by Frankie Cordoba

During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve all become keenly aware that there are certain jobs that need to be done for society to function at even its most basic level. As a nation, America has found it easy to call essential workers heroes and offer up nightly clapping and Blue Angels flyovers — harder to provide well-deserved hazard pay, personal protective equipment, and safer working conditions.

Collectively, it’s important for us to remember that essential workers are the heroes of their own stories, not just peripheral players in the stories of others. The following novels center the lives and experiences of mail carriers, grocery workers, healthcare providers, custodians, and other people with essential jobs, whose full humanity — on the page, as in life — far exceeds the boundaries of their job descriptions.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Keiko Furukura applies to work at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart on a whim as a teenager and ends up staying for 18 years. Prone to unusual impulses, she finds that the clear rules of social engagement and chance to copy the speech patterns and behaviors of other employees provide a path to relative normalcy. She becomes one with the store and outlasts countless managers, coworkers, and customers. But when she hits 36 without marrying, starting a family, or pursuing a more prestigious career, she must decide how much of herself she is willing to give up to conform to the entrenched expectations of others. After reading Murata’s English-language debut, you will never look at convenience stores or their employees quite the same way again.

This Lovely City by Louise Hare

Hare’s debut novel follows Lawrie Matthews, a young Jamaican immigrant who travels to war-ravaged London aboard the Empire Windrush in 1948. He begins to carve a place for himself, working as a postman by day and playing jazz music in Soho clubs by night. When both he and a white woman walking her dog discover the body of a Black child near a pond, racist police are quick to dismiss the other witness and eager to pin the crime on Lawrie or any other member of the growing West Indian community.

The Warehouse by Rob Hart

The Warehouse by Rob Hart

In this dystopian thriller, the totalitarian regime controlling people’s lives is an Amazon-esque mega-corporation called Cloud, which dominates both the retail and labor markets. After a series of mass murders have shut down all other stores, everyone either works for or is a customer of Cloud. Paxton reluctantly works as a Cloud security guard after his own business was bankrupted by their monopolistic practices while Zinnia works on the warehouse floor, though she is actually a secret operative on a corporate espionage assignment. Their story is interspersed with broadcasts to employees from Cloud’s billionaire founder, who is dying of pancreatic cancer. The book is dedicated to Maria Fernandes, who accidentally suffocated on gas fumes sleeping in her car while working three part time jobs.

Life After Life by Jill McCorkle

Hospice worker Joanna comforts the dying and records the stories of their lives. She is the connective thread between the many residents and staff members at Pine Haven Retirement Facility, whose linked stories and memories and desires make up this book. McCorkle resists providing her complex, not-always-likable characters with easy closures, reconciliations, or happy endings, but delivers an impressive finale nonetheless.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

Mengestu’s novel follows Sepha, an Ethopian immigrant running a small grocery store in a gentrifying neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Though born to an upper class family, he fled Ethiopia after his father’s murder and now socializes with friends from Kenya and the Congo who pursued more prestigious degrees and jobs in America than he did. When a white academic and her biracial daughter move next door, Sepha forms romantic feelings towards the mother and a tender friendship with the girl against the backdrop of simmering racial tensions in their neighborhood.

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

Frazier’s debut novel is about 18-year-old pregnant pizza delivery girl Jane, who lives in the suburbs of Los Angeles with a mother and boyfriend whose affections she finds smothering. When 39-year-old mom Jenny Hauser calls desperate for a pickles-and-pepperoni pizza for her son, Jane jumps to the rescue. She grows increasingly obsessed with Jenny and dreams of them escaping together, as she continues to deliver the special pizzas and works through the complicated legacy of her deceased, abusive, alcoholic father.

Trashed by Derf Backderf

Prize-winning cartoonist Derf Backderf once worked as a garbage man himself. In this graphic novel, he tells the stories of a group of garbage collectors in a declining Ohio town, interspersing their daily challenges in the sanitation business with information about the history of garbage trucks, the ecology of landfills, and how rich neighborhoods generate more trash than poor ones.

A Little Yellow Dog by Walter Mosley

In this installment in the Easy Rawlins series, Mosley’s detective has been working as a high school supervising custodian for two years while caring for a pair of adopted children. After an early morning liaison with a pretty teacher who claims her husband is threatening her, Rawlins finds himself a prime suspect of racist police when said husband and his twin turn up dead. The plot twists through a number of unsolved crimes from 1963, culminating on the day JFK is assassinated.

The Maintenance of Headway by Magnus Mills

Man Booker finalist Mills, a former bus driver, tackles the ludicrous bureaucracies of the London bus system in this slim and entertaining novel. His unnamed bus driver protagonist and colleagues must navigate self-important inspectors, annoying passengers, road work, bicyclists, taxi drivers, a colleague who causes chaos by stopping for passengers in the middle of green lights, and more as they attempt to maintain fixed intervals between buses on a regular service, even when this is unattainable and absurd.

Passage West by Rishi Reddi

Reddi’s debut novel follows the arrival of immigrant farm workers from Punjab to California’s Imperial Valley around the time of World War I. They navigate complex relationships with family members back home as well as Mexican, Japanese, and other immigrant workers in California. With xenophobia rising among the white population, corporations exploit immigrants and laws prevent foreign citizens from owning land, bringing family members to the United States, and marrying interracially.

The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin

The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin

This debut novel from an emergency room physician centers the friendship of trauma surgeon Emma and pediatric cardiologist Zadie, who have been close to each other since childhood summer camp. When their former chief resident re-enters their lives, a tragic secret from their third year of medical school threatens to tear their relationship apart, while a difficult surgery that ends badly threatens the future of Emma’s career.

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