7 Books About Coming of Age in a Small Town

Frances Macken recommends stories about the adventures and the heartbreaks of becoming an adult

Still from Sex Education
Still from Netflix’s Sex Education.

It can seem like there’s a checklist of growing pains to be endured as we edge our way towards adulthood; overbearing parents and nuisance siblings, unrequited love and friendship fallouts, and these are often the least of our troubles. It’s a time when we’re wising up to what’s really going on around us, learning that the authoritative figures that surround us are flawed, and even hypocritical. Furthermore, they don’t understand us, want to control us, and they’re doing weird things. If all that wasn’t enough, we’re being increasingly exposed to the world’s slings and arrows, and there’s not a lot we can do about it. 

If you think about it, adolescence is a time and a place, and many a beloved bildungsroman features a small town as its backdrop. According to the canon, coming-of-age in a small town is quite the absorbing experience; there’s a ready-made cast of players and the novelty of local color, life lessons aplenty, and unregimented summers spent pondering the big questions (in addition to hanging out with the people our parents warned us about). These safe havens, stagnant backwaters, and one-horse towns can influence our life’s trajectory in ways we may not become cognizant of for many years into the future. 

My novel You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here is set in the fictional Irish town of Glenbruff, and tells the tale of two precocious girls, Katie and Evelyn, who have grandiose dreams of becoming filmmakers and artists, but an all-consuming rivalry overshadows their friendship. As with all small towns, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface in Glenbruff, and the people living there embody the spirit of the place. While it’s understandable for a young person to want to move on from their hometown and see what the wider world has to offer, there’s always one last adventure waiting for us before we leave, and inevitably, things are about to get pretty interesting…

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Eilis Lacey is a smart young girl working in a grocery store in an insular Irish town. Her sister Rose is her closest confidante, and has higher hopes for her. The influential Father Flood encourages Eilis to travel overseas to Brooklyn where he says she’ll find more satisfying work and a better quality of life. 

Eilis emigrates and takes a position in a department store while undertaking bookkeeping classes in the evening. She begins venturing out to dances at night, and that’s where she encounters Tony, an Italian American plumber. She and Tony fall in love and begin making plans for their future, but then the shocking news arrives from Ireland: Eilis’s beloved sister Rose has died from a heart condition. Eilis is forced to come back to Ireland to grieve for Rose and to support her devastated mother. To make matters all the more discombobulating, local publican and eligible bachelor Jim Farrell begins showing a romantic interest in her. 

Eilis is consumed by inner conflict, torn between the simple, familiar life she might lead in her hometown, and that which beckons to her from America, full of love and excitement. To whom, and to where, does her heart belong?

Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume

15-year-old Davey Wexler loses her father to a shooting death at the scene of the family’s 7-11 convenience store in Atlantic City. Understandably devastated, she begins suffering from panic attacks and disordered eating. Her mother Gwen opts to whisk the family away for a change of scenery, and they go to the small town of Los Alamos, New Mexico for an extended trip. 

Davey spends time alone in Los Alamos, exploring the locale on her bicycle, hiking, and hanging out by a canyon where she encounters a boy named Wolf. Wolf passes comment on Davey’s palpable sadness, but she finds herself unable to share the story of her father’s passing with him. 

Through becoming a candy striper volunteer at a nearby hospital, and attending counselling sessions with Gwen, Davey gains the strength to face up to her traumatic loss. Her sojourn in the small town will end up creating multiple healing experiences, including the ceremonial burying of the bloodied clothing she was wearing on the night of her father’s murder.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

The coming-of-age story genre has introduced us to Anne of Green Gables, Tom Sawyer, and Scout Finch. Have you heard the one about Owen Meany? 

A Prayer for Owen Meany is set in Gravesend, New Hampshire, an echo of the author’s own hometown of Exeter, New Hampshire. The fictional Gravesend is representative of small-town America in the 1950s and captures the zeitgeist of the wider social history of the times.

Narrator Johnny Wheelwright comes from a wealthy background, where his eccentric, peculiar friend Owen Meany is the son of a quarry owner and working class. When the boys are aged 11, a Little League baseball game upends their lives when Owen strikes a baseball and hits John’s mother Tabitha in the head, killing her.

This affecting, expansive novel incorporates a wide cast of memorable Gravesend locals, copious reflections on and moments from small town life, and explores friendship, morality, and destiny with great aplomb.

Something Wicked This Way Comes | Book by Ray Bradbury | Official ...

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

It seems that we’re always waiting for something dramatic to happen when we’re young and living in a small place. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a fantasy novel penned by Ray Bradbury about two 13-year old boys, Jim Nightshade and Will Holloway, and the coming-of-age journey they undergo when a malevolent carnival arrives in their hometown of Green Town, Illinois. The novel’s sense of place lends an evocative backdrop to a chilling, yet charming tale.

The attractions of the carnival have the power to alter a person’s age, changing them both physically and mentally. At first, Jim and Will are intrigued by the carnival’s transformational powers, tempted to ride the carousel and become fast tracked to adulthood. Before too long, their lives and the lives of the townspeople of Green Town will be turned upside down by Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, and the friends will be forced to develop the courage and maturity to go to war against the carnival’s evil forces. 

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

Lives of Girls and Women by Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro was first published in 1971. The novel comprises short stories chronicling the life of Del Jordan, a girl growing up in small-town Jubilee, Ontario in the 1940s. Del learns about womanhood from the women she observes in her surroundings, including her mother Addie (with whom she has a strained relationship), various female relatives, and her mother’s boarder Fern. Several feminist themes are explored, including female self-actualization, the relationships between mothers and daughters, and women’s role in society. Del’s formative love relationships also feature, though male characters are only lightly drawn. 

Having always felt like an outsider, dissatisfied with small town life and continually seeking meaning, Del will leave Jubilee behind in order to further her own development. The novel is considered to contain several autobiographical elements from Munro’s own life; at the very least, the author grew up in a small town in Ontario, and became a writer, as her lead character Del intends to.

Back Roads by Tawni O'Dell

Back Roads by Tawni O’Dell

As in life, coming-of-age is no cakewalk. In Back Roads, Harley Altmyer bears a heavy weight of responsibility on his teenaged shoulders. His mother is in prison for killing his abusive father, and he’s trying and failing to raise his three younger sisters singlehandedly. There are limited prospects for Harley in the isolated coal town of Laurel Falls, Pennsylvania, and life takes a dramatic turn when he encounters an attractive married mother of two, Callie, living close by. Harley’s mental stability is rocked as his affair with Callie turns perilous, and his troubled sister Amber begins acting out in an extreme fashion. This is a coming-of-age story that doesn’t pull any punches, a gritty narrative about a young man feeling hemmed in by his bleak surroundings and circumstances. 

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson was born in Ohio in 1963, but raised between New York and the small town of Greenville, South Carolina, where her mother’s parents lived. Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir told in verse, detailing Woodson’s childhood and her growing awareness of adult relationships, racism, and the emerging civil rights movement. The memoir also concerns the effect of our surroundings and community on our lives, and the real-life education it can offer to a young person.

When Woodson’s parents separate, she and her siblings move in with Grandpa Gunnar and Grandma Georgiana in Greenville. Though she feels content and secure with her grandparents, racism is rife in the town, and she observes her grandfather being disrespected by his coworkers, segregation on buses, and sit-ins taking place in the locality. 

Having witnessed the suffering of her loved ones as a consequence of prejudice, Woodson develops an interest in the Black Panther movement, and becomes inspired by activist Angela Davis. Brown Girl Dreaming is an emotional and impactful piece of work about the shaping of our drives, and how an individual becomes motivated to be a part of the solution.

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