Novels that celebrate kindness

Erin Kodicek on April 30, 2020
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Novels that celebrate kindness

Scott Adams, creator of the famed Dilbert comic strip, once said: “Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.” It is these acts of kindness and their reverberating effects that have helped mitigate the sting of these uncertain times. Here are a handful of novels inhabited by characters who practice this powerful virtue.   


Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

Saint Mazie is inspired by the real Mazie Gordon-Phillips, a personal hero of Jami Attenberg's and the subject of a 1940 New Yorker profile by journalist Joseph Mitchell called Up in the Old Hotel. Mazie was a hard-drinkin’ good-time girl with a heart of gold who helped the homeless on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the Great Depression. It’s a story that, among other things, reminds us just how powerful "small" acts of kindness can be, and how anyone, even a humble ticket taker at a past-its-prime movie theater, can turn an entire neighborhood's frown upside down.


Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

All is not quiet on the Midwestern front in Leif Enger's Virgil Wander: The town is in decline; the novel’s namesake has just been in a harrowing car crash; an enigmatic kite enthusiast arrives, searching for his missing son; and, unbeknownst to all, a heartbroken handyman has embarked on a sinister project….Unsurprisingly, not everyone in this story gets a happy ending—but this ode to simple pleasures, the familial power of community, and hope, will have a halo effect on your mood.


News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Captain Jefferson Kyle is a war-weary widower, traveling from town to town reading relevant bits of news to paying customers. In one such town he is paid to ferry a kidnapped girl back to what’s left of her family. Year ago, her parents and sister were murdered by members of the Kiowa tribe, who spared the then 6-year-old and raised her as one of their own. Fast-forward four years and tribe life is the only life she knows, so she’s not about to go quietly with a stranger. Thus begins a seemingly ill-advised but transformative road trip where the mismatched pair eventually form an uneasy truce, then a not-so-begrudging alliance, and finally something more wonderful that neither Captain nor kid could have imagined.


Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott

Set in a Brooklyn Brownstone presided over by a kindhearted but increasingly senile landlady, the tenants band together when Edith's greedy son threatens to pull the rug from beneath them. One tenant has Williams Syndrome, another agoraphobia; there is an artist dealing with the debilitating effects of a stroke, and a washed-up comedian with unfunny issues of his own. Given this cast of characters, you might be tempted to reach for a [insert antidepressant of choice here]. But, Infinite Home is far from bleak. Motivated by their concern for Edith, and for one another, each eschews their personal struggles to try to keep this crazy quilt of a family, and their home, intact.


The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

In Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, a damaged vet named Ernt Allbright returns from Vietnam and moves his family to the wilds of Alaska to start their lives anew. Initially it's a welcome change, but as winter approaches, and Ernt's mental state deteriorates, his wife and daughter find themselves in an increasingly precarious position. Compounding their predicament is the Achilles' heel of the entire Allbright clan: they do not know how to ask for, or receive, help. Fortunately the cavalry comes anyway, including a homesteader named “Large Marge” who doesn’t suffer fools (or domestic abusers). The Great Alone harkens to Hannah's mega bestselling The Nightingale: it highlights the heroics of everyday people, especially women.


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