This year, our theme is “Walk A Mile In My Shoes.” The idea that you can’t understand someone (and shouldn’t judge them) until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes is a pretty common sentiment. And research has shown that reading fiction is one way to really get such a walk going. So, that’s what we are going to do this year: use fiction (and some nonfiction when we just can’t resist) to take walks in someone’s shoes. We hope you lace up those sneakers and join our journey. For February, we’re going to be looking at a growing issue in Carroll County–homelessness.
It can be easy to overlook our homeless population in Berryville–I’m often surprised by how shocked people are to learn that there is a rather sizable homeless population here–but we pretty frequently field requests from homeless patrons at the library. Namely, they’re often looking for resources for help, of which our county is sadly lacking. To receive help, these folks have to leave the county, which is often not feasible for them. For some of our other unhoused patrons, the library is a safe gathering place since they’re able to stay inside out of the elements without a restriction on their time in the building.
Our desire to better serve our unhoused patrons led us to taking staff trainings from Ryan Dowd, a former homeless shelter director who now creates resources and trainings for libraries and nonprofit organizations. In fact, these trainings provided the catalyst for this year’s “Walk A Mile In My Shoes” theme.
We have a fair number of books–and movies–that feature plot lines revolving around homelessness. In some of them, the fact that the characters are unhoused is fairly incidental to the plot or only happens to relatively minor supporting characters, whereas in others, it’s an essential aspect of the story and/or the character’s background. We wanted to focus on the latter for this post.
A special thank you to both Mary-Esther and Julie for helping me research this list and providing me with some fantastic recommendations!
For one of the latter, check out Marilynne Robinson’s lyrical, thought-provoking Lila. Part of Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, this book follows Lila, the younger wife of an elderly pastor. Lila met her future husband when she was taking shelter from the elements in his church, and she struggles to reconcile her past experiences–of childhood neglect; of an impoverished nomadic upbringing; of the uncertainty of life on the run; of moments of freedom, love, and happiness despite the struggles–with her current life.
If you prefer to dive into a character’s experience while she is currently unhoused, try Billie Letts’s Where The Heart Is. Novalee is a pregnant teenager who finds herself rather unceremoniously dumped far from home at a Walmart in rural Oklahoma. Without many options, she’s forced to take up residence in the parking lot. The locals, however, take pity on her and she finds friends, family, and love in unexpected places.
Andy Mulligan’s characters in Trash are also unhoused teenagers–but unlike Novalee, who ends up at Walmart–Raphael, Gardo, and Rat live in a massive garbage dump in Manila. They make some money sorting through the trash, but when one of them finds something potentially valuable and decides to keep it, they find themselves caught in a confusing and terrifying nightmare.
In Karina Yan Glaser’s A Duet for Home, June and Tyrell are two kids living in a homeless shelter. June’s family is new to the shelter, and everything is so unsettled after losing her father in an accident. Tyrell, meanwhile, has lived there for 3 years. They become fast friends, bonding over a shared love for music. However, the security they experience at the shelter is threatened by a new policy that will relocate the families to unsafe housing. Can two kids stop the policy from being implemented? The author previously worked in a shelter and brings firsthand experience to the topic.
Another writing about the topic from personal volunteer experience is bestseller Danielle Steel. In her novel Blue, she writes about a TV journalist who pursues philanthropic activities in the wake of her son’s death. In the process, she meets an abandoned teenager named Blue living on the streets.
As Steel records in her memoir A Gift of Hope, she herself became a volunteer and advocate for the homeless after her son’s death. Before the release of the book, Steele had kept her volunteer efforts anonymous, but she decided to break her silence to advocate for change and to profile the people she’d met in this candid but ultimately inspirational book.
In another unflinching memoir, Jeannette Walls writes about her chaotic childhood in The Glass Castle. (I’ve previewed this one before on the blog.) Her parents drifted from town to town, taking their four children with them. It’s not a romantic life–with the family moving, or as they call it, “doing the skedaddle,” so much both to avoid bills and due to her father’s alcoholism. After years of wandering, they return to her father’s hometown in Appalachian West Virginia. It’s a new place, but her parents’ behavior doesn’t change, and as Jeannette grows older, she starts to realize that their upbringing wasn’t quite the quirky odyssey they were raised to believe it was.
We also have the film adaptation of the memoir, which stars Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, and Brie Larson.
Another film adaptation of a memoir touching on the issue–though we don’t have the original book in the series–is The Lady in the Van. Starring Alex Jennings and Maggie Smith, it’s the true story of Alan Bennett and Mary Shepherd, a homeless woman he befriended who ultimately lived in his driveway in a van for fifteen years.
For readers who prefer nonfiction, we also have two thought-provoking books–Virginia Euebanks’s Automating Inequality and Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland.
I actually read Eubanks’ book a few years ago when it was newly released. She profiles several examples of how governmental agencies are increasingly relying on technology to make crucial decisions about people’s well-being. It’s not solely focused on the issue of homelessness, but one of the chapters looks at how Los Angeles was using an automated system to prioritize housing resources and the disastrous consequences it unleashed.
I profiled Bruder’s book on here a few years ago. In it, she explores the recent phenomenon of seniors who normally would be retiring hitting the road to live in campers and work seasonal jobs.
The previous two books deal with the issue of homelessness within the context of very 21st century scenarios. But for a timeless classic, we also have Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Oliver’s story of a childhood in orphanages and a rough life of the streets may seem like a relic of the 19th century to many readers, but as so many of these books and movies highlight, it’s still the reality for lots of people in this day and age.
What’s your favorite book about a homeless protagonist? What have you read lately that helped you walk in someone else’s shoes? Tell us in the comments! As always, please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information on any of these items or to place them on hold.