In search of the Great Arizona Novel


Recently Chapman University  professor and author Tom Zoellner (formerly of Arizona) wrote an article “Why is there no great Arizona novel?” which appeared on August 3, 2015 in the Phoenix New Times.  Here’s the link to the article:

Tom Zoellner
Tom Zoellner

Many of us remember Tom Zoellner for writing that gripping nonfiction Tucson book “A Safeway in Tucson” about the Tucson Tragedy mass shooting and assassination attempt on then-CD 8 Congresswoman Gabby Giffords,  and the killing of 6 and wounding of 13 others. Many of us knew Gabby (as did Zoellner on her campaign trails), and I even recently played mah jong with one of the victims.

In his article Zoellner raised the provocative question about there being no great Arizona novel.  I pondered this myself during the Arizona Centennial in 2012, when the UA published this list “Arizona 100: Essential Books of the Centennial”:  At that time I thought that Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang” which is #1 on that list was probably the best of the fiction included.  Zoellner does list Abbey’s book as one of his 15 suggestions on the bottom of his article. Here’s Zoellner’s list:

15 Candidates for the Great Arizona Novel

Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy (Random House, 1985) A kid from Tennessee falls in with a gang of scalp hunters that slaughters its way across the Southwest

Waiting to Exhale, by Terry McMillan (Signet, 1992) Four African-American women look for love in Phoenix but find stronger solace in female friendship.

The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper & Row, 1988) A plucky woman from Kentucky finds adopted motherhood and family among a group of helpful strangers in Tucson.

Laughing Boy, by Oliver La Farge (Houghton Mifflin, 1929) A young Navajo rider falls in love with a boarding school girl and they navigate a difficult marriage.

Apache, by Will Levington Comfort (E.P. Dutton, 1931) The chief Mangas Colorados unites his people in southeast Arizona but faces ultimate tragedy against the U.S. Army.

Warlock, by Oakley Hall (Viking, 1958) A chaotic silver mining town tries to restore order by hiring a brash gunslinger as a marshal, and things get even worse. Based on the events at the O.K. Corral at Tombstone.

La Maravilla, by Alberto Vea (Plume, 1993) A portrait of the rich human carnival along Buckeye Road, wrapped in a coming-of-age tale of a young boy caught between two worlds.
Crossers, by Phillip Caputo (Random House, 2009) A widowed man living on a family homestead in southern Arizona takes in a migrant. Drug lords soon take an interest.

The Circus of Dr. Lao, by Charles Finney (Viking, 1935) A mysterious showman arrives in the fictional town of Abalone, Arizona — a pioneering work of speculative fiction written by a copy editor at the Arizona Daily Star.

The Monkey Wrench Game, by Edward Abbey (Lippincott, 1975) Four unlikely friends decide to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam and raise massive hell along the way.

Modern Ranch Living, by Mark Jude Poirier (Bloomsbury, 2006) Disconnected residents of a gated community move in and out of each other’s lives.

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, by Brady Udall (Vintage, 2001) A half-Apache boy gets shuttled between bad schools and foster homes while being pursued by the doctor who saved his life.

 Concrete Desert, by Jon Talton (Minotaur, 2001) A historian takes a job as a Maricopa County sheriff’s detective and gets sucked into a cold case that suddenly gets hot.

Half Broke Horses, by Jeanette Walls (Scribner, 2008) The fictionalized story of the author’s grandmother growing up poor and raising children on a huge Arizona ranch.

Bless the Beasts & the Children, by Glendon Swarthout (Doubleday, 1970) Six angsty boys at a punitive cowboy ranch in northern Arizona plot to free a herd of buffalo.

I confess to say I haven’t read most of the other suggested novels, but I may have to now. I can’t recommend “The Circus of Dr. Lao” which I (as an Asian American) found somewhat racist regarding the characterization of the Chinese Dr. Lao (especially by today’s standards but probably not back in Arizona of 1935).

My German professor husband recommends a German bestseller “The Oil Prince”, written in 1893/4 by Karl Friedrich May, about a crooked businessman who tries to con a gullible banker. It is supposedly a travel tale set in 1860s Arizona with Old Shatterhand and his Apache blood brother Chief Winnetou.

Want to hear more? — drive up north to Phoenix for a panel discussion tonight moderated by Zoellner, on this subject at Changing Hands Bookstore, 300 W. Camelback Rd.  at 7 p.m.  More info:

The panel at Changing Hands Bookstore features Greg McNamee (former editor of University of Arizona Press), Bill Wyman (cultural commentator with Al Jazeera America), Arizona Poet Laureate Alberto Alvaro Ríos, and Tempe author and Phoenix New Times contributor Deborah Sussman. 
Good job Prof. Zoellner  in presenting all these choices of novels to Arizona readers! Hopefully someone will write that great Arizona novel someday.


  1. Finally read a copy of “Concrete Desert” by Jon Talton, about the “mean streets” of Phoenix. This crime drama is about a former history professor who returns to his home town of Phoenix and takes a part time job as a deputy sheriff at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Dept. He investigates a 40 year old murder, but then meets up with a college sweetheart Julie and helps her locate her missing sister Phaedra. The crime drama is exciting but inconsistent in the clues and final outcome, so can’t recommend it as a great Arizona novel. Besides, Phoenix is depicted as a crime ridden, ugly city, a disappointment to the protagonist. Drugs, politicians, reporters from the Arizona Republic are all involved as well.

  2. “Half Broke Horses” a 2009 true life novel by Jeannette Walls, is a biography of her grandmother Lily Chasey Smith, born in 1901 in Texas. Lily’s parents were courageous homesteaders in Texas, then New Mexico, sending Lily to a girls boarding school in Santa Fe. Later cowgirl Lily (as a 15 year old teenager) is employed to teach in rural northern Arizona, then spends some years as a maid in Chicago, before returning to teach in Arizona. Along the way there are a number of tragedies, but finally Lily meets her 2nd husband Jim Smith, and together they ranch for a number of years, raising 2 children Little Jim and Rosemary (the mother of the author). Eventually the large ranch they are living/working on is sold from under them, so Lily and Jim end up unhappily living in urban Phoenix. Their final destination is a small village near Phoenix called Horse Mesa, where Lily teaches school, her lifetime occupation aside from ranching.
    The title refers to daughter Rosemary and her newly wed husband Rex Walls “heading out into open country like a couple of half-broke horses” (full of hope for adventure).
    Tough and resilient Lily (through granddaughter author Jeannette) loves the gorgeous natural beauty of Arizona and animals, and describes the growing pains of the Trust Territory and new State of Arizona. This could definitely qualify for the great Arizona novel, as it is a gripping, heartfelt story in the first person about Lily’s resourcefulness and survival skills in rural, ranching Arizona with its myriad of hardships and experiences. More than any other book I’ve read so far, this one appreciates Arizona for its rugged landscape and expanse.

  3. Just finished the 1993 sequel “Pigs in Heaven” to the “The Bean Trees” on the list above, which is the followup on the life of Taylor and her Cherokee adopted daughter “Turtle”, now 6 years old. Kingsolver craftily weaves a drama involving the Hoover Dam, custody issues over Turtle and the Cherokee Nation, with a subplot involving Taylor’s mother Alice. Part of the story take place in Tucson with Taylor’s boyfriend Jax, but most is elsewhere — Nevada, California, Washington state, and Oklahoma.

  4. 1992 novel “Waiting to Exhale” by Terry McMillan is an engaging story about 4 African American women living in the Phoenix area, dealing with job struggles, dating Black men, raising children, caring for elderly parents. All the women are in their late 30’s and afraid of being alone in life, without a partner. Savannah, working in TV publicity and production, moves to Phoenix from Denver and finds satisfaction in her career. Wealthy Bernadine is going through a nasty divorce from her husband who left her and their 2 young children for a younger, white woman. Robin, who is caring for ailing parents in Tucson, consults astrology and the zodiac for answers, but dates a married loser. And Robin is an overweight, successful hairdresser and single Mom with a talented 17 year old son. McMillan used graphic language as these 4 women share their troubles, life’s dreams and dating problems with each other. The author is hilarious, witty and accurately portrays the divide between Blacks and Whites in Phoenix in the 1990’s. Not a great candidate for Arizona Great Novel, but more of a story of sisterhood and Black American relationships. (Also saw the movie version years ago).

  5. Review of Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Bean Trees”: Powerful story of two young women from Kentucky who meet by chance in Tucson, Arizona and share friendship, childcare, and romantic problems. The main character Missy Taylor Greer “adopts” a Native American (Cherokee) girl into her life. She is befriended and later employed by an older women, a Tucson native operating her late husband’s used tire business. The other young woman Lou Ann Ruiz is separated from her Mexican American husband Angel, and is raising their baby son. The story is true to the Southwest Desert with these interracial relationships,and a subplot involving illegal immigrants from Guatemala. It also mentions the smell of creosote bushes when it rains, and the challenge of growing of bean plants in the desert. Definitely a good candidate for great Arizona novel, since lots of Arizona is populated by people transplanted from the Midwest.

  6. Perused the 1935 “The Circus of Dr. Lao” (as I’ve read it several times before) and can’t recommend it as an Arizona Great Novel. Too many references to Dr. Lao as a “Chink” and “Old Chinaman”, with even references to “Japs” (which we Japanese Americans find offensive). The plot is cleverly written about a very strange circus that rolls into a town in rural Arizona. The descriptions of lawyer Frank Tull with all his artifiical limbs even for 1935 is foretelling of the future (now the 21st century), and the one of widow Mrs. Howard Cassan are both delightfully funny and original. She received an unfortunate fortune telling experience. And I didn’t appreciate how Dr. Lao switched his speech from standard English to broken, poor English, which reflects on the way Asians were portrayed comicly in movies. There’s even a scene of about “black maidens, lean and virginal and luscious” (page 89) with nude priests stripping off their clothing, which is distasteful as it is supposedly a peepshow seen by white male college students. Maybe this was humor back then, but would not be taken as such now. Sorry, not a great Arizona novel.

  7. Beginning to read some of these novels on Zoellner’s list. Started off with “Laughing Boy” published in 1929 about a naive, young Navajo silversmith named Laughing Boy, who falls in love with a boarding school/American educated Navajo named Slim Girl, who is desperate and scheming, and thereby disliked by his family. The story chronicles their life up north in Navajo lands, just after Arizona attained statehood, with relationships with other tribes such as the Hopi and Paute. Can’t recommend this as the “Great Arizona Novel” as it is focused only on the Navajos, and we would need a Navajo expert to tell us of its authenticity in the cultural practices described by the outsider author. It is a story of love, natural beauty, Navajo culture, and spirituality.

  8. I won’t (can’t) be doing the great arizona novel but I have done a screenplay that should be in consideration for the great arizona screenplay. If any of you have not read it you can read it at my web site: Let me know what you think. Its about the undocumented children of arizona.

    • Thanks for commenting Captain Arizona. I took a look at it but I don’t like to read books, or screenplays online, since I spend too much time staring at a computer screen as it is.

      • Sorry to hear that Carolyn as you were who I thought would be most interested in read it.

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