Great Books for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving seems to be about food and family, and while gratitude is certainly an important aspect of this holiday’s symbolism, that tends to get lost in some of the shuffle. In that light, I’ve compiled a list of great books for Thanksgiving. They aren’t necessarily books about Thanksgiving, but they do explore human connection, gratitude for the small and simple things in life, and the difficult problem of getting along with family. Mixing food and family can sometimes be vexing and controversial, as many comedians like to point out.

Because of my own family situation, holidays can often be hard and painful. They often bring up feelings of loneliness, uselessness, and exclusion. While I certainly can’t complain since my immediate family that I’ve built with my husband is one of love and happiness, I do tend to see the darker side of family relationships. These books represent some of that as well.

Here’s my list.

The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne

ghost at the table

This is about two sisters who come together for Thanksgiving with their estranged father. While the family dinner is aimed at reconciliation, it only brings up more questions about the past and their mother’s death.

The Family Tree by Carole Cadwalladr

family tree

A failed holiday dinner led Rebecca’s mother to lock herself in the bathroom, and Rebecca, now grown, is afraid of becoming her mother. Rebecca explores her family tree in an attempt to understand what really makes us who we are.

Bread Alone by Judith Ryan Hendricks

bread alone

A young woman turns to professional baking after her husband surprised her with a divorce. The descriptions of baked goods (and healing) are gorgeous in this book.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

the dinner cover

This is a disturbing tale of a dysfunctional family whose son is in trouble. We find out just how messed up he is during the course of one dinner.

Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor

linden hills

A dark exploration of privilege and race, this book about one African American neighborhood teaches us just how much socioeconomic divides dehumanize all of us.

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates


Through Oates’s masterful writing style we see how easy it is for a family to drift away from each other and fall apart, despite seeming to have it all.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

grapes of wrath cover

One of my favorite books, this most American of novels tells of the depression and its devastating effects through the experiences of one family. We learn in the end that a small act of kindness can be a great feast to the recipient.

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

kitchen god's wife

This novel, as most of Tan’s novels, is an exploration of the past in order to understand the confusing present. The immigrant experience is an important one when examining the American family.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

palfrey at the claremont

We are reminded that it can be lonely to age, especially when one has been forgotten by family.

Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes

strangers at the feast

Middle and lower classes collide in this novel about a Thanksgiving feast turned into the scene of a crime.


After compiling this list, I’m struck by how many novels use holidays to point out the stark differences that exist between classes and races. Holidays are a clear site of conflict for many people and for the American experience as a whole. Not all of us have the means for celebrating, and perhaps there are many among us who celebrate differently than the mainstream. And when “celebration” has become about consumerism, rather than symbolism, what does that mean for our psyches and our culture?

From your perspective, of perhaps more functional and warm thoughts toward holidays, what books remind you of Thanksgiving?

24 thoughts on “Great Books for Thanksgiving

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  1. Thanks for a grat list, Emily. “I just heard about “We were the Mulvaneys”. Appreciate the suggestions — especially as they’re so “seasonal”. —Alonzo

  2. I think I think of movies for Thanksgiving more often than books. Miracle on 34th Street begins with the Thanksgiving Day parade, and Home for the Holidays from 1995 with Holly Hunter and Robert Downey Jr. is a comedy that is pretty accurate about some people’s family get-togethers. Forbes Magazine did a piece a couple of years ago with the five best Thanksgiving movies, which includes this one. It has A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, Grumpier Old Men, The Ice Storm (there’s a good, dark movie), Hannah and Her Sisters (I had forgotten that took place during Thanksgiving), and Home for the Holidays. The page shows the trailers for each one:

      1. Yes, it’s a very good movie. Doesn’t give the warm fuzzies, though. I don’t think I’ve seen the Charlie Brown one or the Grumpy Old Men sequel, just the original Grumpy Old Men, and I don’t think that had anything to do with Thanksgiving.

  3. Emily, thanks for sharing these books and thoughts. I love this quote from your summary of “The Grapes of Wrath.”

    “We learn in the end that a small act of kindness can be a great feast to the recipient.” And, that is something we should all strive to do. Happy Thanksgiving, BTG

  4. Thanks for the great list of books on a subject I enjoy reading about. There are several on here I have never heard of that I’m going to check out!
    When I think of Thanksgiving, I think of the food and where it comes from, which makes me think of The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball. I loved this memoir about a city girl turned organic farmer. It’s got a lot about farming and food in it, but it also reminds me of how little we need to truly be happy. I hate that we live in this world of consumerism.

    1. Ooh, that sounds like a great book. I love reading about people who do this sort of thing: leave behind a dissatisfying way of life and start anew. Thanks for the recommendation!

  5. Such a thoughtful post. I’m not really sure if any books remind me specifically of Thanksgiving. My attitude toward Thanksgiving is really more about the disbelief I feel whenever I think about the U.S. foundation narrative that I was taught in school. Thanksgiving is one of a handful of the positive interactions that European settlers had with Native Americans, and sometimes I think that the focus on pumpkins, turkeys, and, worst of all, Black Friday shopping just pulls attention away from the other, less-cheerful aspects of American history…

  6. They all sound like really interesting books. I actually have the movie version of Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont on the DVD rental queue at the moment. I didn’t realize it was a book until I read your post.

    I know what you mean about holidays: they can be bittersweet. My family has its dysfunctional aspects; there are some family rifts which are painful. Despite being one of six children (I’m the youngest), we’re not particularly close, unlike some large families who share everything and have a joyous time with everyone together.

    I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving with your husband and daughters.

    1. I’m sorry to hear about your family dynamics. It is so hard, but the older I get and the more people I meet, I realize that the ideal is almost never reality. I guess that’s okay. We aren’t alone. Thanks for the comment and let me know how the movie version of Mrs. Palfrey is.

  7. Several of these look good! Thank you for the recommendations. I also Like Laurie Colwin, especially the big, warm but suffocating family celebrations in Family Happiness.

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