What do all great works of literature have in common?
To this voracious reader, it seems that all enthralling stories, whether of the “beach read” or “classic” variety, share a common thread: the presence of a strong central conflict.
Conflict demands our attention in the moment and at the same time causes us to speed towards the conclusion to see if/how said conflict is resolved.
Whether conflict is driven by tumultuous emotions or perilous external events, it’s the ultimate driver of literary action and the perfect foil for insight into the human condition.
Without further ado, I present a collection of 8 gripping pieces of literature- both well-known and little-known- featuring either an internal or external conflict that drives the action, making each story virtually “un-put-down-able.”
Dancing with the Enemy by Paul Glaser
This is not your traditional Holocaust story. The action centers around Rosie, a Jewish dance teacher turned prisoner at Auschwitz, who vows to do whatever it takes to survive the Holocaust- including dancing- and sleeping- with the enemy. This is a story of triumphing over forces of conflict by using one’s wiles.
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
Malala, much like Anne Frank, confronts unthinkable hardship as a young girl, as she watches the freedom and rights of her people slip away in rural Pakistan. Yet she shows amazing courage in her fight for peace and education. You will never be so grateful for the privilege of your own education as you will be upon finishing this book.
Out of Uganda in 90 Days by Urmila Patel
Botanical gardens, beaches, and rain forests are not images commonly associated with the poverty-stricken Uganda of today. Yet in the 1960’s, these images formed the background of a young Indian girl’s childhood in Uganda, pre-Idi Amin. In this memoir, Patel recalls how her idyllic childhood changed overnight once Amin came to power and how she and her family, along with many other Indian citizens of Uganda, were forced to leave their homeland in just 90 days.
Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez
Written in simple language from the perspective of 12 year old Anita, this novel details life in the Dominican Republic under dictator Rafael Trujillo in the 1960’s, illuminating a lesser-known time and place in history. Alvarez, a Dominican who immigrated to America at age 10, drew inspiration from the experiences of her relatives who stayed in the D.R. during Trujillo’s rule.
An Unquiet Mind by Kaye Redfield Jamison
Dr. Jamison is a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, a clinical psychologist… and bipolar. In her brutally honest memoir, Jamison analyzes her lifelong battles with mania and depression with the self-awareness of a psychiatrist, the astuteness of an academic, and the eloquence of a poet.
Rules by Cynthia Lord
The lone children’s book on a list of heavy-hitters, Rules gives a thoughtful look into the internal conflicts experienced by an autistic boy, his developmentally typical sister, and their non-verbal, wheelchair-bound friend. These children, all “different” in their own way, bond over shared conflicts and challenges, and inspire each other to fight on.
The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair
Repressed family conflicts covered up by lies, pride, and Indian folklore drive this mystery story, which reads like a darker, Indian version of the Secret Garden. The ending will leave you speechless.
Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton
Roving photographer Brandon Stanton thoughtfully pairs his striking photographs of everyday New Yorkers with their own thoughts about their lives, loves, and struggles. The results are captivating; by pairing an unassuming portrait with a revealing quotation from the subject, Stanton beautifully captures human spirits- warts and all- soldiering through and triumphing over conflict.
Looking to add even more conflict to your reading list? Voila:
A Bottle in the Gaza Sea by Valerie Zenatti
The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak by Dawid Sierakowiak
Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brein
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh