I haven’t read many books set in Arizona (yet!), but I’ve certainly been lucky enough to visit this beautiful state. The landscape is strikingly diverse; from the cacti in Saguaro and the pines around Flagstaff, to the depths of the Grand Canyon and plains of Monument Valley (spanning across the Utah border). Arizona has the greatest percentage of Indian tribal land in the country and a life changing experience for me was sleeping on Navajo lands in a traditional hogan.
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Books Set in Arizona: An Introduction
If you haven’t visited before, this list of books set in Arizona is sure to transport you there! The following titles are listed in order of publication, from classics through to contemporary titles. They cover a wide range of genres, with some true stories woven in too. I hope you’ll find some new books set in Arizona to add to your reading list! 🤞
One of the most well-known novels on this list of books set in Arizona is The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, along with the next book in the series Pigs in Heaven. There’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, Laughing Boy: A Navajo Love Story by Oliver La Farge (exploring Native American culture) and a Pulitzer finalist too, The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea (about a group of men crossing the Mexican border into Arizona).
Some other highlights include multiple titles by Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko, including Almanac of the Dead. Drought is a theme in the dystopian The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, while Francisco Cantú writes about his experiences as a patrol agent along the Mexican border in The Line Becomes A River: Dispatches from the Border.
Books Set in Arizona: The Shortlist
If you want to skip the longer list below, these are my personal picks for books set in Arizona:
- Laughing Boy: A Navajo Love Story by Oliver La Farge
- Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
- The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
- Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko
- Veil of Roses by Laura Fitzgerald
- The Line Becomes A River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú
Books Set in Arizona
1. Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey, 1912
Told by a master storyteller who, according to critic Russell Nye, ‘combined adventure, action, violence, crisis, conflict, sentimentalism, and sex in an extremely shrewd mixture,’ Riders of the Purple Sage is a classic of the Western genre. It is the story of Lassiter, a gunslinging avenger in black, who shows up in a remote Utah town just in time to save the young and beautiful rancher Jane Withersteen from having to marry a Mormon elder against her will. Note: this one is mainly set in Utah, set along the Utah and Arizona border.
2. Laughing Boy: A Navajo Love Story by Oliver La Farge, 1929
Capturing the essence of the Southwest in 1915, Oliver La Farge’s Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel is an enduring American classic. At a ceremonial dance, the young, earnest silversmith Laughing Boy falls in love with Slim Girl, a beautiful but elusive ‘American’-educated Navajo. As they experience all of the joys and uncertainties of first love, the couple must face a changing way of life and its tragic consequences.
3. The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney, 1935
Abalone, Arizona, is a sleepy southwestern town whose chief concerns are boredom and surviving the Great Depression. That is, until the circus of Dr. Lao arrives and immensely and irrevocably changes the lives of everyone drawn to its tents.
4. The Andromeda Strain (Andromeda #1) by Michael Crichton, 1969
The United States government is given a warning by the pre-eminent biophysicists in the country: current sterilization procedures applied to returning space probes may be inadequate to guarantee uncontaminated re-entry to the atmosphere. Two years later, seventeen satellites are sent into the outer fringes of space to collect organisms and dust for study. One of them falls to earth, landing in a desolate area of Arizona.
5. The Blessing Way (Leaphorn & Chee #1) by Tony Hillerman, 1970
Homicide is always an abomination, but there is something exceptionally disturbing about the victim discovered in a high lonely place, a corpse with a mouth full of sand, abandoned at a crime scene seemingly devoid of tracks or useful clues. Though it goes against his better judgment, Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn cannot help but suspect the hand of a supernatural killer. Note: this one is also set in New Mexico.
6. Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, 1975
The story centers on Vietnam veteran George Washington Hayduke III, who returns to the desert to find his beloved canyons and rivers threatened by industrial development. On a rafting trip down the Colorado River, Hayduke joins forces with feminist saboteur Bonnie Abbzug, wilderness guide Seldom Seen Smith, and billboard torcher Doc Sarvis, M.D., and together they wander off to wage war on the big yellow machines, on dam builders and road builders and strip miners.
7. Angels by Denis Johnson, 1983
Angels tells the story of two born losers. Jamie has ditched her husband and is running away with her two baby girls. Bill is dreaming of making it big in a life of crime. They meet on a Greyhound bus and decide to team up. So begins a stunning, tragic odyssey through the dark underbelly of America – the bars, bus stations, mental wards, and prisons that play host to Jamie and Bill as they find themselves trapped in a downward spiral though rape, alcohol, drugs and crime, to madness and death. Note: this story moves around a number of states.
8. Yes Is Better Than No by Byrd Baylor, 1985
In this classic novel of the Southwest, Byrd Baylor paints a sensitive and humorous picture of the Tohono O’odham people who have moved away from the reservation to find an unfamiliar and often puzzling world of urban white society in Tucson. This book is a timeless story of cultures in conflict and an engaging account of how the characters have uniquely adapted to a modern world.
9. The Bean Trees (Greer Family #1) by Barbara Kingsolver, 1988
Clear-eyed and spirited, Taylor Greer grew up poor in rural Kentucky with the goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting away. But when she heads west with high hopes and a barely functional car, she meets the human condition head-on. By the time Taylor arrives in Tucson, Arizona, she has acquired a completely unexpected child, a three-year-old American Indian girl named Turtle, and must somehow come to terms with both motherhood and the necessity for putting down roots.
10. The Fool’s Progress by Edward Abbey, 1988
When his third wife abandons him in Tucson, boozing, misanthropic anarchist Henry Holyoak Lightcap shoots his refrigerator and sets off in a battered pick-up truck for his ancestral home in West Virginia. Accompanied only by his dying dog and his memories, the irascible warhorse begins a bizarre cross-country odyssey – determined to make peace with his past – and to wage one last war against the ravages of ‘progress.’
11. Fair Play by Tove Jansson, 1989
Mari is a writer and Jonna is an artist, and they live at opposite ends of a big apartment building, their studios connected by a long attic passageway. They have argued, worked, and laughed together for decades. Yet they’ve never really stopped taking each other by surprise. Fair Play shows us Mari and Jona’s intertwined lives as they watch Fassbinder films and Westerns, critique each other’s work, spend time on a solitary island, travel through the American Southwest, and turn life into nothing less than art. Note: this one is set between Finland and Arizona.
12. Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver, 1990
“Animals dream about the things they do in the day time just like people do. If you want sweet dreams, you’ve got to live a sweet life.” So says Loyd Peregrina, a handsome Apache trainman and latter-day philosopher. But when Codi Noline returns to her hometown, Loyd’s advice is painfully out of her reach. Dreamless and at the end of her rope, Codi comes back to Grace, Arizona to confront her past and face her ailing, distant father.
13. Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko, 1991
In its extraordinary range of character and culture, Almanac of the Dead is fiction on the grand scale. The acclaimed author has undertaken a weaving of ideas and lives, fate and history, passion and conquest in an attempt to re-create the moral history of the Americas, told from the point of view of the conquered, not the conquerors.
14. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, 1993
In this darkly comic short story collection, Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, brilliantly weaves memory, fantasy, and stark realism to paint a complex, grimly ironic portrait of life in and around the Spoke Indian Reservation. These 22 interlinked tales are narrated by characters raised on humiliation and government-issue cheese, and yet are filled with passion and affection, myth and dream.
15. La Maravilla by Alfredo Véa, 1993
“Buckeye Road wasn’t much of a town, just a place where a pocked and pitted road met an invisible street. It was less that unincorporated, it was unknown.” Yet it is here in the desert outside the Phoenix city limits that Alfredo Vea, Jr., finds a world of marvels spilling out of the adobe homes, tar-paper shacks, rusted Cadillacs, and battered trailers that are otherwise known as “Buckeye.”
16. Pigs in Heaven (Greer Family #2) by Barbara Kingsolver, 1993
Six-year-old Turtle Greer witnesses a freak accident at the Hoover Dam during a tour of the Grand Canyon with her guardian, Taylor. Her insistence on what she has seen, and her mother’s belief in her, lead to a man’s dramatic rescue. The mother and adopted daughter duo soon become nationwide heroes – even landing themselves a guest appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show.
17. Desert Heat (Joanna Brady #1) by J.A. Jance, 1993
Life is good for Joanna Brady in the small desert community of Bisbee. She has Jenny, her adored nine-year-old daughter, and solid, honest, and loving husband, Andy, a local lawman who’s running for Sheriff of Cochise County. But her good life explodes when a bullet destroys Andy Brady’s future and leaves him dying beneath the blistering Arizona sun.
18. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, 1996
A gargantuan, mind-altering comedy about the Pursuit of Happiness in America. Set in an addicts’ halfway house and a tennis academy, and featuring the most endearingly screwed-up family to come along in recent fiction, Infinite Jest explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are. Note: only parts of this take place in Arizona, this is also set in Massachusetts.
19. These Is My Words by Nancy E. Turner, 1998
A moving, exciting, and heartfelt American saga inspired by the author’s own family memoirs, these words belong to Sarah Prine, a woman of spirit and fire who forges a full and remarkable existence in a harsh, unfamiliar frontier. Scrupulously recording her steps down the path Providence has set her upon—from child to determined young adult to loving mother—she shares the turbulent events, both joyous and tragic, that molded her, and recalls the enduring love with cavalry officer Captain Jack Elliot that gave her strength and purpose.
20. Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir by Alberto Alvaro Ríos, 1999
Capirotada, Mexican bread pudding, is a mysterious mixture of prunes, peanuts, white bread, raisins, milk, quesadilla cheese, butter, cinnamon and cloves, Old World sugar – “all this” writes Alberto Rios, “and things people will not tell you.” Like its Mexican namesake, this memoir is a rich melange, stirring together Rios’s memories of family, neighbors, friends, and secrets from his youth in the two Nogaleses – in Arizona and through the open gate into Mexico.
21. Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains by Susan Elderkin, 2000
Susan Elderkin’s brilliant Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains explores our places in the lives of our loved ones and in the universe. Theobald Moon lives in a lonely corner of the Arizona desert, tending his spectacular cactus garden, his tiny mobile home, and his astounding appetite.
22. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, 2000
Leo Borlock follows the unspoken rule at Mica Area High School: don’t stand out under any circumstances! Then Stargirl arrives at Mica High and everything changes for Leo and for the entire school. After 15 years of home schooling, Stargirl bursts into tenth grade in an explosion of color and a clatter of ukulele music, enchanting the Mica student body.
23. The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall, 2001
“If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head. As formative events go, nothing else comes close.” With these words Edgar Mint, half-Apache and mostly orphaned, makes his unshakable claim on our attention. In the course of Brady Udall’s high-spirited, inexhaustibly inventive novel, Edgar survives not just this bizarre accident, but a hellish boarding school for Native American orphans, a well-meaning but wildly dysfunctional Mormon foster-family, and the loss of most of the illusions that are supposed to make life bearable.
24. The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea, 2004
The author of “Across the Wire” offers brilliant investigative reporting of what went wrong when, in May 2001, a group of 26 men attempted to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona. Only 12 men came back out.
25. Modern Ranch Living by Mark Jude Poirier, 2004
“Almost too hot. It had cracked 100 the day before, and the old weatherman on channel four, the guy who Joyce had said was the most accurate but heard was a pervert, had said today would be hotter by a few degrees.” The summer heat in Tucson makes some people dry up and some people boil over. In the dusty, gated desert community of Rancho Sin Vacas (Ranch Without Cattle), a handful of residents are finding that neighborhood life is becoming increasingly bizarre among the crumbling swimming pools, overwatered lawns, and disaffected children.
26. Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult, 2005
Delia Hopkins has led a charmed life. Raised in rural New
Hampshire by her widowed father, Andrew, she now has a young daughter, a handsome
fiance, and her own search-and-rescue bloodhound, which she uses to find
missing persons. But as Delia plans her wedding, she is plagued by flashbacks
of a life she can’t recall. Note: this one is set between New Hampshire and Arizona.
27. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, 2005
In the first book of the Twilight Saga, internationally bestselling author Stephenie Meyer introduces Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, a pair of star-crossed lovers whose forbidden relationship ripens against the backdrop of small-town suspicion and a mysterious coven of vampires. This is a love story with bite. Note: Most of this story takes place in Washington State, but some events take place in Phoenix, Arizona.
28. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, 2005
Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and
stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose
Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving
among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic,
brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching
them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Note: this one travels through San Francisco, Nevada, Arizona and West Virginia.
29. Veil of Roses by Laura Fitzgerald, 2007
Tamila Soroush wanted it all. But in the Islamic Republic of Iran, dreams are a dangerous thing for a girl. Knowing they can never come true, Tami abandons them… Until her twenty-fifth birthday, when her parents give her a one-way ticket to America, hoping she will “go and wake up her luck.” If they have their way, Tami will never return to Iran, which means she has three months to find a husband in America. Three months before she’s sent back for good.
30. The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman by Margot Mifflin, 2009
In 1851 Olive Oatman was a thirteen-year old pioneer traveling west toward Zion, with her Mormon family. Within a decade, she was a white Indian with a chin tattoo, caught between cultures. The Blue Tattoo tells the harrowing story of this forgotten heroine of frontier America. Orphaned when her family was brutally killed by Yavapai Indians, Oatman lived as a slave to her captors for a year before being traded to the Mohave, who tattooed her face and raised her as their own.
31. In the Heart of the Canyon by Elisabeth Hyde, 2009
From the author of ‘The Abortionist’s Daughter’, a gripping new novel about a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon that changes the lives of everyone on board. Meet Peter, twenty-seven, single, and looking for a quick hookup; Evelyn, a fifty-year-old Harvard professor; and Ruth and Lloyd, river veterans in their seventies.
32. The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir by Leslie Marmon Silko, 2010
Leslie Marmon Silko’s first book in ten years, combines memoir with family history and reflections on the creatures and beings that command her attention and inform her vision of the world, taking readers along on her daily walks through the arroyos and ledges of the Sonoran desert in Arizona.
33. Sunland by Don Waters, 2013
Sid Dulaney, in his mid-thirties, between jobs and short on funds, has moved back to Tucson to take care of his beloved grandmother. To hold down the cost of her prescriptions, he reluctantly starts smuggling medications over the border. His picaresque misadventures involve the lovable eccentrics at her retirement village, Mexican gang threats, a voluptuous former babysitter, midnight voicemails from his exasperated ex-girlfriend, and, perplexingly, a giraffe.
34. Spider Woman’s Daughter (Leaphorn & Chee #19) by Anne Hillerman, 2013
Legendary tribal sleuths Leaphorn and Chee are back! The supremely talented daughter of New York Times bestselling mystery author Tony Hillerman continues the popular series with this fresh new Navajo Country mystery-her debut novel-filled with captivating lore, startling suspense, bold new characters, vivid color, and rich atmosphere.
35. The Quiet Streets of Winslow by Judy Troy, 2014
When the murdered body of a young woman is found in a river wash in Black Canyon City, Arizona, Deputy Sheriff Sam Rush begins an investigation that leads deeper and deeper into the mystery of her death and the psychological mystery of identity. Nate Aspenall, with whom the young woman had been involved, is forced to confront the facts of her life and his own, and what he may have become with her.
36. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, 2015
In the American Southwest, Nevada, Arizona, and California skirmish for dwindling shares of the Colorado River. Into the fray steps Angel Velasquez, leg-breaker, assassin, and spy. A Las Vegas water knife, Angel “cuts” water for his boss, Catherine Case, ensuring that her luxurious developments can bloom in the desert, so the rich can stay wet while the poor get dust. When rumors of a game-changing water source surface in drought-ravaged Phoenix, it seems California is making a play to monopolize the life-giving flow of the river, and Angel is sent to investigate.
37. The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail by Jason De León, 2015
In his gripping and provocative debut, anthropologist and MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Jason De León sheds light on one of the most pressing political issues of our time—the human consequences of US immigration policy. The Land of Open Graves reveals the suffering and deaths that occur daily in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona as thousands of undocumented migrants attempt to cross the border from Mexico into the United States.
38. The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant, 2015
From the best-selling author of The Tiger and The Golden Spruce, this debut novel is a gripping survival story of a young man trapped, perhaps fatally, during a border crossing. Héctor is trapped. The water truck, sealed to hide its human cargo, has broken down. The coyotes have taken all the passengers’ money for a mechanic and have not returned. Those left behind have no choice but to wait.
39. Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling, 2017
Aven Green loves to tell people that she lost her arms in an alligator wrestling match, or a wildfire in Tanzania, but the truth is she was born without them. And when her parents take a job running Stagecoach Pass, a rundown western theme park in Arizona, Aven moves with them across the country knowing that she’ll have to answer the question over and over again.
40. The Line Becomes A River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú, 2018
For Francisco Cantú, the border is in the blood: his mother, a park ranger and daughter of a Mexican immigrant, raised him in the scrublands of the Southwest. Haunted by the landscape of his youth, Cantú joins the Border Patrol. He and his partners are posted to remote regions crisscrossed by drug routes and smuggling corridors, where they learn to track other humans under blistering sun and through frigid nights. They haul in the dead and deliver to detention those they find alive.
41. Inland by Téa Obreht, 2019
In the lawless, drought-ridden lands of the Arizona Territory in 1893, two extraordinary lives collide. Nora is an unflinching frontierswoman awaiting the return of the men in her life – her husband, who has gone in search of water for the parched household, and her elder sons, who have vanished after an explosive argument. Nora is biding her time with her youngest son, who is convinced that a mysterious beast is stalking the land around their home.
42. The Perfect Fraud by Ellen LaCorte, 2019
Motherhood is tough. But then, so is daughterhood. When we first meet Claire, she’s living in Sedona, Arizona with her boyfriend Cal and ducking calls from her mother. Her mom is a world class psychic on the East Coast and Claire doesn’t want her to discover the truth. Claire works in the family business and calls herself a psychic, but she doesn’t really have ‘the gift’ and hasn’t for a long time. She’s a fraud.
What do you think of these books set in Arizona?
Have some great books set in Arizona that I’ve missed? Are you planning a trip soon? Are you interested in other books set in the United States? I’d love to hear more in the comments below about your travels and tips for books set in Arizona!
Looking for more ideas?
If you’re looking for more books set across the United States, check out some of these popular posts:
- America Reading Challenge: Books Set In Each State
- Books Set In Alabama: Alabama Books
- Books Set In Hawaii: Hawaiian Novels
- American Food Fiction: Books Around America for Food Lovers
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