East of Eden, John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s magnum opus relates the struggles, successes and evolution of a family in California’s Salinas Valley between the start of the 20th century and the end of WWI. His characters scramble to improve their futures, and in some cases, to forget their pasts. But as Lee tells Cal near the end of the novel, ”We are all descended from the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers and brawlers, but also the brave and independent and generous. If our ancestors had not been that, they would have stayed in their home plots in the other world and starved over the squeezed-out soil.” If that’s not the epitome of the American idea, we’d like to know what is.