I’m from the Midwest, and contrary to stereotype, I don’t have a beaming smile, freckles, or the ability to cow tip. But I will say there is something unique about being from the region. When I meet other Midwesterners in my current hometown, New York City, I feel myself drawn closer to them by an indescribable force. They are my people. And these books, written in or about the Midwest, have that same pull. Whether you’re from Missouri or Massachusetts, you’ll be hypnotized.
Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
While not an uplifting collection by any means, Winesburg, Ohio has influenced literary geniuses like Earnest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulker, and Ray Bradbury. The book’s stories, set in the fictional Ohio town of Winesburg (likely a reflection of Anderson’s hometown of Camden), follow protagonist George Willard and a collection of lost, lonely characters. This isn’t just a Midwest story; it is a story of everywhere. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Winesburg, Ohio 24th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
The Devil All The Time, by Donald Ray Pollock
The Midwest might not have a reputation for churning out literature kicks to the stomach, like the South does, but this gritty book stands with the best Gothic tales. The Devil All The Time illustrates the (lesser-known) lawlessness of mid-century Ohio and West Virginia with grotesque and unforgettably bizarre characters (an orphan with a commitment to violently Old Testament-like justice; murderous, vacationing hitchhikers; and a preacher on the lam) who kick the wholesomeness right out of the Midwest with grit and fearlessness.
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
Middlesex is, among other things, a novel about Detroit, Michigan, and an exploration of the isolation of an intersex person living in its suburbs in 1970. Of Middlesex, the Detroit Free Press wrote, “at last Detroit has its novel. What Dublin got from James Joyce—a sprawling, ambitious, loving, exasperated and playful chronicle of all its good and bad parts—Detroit has from native son Eugenides in these 500 pages.” Oprah agreed—she made Middlesex her book club book in 2007.
Little House In The Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
America’s favorite little Midwesterner, Laura Ingalls, shares her Wisconsin world in a book series that provides many young readers with their first glimpse of the Midwest in the 19th century–the prairie, the pioneer life, and the wild. When you hear the terms “serious illness,” “death,” “drought,” and “crop destruction,” you think of wild, wild Wisconsin, right? Thanks, LIW.
O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather
If you’re getting sick of hearing about prairies, you’re reading the wrong book list. In Willa Cather’s first great novel, O Pioneers!, Alexandra Bergson moves to the Nebraska prairie as a young girl and works the land into a prosperous farm. This one little book encapsulates the physical and mental strength it took to make Bergson’s Nebraska, and America.
Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell
The Midwest brought us Laura Ingalls Wilder, but it also brought us Ree Dolly, who lives in the modern-day, impoverished Ozarks. And while I wouldn’t mess with either of these characters, Ree’s toughness instills a different level of fear in me. Her grit is tested when she finds out that her dad has skipped bail on charges he ran a crystal meth lab and her family might lose its home if he doesn’t show for his court date. To get to the bottom of things, Ree has to face the complicated and dangerous infrastructure that is her own family to bring her father home, dead or alive. How many sixteen-year-olds do you know can do that?
Eden Springs, by Laura Kasischke
In her book, which takes place in early-20th century Benton Harbor, Michigan, Kasischke offers a creative interpretation of a real-life, utopian, cult-like community that called themselves the House Of David and built a private village (complete with amusement park and semi-pro baseball team) to await eternal life. Kasischke’s fictional vignettes are woven together with actual photos, legal documents, court testimony, and news clippings, bringing a hard-to-believe story to life in a colorful, explosive way. This is a piece of Midwest history we shouldn’t ignore.
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye tells the story of eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove, an African-American girl who prays her eyes will turn blue so that people will find her beautiful. It’s been more than forty years since this book was written, yet nothing has come close to matching its ability to illustrate racism and its impact on the American beauty myth. And since it takes place in Loraine, Ohio, Morrison’s hometown, we can trust that the story is at least semi-authentically drawn from the atmosphere in the post-Depression Midwest.
Native Son, by Richard Wright
In Native Son, written in 1940, the racial disparity and injustice of 1930s Chicago jumps off the page. Wright’s protagonist murders a wealthy white woman, an incident Wright uses as a jumping-off point to highlight racism as a systemic problem.
Homer Price, by Robert McCloskey
I always remember Homer Price as the rambunctious rascal who let his uncle’s donut machine go wild, spewing out hundreds of rogue donuts, when he was supposed to be watching his uncle’s diner. But that anecdote is only one of six stories. The other five are equally wacky but totally earnest. Set in Centerburg, a small town north of Columbus, Ohio, in the ‘40s, Homer Price offers the same wholesome feel as television’s “Leave It To Beaver.” (Which makes sense–they both take place in Ohio.) James Daugherty said of Homer Price, “It is America laughing at itself with a broad and genial humanity, without bitterness or sourness or sophistication.”
What’s your favorite book that takes place in the Midwest?