100 Must-Read Books of the American Midwest

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Aram Mrjoian

Staff Writer

Aram Mrjoian is a contributor at Book Riot and the Chicago Review of Books. His reviews and essays have also appeared in Necessary Fiction, The Adroit Journal blog, and The Awesome Mitten. His stories are published or forthcoming in Tahoma Literary Review, Limestone, The Great Lakes Book Project, and others. He is currently working toward his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University, where he is a fiction editor at TriQuarterly. Twitter: @AMrjoian575

Recently, the Midwest lost one of its most prolific and wonderful writers – Jim Harrison. If you haven’t had a chance to read any of his work, I highly encourage picking something up at your local used bookstore whenever you have a chance. He’s a great writer and one of the pioneers of what many people associate with Midwestern literature. His indelible mark on the literary scene in my home state of Michigan is undeniable.

The Midwest produces a spectacular gamut of novelists, poets, essayists, collagists, etc. The region is home to some of the most established creative writing programs in the U.S., as well as a ton of awesome literary journals and quarterlies. The writers included on this list are connected to the region in various ways, some more loosely than others. A couple quick notes:

-Not all of the books included on this list are inherently Midwestern. Many of the authors were born in the region, while others moved to teach there or wrote books that take place there. If something seems out of place, rest assured there’s a connection, even if it’s not transparent.

-My personal reading preferences lean toward fiction and poetry, leading to an under-representation of the Midwest’s fantastic nonfiction writers.

-This is only a miniscule sampling of the Midwest. Sorry if I missed your favorite. Feel free to leave a polite note in the comments.

-I did not include more than two works by any single author, even the ones I love and adore. They’re in alphabetical order by first name and there is no ranking system.

-This list is mainly designed to introduce a wide range of fantastic Midwestern literature rather than focus solely on canonized classics.

-Disclaimer: As a native Michigander and current grad student in Northwestern’s creative writing program, you’ll find slight biases toward authors related to those aspects of myself.

the lazarus projectAleksander Hemon – The Lazarus Project

Alice Fulton – Palladium (Worked at UMich at time of publication)

Alice Randall – The Wind Done Gone

Angela Flournoy – The Turner House (Set in Detroit)

Annie Dillard – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Born in Pittsburgh. I constitute the west half of Pennsylvania as Midwest)

Annie Dillard – For The Time Being

Barack Obama – The Audacity of Hope

Barack Obama – Dreams from My Father

Bonnie Jo Campbell – American Salvage

Bonnie Jo Campbell – Q Road

Carolyn Forche – Blue Hour

Catie Disabato – The Ghost Network

Chad Harbach – The Art of Fielding

if he hollers let him goChester Himes – If He Hollers Let Him Go (Missouri native)

Chester Himes – Blind Man with a Pistol

Chigozie Obioma – The Fishermen (Did his MFA at UMich, also now teaches in the Midwest at U of Nebraska)

David Foster Wallace – Infinite Jest (Professor at Illinois State University at time of publication)

Diane Seuss – Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open

Elizabeth Mccracken – The Giant’s House

Elmore Leonard – Get Shorty

Erik Larson – The Devil in the White City

Ernest Hemingway – The Nick Adams Stories

Ernest Hemingway – In Our Time

Ethan Canin – A Doubter’s Almanac

Eula Biss – On Immunity: An Inoculation

Eula Biss  – Notes From No Man’s Land

Garrison Keillor – Lake Wobegon Days

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl

Gloria Stienem – My Life on the Road

Gwendolyn Brooks – Annie Allen

Gwendolyn Brooks – Maud Martha

Jack Gilbert – Monolithos, Poems 1962 and 1982 (Another Pittsburgh native)

Jane Smiley  – A Thousand Acres

Jeffrey Eugenides – The Virgin Suicides

Jeffrey Eugenides  – Middlesex

Jim Harrison – Legends of the Fall

Jim Harrison – The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand

John Williams – Stoner

Jonathan Franzen – The Corrections

Kali Vanbaale – The Space Between

plainsongKent Haruf – Plainsong

Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five

Langston Hughes – Not Without Laughter

Langston Hughes – The Weary Blues

Laura Ingalls Wilder – Little House on the Prairie

Laura Kasischke – Lilies Without

Laura Kasischke – Eden Springs

Linda Gregerson – Magnetic North

Lorna Beers – Prairie Fire

Louise Erdich – The Plague of Doves

round house paperbackLouise Erdich – The Round House

Mardi Jo Link – Bootstrapper

Margaret Walker – Jubilee

Margaret Walker – For My People

Margo Jefferson – Negroland (Born in Chicago)

Margo Jefferson  – On Michael Jackson

Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping

Marilynne Robinson – Gilead

Mark Twain – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Mark Twain – Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Professor at Macalester College)

Matt Bell – Cataclysm Baby

Matt Bell – In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods

MFK Fisher – Serve It Forth

MFK Fisher – Consider The Oyster

Nam Le – The Boat (Iowa Writers Workshop grad, read the first story in this collection and you’ll see why I counted it as Midwestern, though Le’s stories are set around the world)

Nelson Algren – The Man with the Golden Arm

Nickolas Butler – Shotgun Love Songs

Patricia Hampl – The Florist’s Daughter

Rebecca Makkai – The Hundred-Year House

native sonRichard Wright – Native Son

Robert Hayden – Selected Poems by Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden – Collected Prose: Robert Hayden

Ross Gay – Against Which

Ross Gay – Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

Roxane Gay – An Untamed State

Sandra Cisneros – The House on Mango Street

Sandra Cisneros – Women Hollering Creek and Other Stories

augie marchSaul Bellow – The Adventures of Augie March

Sherwood Anderson – Winesburg, Ohio

Sinclair Lewis – Main Street

Sinclair Lewis – Babbitt

Steve Amick –The Lake, The River, and The Other Lake

Stuart Dybek – The Coast of Chicago

Ted Kooser – Sure Signs

Ted Kooser – Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison

Teju Cole – Open City (Born in Kalamazoo and attended K College)

Teju Cole – Every Day is for The Thief

Theodore Drieser – Sister Carrie

Theodore Roethke – The Waking

Theodore Roethke – On Poetry and Craft: Selected Prose and Craft of Theodore Roethke

Thomas McGuane – Ninety-Two in the Shade

Toni Morrison – The Bluest Eye

Beloved, Toni MorrisonToni Morrison – Beloved

Upton Sinclair – The Jungle

Wallace Stegner – Angle of Repose

Willa Cather – My Antonia

Willa Cather – O Pioneers!

William Gass – The Tunnel

William Gass – Middle C


Editor’s note: for selections where the Midwest connection wasn’t obvious based on the author’s birthplace or setting of the book, I asked the author to add a line of explanation. That’s why some books have those, but most do not.

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