Read Harder: A Book Set in the Midwest
The midwest coast is the best coast, y’all. But even beyond the Great Lakes and their various coasts, the middle swath of the United States is a truly beautiful place. What better way to take in that beauty than in a book set in the midwest?
I’ve lived in Illinois my whole life—in the Chicago suburbs, mostly—and fell even more in love with the midwest when I went to college at a school halfway down the state. Miles of corn and soybean fields are soothing road trip companions. Bonus: If the crops were planted at just the right angle, as you drive by, you can see the gaps between each row and marvel at the waves of green. Wind farms are a special surprise, full of giant, majestic power.
For this Read Harder Challenge task, cozy up for some books about what outsiders call flyover country, but many call home.
Books Set in the Midwest
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Shaker Heights, Ohio, is the perfect suburban paradise. Everything was laid out meticulously to make life easier for its residents, and none embodies this tidiness more than Elena Richardson. Things get shaken up when Mia and Pearl Warren, an artist and her teen daughter, appear, renting a house from the Richardsons and finding themselves tangled up with each member of the family. When the Richardsons’ friends adopt a Chinese American baby, Elena and Mia stand ferociously on either side of the custody battle. Celeste Ng masterfully weaves a tale of secrets, motherhood, and art in Little Fires Everywhere.
Jack by Marilynne Robinson
When I picture “book set in the Midwest,” I picture Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels. Jack, the most recent addition, is the love story between two children of ministers—one a prodigal son just released from prison, the other an African American high school teacher. Jack and Della meet in a segregated St. Louis, Missouri, some time after World War II, and their love is a powerful one.
Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes
Mary Brave Bird grew up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Her family’s one-room cabin had no running water or electricity—or father. At school, she was reprimanded for minor things her white peers weren’t. Later, she rebelled against the hopeless nature of reservation life and joined a movement of tribal pride to begin a brighter life for herself. Lakota Woman is a moving memoir about growing up and constantly fighting against racism.
Blankets by Craig Thompson
Bundle up in a cozy blanket for this beautiful graphic novel about growing up in Wisconsin. There’s sibling rivalry, there’s a budding romance, there’s losing of religion. Blankets by Craig Thompson perfect and beautiful and feels exactly like a blustery midwestern winter feels.
You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson
In Campbell, Indiana, prom is the biggest of big deals. Liz Lighty wants nothing more than to get out of her midwestern town. But when her financial aid for college falls through, she realizes what she needs to do: run for prom queen to get that prom court scholarship. There’s a new girl at school, Mack, who is smart and funny and also an outsider—who’s also running for prom queen. Are they going to fall for each other? Duh! You Should See Me in a Crown is a fun YA romance set in the Midwest.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
It’s Michigan in the 1970s and the curious boys across the street are documenting the lives of the five Lisbon sisters. Their parents are strict and the girls are not allowed to leave the yard except to go to school. Over the course of the year, each girl will die by suicide. The Virgin Suicides is a heavy, beautiful novel about being young in the suburbs.
Native Son by Richard Wright
In a moment of panic, Bigger Thomas kills a young white woman. In Chicago in the 1930s, racism runs rampant and it’s assumed Thomas, a Black man, would have ended up in prison at some point anyway. Richard Wright’s novel Native Son is a deep look at poverty and hopelessness in inner cities, told through the eyes of the whip-smart Thomas.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Clutter family was murdered in November 1959 in a small town in Kansas. The four—mom, dad, brother, sister—were killed by shotgun blasts a few inches from their faces. There was no motive and no clues. Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and investigation in this stunning work of true crime. In Cold Blood takes us to the day of the crime and treats the killers with human empathy. It’s a wild ride.
If you love the Midwest as much as I do, or just want to get to know it better, take a peek at our archives for more book lists and literary tourism pieces.