5 Must-Read Midwest Books by Mary McNear
Although I’ve lived in San Francisco for the last 20 years, I have deep ties to the Midwest. I grew up in Chicago and Wisconsin and spent my childhood summers at the lake cabin my grandfather built in the northern Midwest. Even now, we still visit this cabin every summer. My parents, my sisters, and all our children arrive in July and August and set off from the dock in old canoes, taking in the tranquil beauty of the lake. We reconnect with old neighbors and friends and visit the variety store, the cafés, and the shops in the nearby town, all of which has been an inspiration for the town in my Butternut Lake series.
But that’s not all that influenced my decision to set my series in the Midwest. Long before I began writing novels, I read books that inspired me to become a writer. Five books that I read before the age of 18 come to mind. They are all set in small towns in the Midwest from the 1850s to the 1950s. In fact, I can’t imagine a list of books set in the Midwest not including these five:
Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is the first book in a series about the author and her family living in the Midwest in the latter half of the 19th century. It is a testament to Wilder’s writing that she effortlessly wove together the more personal story of her childhood family with the prosaic details of farming, hunting, gathering, and food preservation prevalent in rural America at the time. The book follows the family through one year of living in the Wisconsin woods and depicts everything from celebrating Christmas to making maple syrup and cheese. Laura, the spirited heroine of the series, has been the youthful prototype for some of my female characters.
Winesburg Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, is set in the fictional small town of Winesburg, Ohio, and was written in the early years of the 20th century. The book is composed of 22 short stories, each one focusing on a different person in the town, with George Willard as the central character. The inability of people to successfully express to one another their innermost feelings and their ensuing loneliness and isolation is a central theme of the book. Some of the characters simply cannot communicate, and this has a devastating effect on the people closest to them. Although Anderson’s writing is evocative and his style distinctive, the book is not exactly a heartwarming advertisement for small town life! Despair is not an uncommon sentiment in this classic.
Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury, is a collection of short stories woven together with several key reoccurring characters. It is set in the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois, during the late 1950s and explores issues like happiness, aging, generational differences between kids and their parents, history, magic, and even death. I think anyone who spent childhood summers in an idyllic place will find this book resonant. The stories are imbued with the magic and mystery of childhood summers, but they also illustrate how children can see the world in fantastical and imaginative ways.
Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis. Despite what some critics saw as the mean spiritedness of some of the small town characters in this book, the protagonist, Carol Milford, is the radiating center. She is a city girl, suddenly transported to the very provincial town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, where she clashes with the town’s inhabitants. And although she doesn’t succeed in transforming the people of Gopher Prairie into livelier and more generous individuals, she doesn’t lose heart. The novel takes place in the 1910s. I didn’t realize until I was older how progressive this book was for its time, especially in the way it frames the very limited opportunities that were available to women then. Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930.
Homer Price, by Robert McCloskey. I was a kid when I read this book, but what I remember more clearly than anything else is the humor, the sly wit, and Homer’s vivid run-in with an uncontrollable donut-making machine. It all takes place in 1940s American and the drawings have a Norman Rockwell feel. Homer is an industrious, clear-eyed, American boy who gets tangled up in some pretty outrageous events. He catches robbers and exposes a snake oil salesmen, all while doing odd jobs and chores. The fictional town of Centerburg, set somewhere in the Midwest, has a wonderful cast of characters and McCloskey depicts them with warmth and empathy.
What are your favorite books set in the Midwest? Share them in the comments!
Mary McNear is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Moonlight on Butternut Lake, the third book in the Butternut Lake series.
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