Are Midwesterners Defensive? My Top 8 Midwestern Novels

Are Midwesterners defensive?

We’ve all been there.  The “flyover states” don’t exist for New Yorkers and Californians.  To hear our friends on the coast talk, Midwesterners live in desolate boarded-up beauty parlors side-by-side with truck-driving rednecks armed with crossbows,  or perhaps at that desolate crossroads in the crop-dusting scene in North by Northwest.  A friend in an Eastern city informed me that Midwesterners think nothing of driving hundreds and hundreds of miles to stores or movies.  (She once flew to Chicago; that is the source of her expertise.)  I was astonished: I live in an unusually pretty small city, where commutes are so short that people may drive less than they do elsewhere. And I don’t drive at all: it’s an environmental choice.

I thought about this Midwestern culture gap as I  read an essay in the Literary Hub by Amanda Arnold, “Why Literature and Pop Culture Still Can’t Get the Midwest Right.”

Arnold is defensive about the Midwest, as only a very young person can be, and writes that the region struggles to assert its identity and is misunderstood. And she is concerned about the dearth of Midwestern literature and “a conversation” she would like to have:  she interviewed Mark Athitakis, author of The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt.

Arnold reveals her prickly desire to please in the first paragraph.

When they ask, I tell people that I’m from the Midwest. Indiana, I’ll say with a playful, nasal intonation if badgered further, though I don’t typically expect a follow-up question. Only on the rare occasions when explicitly asked “but what city?” will I offer up my hometown: Fort Wayne, which I describe as a small place where “there’s not too much,” despite it being the second largest city in the state.

It takes time to “own’ your new territory and it does take time to make peace between what you know about a place and what others think they know.  And I do agree that few books are set in the Midwest. I wonder if more pop fiction than literary is set in the Midwest. The inequity doesn’t bother me, and I don’t demand fair representation, but the paucity may account for the disproportionate thrill of reading about any place I recognize.  To narrow it down, my  impression as a lifelong reader is that at least 90% of American novels are set in New York.  (That must be off, no?  Statistics will  doubtless disprove that wild theory.)  Raised on New York literature, I have an entirely imaginary vision of the glittering city I haven’t visited in decades.  My New York is based on the books of Tess Slesinger, Dorothy Parker, Jonathan Lethem, Erica Jong, Sue Kaufman, Philip Roth,  John Updike, Dawn Powell, Paula Fox, and more.

There is some excellent Midwestern literature, though

Here is my Top 8 List of Midwestern Novels.

1 Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1924

Set in Iowa during and after the Civil War, this compelling novel has both a protofeminist theme and a philosophical bent. It centers on a family secret.

Wully McLaughlin, a Civil War soldier at home on leave, is anxious and ill when he meets Chirstie McNair, the beautiful daughter of a parsimonious neighboring farmer. With someone to love and fight for, Wully faces the terrors of war again, but when he returns for good, something has happened. Chirstie will barely look at him and even threatens him with a gun. The secret is that Chirstie has been raped.  The novel is about what they do about it, and how they heal.

2 Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (1983), winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award NS Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize

First, let me say that Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is magnificent. Set on an Ohio farm in the 1950s, it tells the story of three generations of women: Gram, also referred to as the Queen of Persia, is a sharp, often rude, old woman who rose from poverty and purchased the farm when an uncle took an interest in her and gave her money. Gram has had a hard life: she scorns her alcoholic husband. After she does her housework, she dismisses the demands of family and goes out with her friends to the races or Bingo. The women dominate: Gram and her five daughters and four granddaughters are the stars.

You can read the rest of my post here.

3. Marge Piercy’s Braided Lives (1982)

Piercy, a feminist poet and novelist, is a bold, inventive storyteller whose fast-paced work appeals to a wide range of women readers.  In Braided Lives, set in Detroit, Ann Arbor, and New York, Piercy tells the story of Jill, a successful poet and radical abortion rights activist who, having survived the age at which her palm-reading mother predicted she would die, is looking back at her younger self….

As young women at the University of Michigan in the 1950s, Jill and her friends must confront the demands of school, work, and sex, and the expectation that they will receive their “Mrs.” degree. This earthy novel is reminiscent of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, a sexually explicit novel about eight Vassar graduates in the ’30s. But unlike The Group, Braided Lives describes the lives of working-class students.

You can read the rest of the post here.

4. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin (1991)

Pamela Dean’s novel Tam Lin, set at a small college in Minnesota in the ’70s, is a whimsical chronicle of an undergraduate education. Part college novel, part offbeat fantasy, it is A Midsummer Night’s Dream crossed with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History–with a dash of the ballad Tam Lin.  One of my favorite books.

You can read the rest of the post here.

5.  Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart

I love this novel partly because of the lyrical prose, and partly because it describes the struggles of a young woman to transcend the narrowness of a small Midwestern town through music.

Divided into three parts, the novel vividly chronicles the brief life of Lucy, a graceful young woman and piano student who suffers a terrible loss and then is lost herself. The first-person plural narrator of the opening chapter tells us that Lucy is dead and still missed, remembered by the people of her hometown, Haverford, Nebraska, “as a slight figure always in motion, dancing or skating, or walking swiftly with intense direction, like a bird flying home.” But this narrator, describing her absences from Nebraska, doesn’t quite see her as the ardent young woman she is.

You can read the rest of the post here.

 6. Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons won the Pulitzer in 1919.

The Magnificent Ambersons is a small masterpiece. It’s not so much the style, which is very plain, as the development of the parallel themes of the decline of a wealthy family who dominated a midwestern town with the rise of the automobile and urban sprawl. It very radically connects the popularity of the car to the desertion of once wealthy neighborhoods in the inner city.

You can read the rest of the post here.

7. Martha Bergland’s A Farm under a Lake

I absolutely loved this book and plan to reread it soon.  From Goodreads:  “Home health care nurse Janet Hawn agrees to drive her latest client, a silent Alzheimer’s patient named May, from Green Bay, Wisconsin to her daughter’s house in northern Illinois. Janet and her husband Jack, an out-of-work salesman, grew up on neighboring farms in Illinois, and on the long drive through familiar territory, Janet reflects back on her childhood and courtship and tries to figure out where her life took a wrong turn.

8. Louise Erdrich’s A Plague of Doves.

Exquisite linked stories depict the lives of generations of several families affected by a racist lynching of Native Americans who have been blamed for the murder of a white family near the Obijwe Reservation in North Dakota in 1911. Laced with magic realism and poetic dexterity, the tales are gorgeous to read; Erdrich jumps back and forth in time. The novel begins with a short sketch, a kind of prologue, “Solo,” a bleak description of the crime, shocking and puzzling us for several chapters.

Read the rest here.

And do let me know your favorite Midwestern books.  I have so many!

16 thoughts on “Are Midwesterners Defensive? My Top 8 Midwestern Novels

  1. Don’t forget what I call “negative Midwest” like Main Street and Babbitt. I grew up in Cincinnati , Ohio and know whereof you speak with regard to attitudes toward the Midwest. I once asked a group I was speaking with if any of them had been west of Pennsylvania (on the ground, not flying over). None had.

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    • Lewis is satirical, but I do love Main Street. (I allow him his satire because he lived here.) But, yes, there is a lot of negativity towards the Midwest. People do think we live in Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

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  2. As you know, I never tire of recommending Tam Lin and its magical version of my alma mater. As a left-coaster who often got funny looks when I described actually CHOOSING to attend a midwestern college, I can attest to the flyover phenomenon.

    Willa Cather’s books are all so wonderful, though I haven’t read Lucy Gayheart — must do that. I”m also fond of Thornton Wilder, and his novels The Eighth Day and Heaven’s My Destination. And of course there’s American Gods by Neil Gaiman, with its memorable scenes in a “perfect” midwestern town.

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    • Lory, I have long wanted to read American Gods. And there’s a new Folio Society edition of it: I will have to look at the price. (There are always paperbacks.)

      Yes, it drives people crazy if you go to the Midwest from the East. I can well imagine that conversation!

      I do love Cather. It’s hard to pick any one book by her.

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  3. Born and raised in Indiana, but long since gone to Northern California, I still essentially consider myself a Midwesterner (and with pride). I agree, there seems to be a general misperception of what the Midwest is. The Midwest is truly amazing in its diversity, history and beauty and populated with many wonderful people who didn’t choose to move to one of the coasts.

    Of the books you list, I’ve only read Lucy Gayheart, which is beautiful, and Plague of Doves, also outstanding. I’m ashamed that I haven’t read Booth Tarkington, a fellow Hoosier.

    I would recommend: all of Wendell Berry’s Port William fiction (set in Kentucky), nearly anything by Willa Cather and Louise Erdrich, and Jessamyn West (specifically The Friendly Persuasion and Except for Me and Thee).

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  4. As a fellow Midwesterner, I must say this is a good list. ‘During the Reign of the Queen of Persia’ by Joan Chase remains one of my favorites. I have also read a lot of Louise Erdrich but not ‘A Plague of Doves’
    I am going to mention a Midwestern writer you may or may not have heard of, but whose novels have been wonderful for me. His name is Jon Hassler He was from Minnesota; he died nine years ago. One of my favorites of his is ‘Grand Opening’ which was about running a grocery store in a small Minnesota town. He also had a novel called ‘The Love Hunter’ which got me hooked on his novels.
    I might also mention ‘The Book of Ruth’ by Jane Hamilton and everything by your own Marilynne Robinson.

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  5. Pingback: More Midwestern Lit – mirabile dictu

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