Last Updated on January 4, 2023 by Maggie McKneely
Here are the top 11 books set in the Midwest!
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11 Best Books Set in the Midwest
If I’m not traveling, I’m reading. And when I am traveling, you can bet I’ve got at least a dozen books downloaded on my Kindle just in case I have a few minutes of free time on my trip. While I’ll read anything with words on a page, I really enjoy books that are either about or take place in locations that I’ve been to or am planning a trip to. Having that background information adds to the excitement of any trip.
So I decided to put together a series of posts for all of my fellow bookworms. For this first one, I asked some fellow travel bloggers what books they think people should read traveling to and around the United States’ Midwest region. Much like the region itself, this book list has a little bit of something for everyone – some fascinating historical books, books about hiking, classic American novels, and some modern-day fiction books set in the Midwest. Happy reading, friends!
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
If you are planning to do some Midwest travel and especially if you plan to travel in Missouri, one of the best classic books set in the Midwest is the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri in 1835. As the story goes, he was given his pen name, Mark Twain, by a riverboat captain. Mark Twain wore many hats, including American humorist, novelist, and travel writer. Twain is best remembered as the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer written in 1876 and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn written in 1885. Travelers to the Midwest should read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because Twain is widely considered one of the greatest American writers of all time.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is set in Missouri along the Mississippi River. On its surface, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a story about a boy and a runaway slave running away and floating down the Mississippi River. Dig deeper and you find it’s about friendship, integrity, and loyalty. Another key component of this book is that Twain captures the essence of everyday midwest American English during this period of time.
After reading the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn you may be inspired to visit the Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site in Florida, Missouri where you can visit the cabin where Twain was born. The mission of the museum is to promote awareness and appreciation of the life and works of Mark Twain and to demonstrate the relevance of his stories.
Submitted by: Alexa from Travel in Missouri
Where the Lost Wander
Where the Lost Wander by Amy Harmon is set along the Oregon Trail in 1853. The novel follows a family and others that cross their path on the way to a goal of a better life. Amy Harmon’s books are very well written and bring settings to life with believable characters.
Where the Lost Wander explores many of the hardships of travelers on the Oregon trail including sickness, injury, starvation, and attack. Many in the story do not make it and there are several dark and sad situations. At the heart of the book is a family trying to survive that risks everything to have a better life.
The book is not just about tragedy though; it’s mostly about love. It’s about what people must do at times to survive and what people will sacrifice for the ones that they love. The book also does a wonderful job of explaining how hard this trip was for early travelers. The description of the land and the journey make you feel like you are there.
Since the Oregon Trail crossed many of the Midwestern states, this is one of the best books set in the Midwest. Where the Lost Wander is a wonderful read for anyone that loves a good story and wants to read more about traveling through the heart of the US in pioneer times.
Submitted by: Lori from Fitz5 On the Go
The Round House
The Round House is a novel by Louise Edrich. It takes place in the late 1980s and follows the story of Joe, a 13-year-old boy who is devastated when his mother, Geraldine, is violently attacked. After her attack, Geraldine stays in shock and refuses to tell any details about her aggressor. From this moment, Joe sets out to find his mother’s attacker with the help of his best friends Cappy, Angus, and Zack. The story is set in North Dakota, on an Ojibwe reservation.
In the Round House, the people who live on the reservation struggle between the old ways and traditions of their tribes with the conventions of the modern world. The Midwest is a particularly rich destination for exploring indigenous cultures. I definitely recommend this book to travelers to the Midwest who want to learn more about the Native people, their culture, and the difficulties they constantly face.
The Grapes of Wrath
One of the best book recommendations for books set in the Midwest is The Grapes of Wrath. Perhaps due to its intimidating length (464 pages), or perhaps because so many people are forced to read it (or, more likely, the Clifnotes summary of it) in high school, The Grapes of Wrath has actually become a rather underappreciated book by recent generations.
That’s a shame because this is one school-assigned novel that is really worth a read, especially if you’re planning to do some Midwest travel.
The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, right on the heels of the Great Depression. In this novel, Steinbeck powerfully depicts the impact and upheaval of this time period on people living in the Midwest. The story centers around the Joad family, tenant farmers in Rural Oklahoma who can no longer afford the bank payments on their small farm, which has become a barren wasteland thanks to the Dust Bowl drought.
They, like so many of their neighbors, decide to pack up all of their belongings and make their way across the United States to start anew in California, where they are promised paradise: sunny skies, a warm welcome, and lots of high-paying fruit-picking jobs to be found. If you know anything of American history, you already know that their plan would not go as they hoped.
This book is an excellent way to get a better understanding of the history of the American Midwest in the last century.
Submitted by: Constance from A Well-Read Wanderer
If you’re looking for books set in the Midwest, this is a perfect choice. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson was published in 2004 and has won both a Pulitzer Prize as well as a National Book Critics Circle Award.
The novel focuses on a unique form of narration that resembles a personal journal. The story follows the life of Reverend John Ames. He lives in the town of Gilead, Iowa, which is fictional but meant to resemble local villages in the area. The book is set in 1956 and Ames is a Congregationalist pastor who is deathly ill with a serious heart issue. He writes Gilead for his young son so he can remember him.
This novel is touching and captivating and provides the perfect insight into life in the Midwest in the mid-20th century. Gilead is heartbreaking and you won’t be able to put it down. By the end of the book, you’ll find yourself wanting to visit the town of Gilead even though it doesn’t exist in the real world (so you can visit other towns in Iowa instead!). There is no better way to prepare for Midwest travel than reading one of the Midwest’s best books.
Submitted by: Victoria from Guide Your Travel
Killers of the Flower Moon
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann is a fantastic choice for travelers to the Midwest interested in history, specifically Native American history and the history of law enforcement in the United States, as well as mystery, intrigue, and cold cases.
It takes place in Osage County, Oklahoma in the early 1920s, shortly after huge quantities of oil were discovered on land belonging to the Osage tribe of Native Americans, which made them fabulously wealthy overnight. While the U.S. government ruled that the “headright” profits from the oil did in fact belong to the Osage tribe, they imposed a burdensome system of “custodianship” in order for them to reap the profits.
Essentially, they were forced to appoint a white male “guardian” of the money, who took a hefty portion of the profits (and sometimes all of them.) Shortly thereafter, several Osage men and women began turning up dead, either murdered outright or dying from mysterious causes. The newly-formed FBI comes to investigate, led by former Texas Ranger Tom White.
In early 2021, it was announced that a movie was in the works, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jesse Plemons, and Robert De Niro.
Travelers to the Midwest should read this book because it is crucial for visitors and residents alike to learn more about the Native American experience in the United States and this devastating time known as the “Osage Reign of Terror.” This book offers an intriguing and saddening look into a series of murders and court cases that many people don’t know about. It is well worth a read.
Submitted by: Submitted by Tegan + Alex from Why Not Walk Travel Guides
The Fourth Coast
Is your Midwest travel adventure going to include the Great Lakes? Then The Fourth Coast needs to be on your reading list! The Fourth Coast by Mary Blocksma is the perfect book to read before (or on) a Great Lakes road trip, whether it’s just around Lake Michigan or around all or some of them. Mary starts her solo camping road trip adventure at the St. Lawrence Seaway, making her way 5,000 miles along the North Coast on the American side of the Great Lakes.
In this book, you’ll get to read about her experiences camping along the Great Lakes, hiking in Michigan, visiting small towns dotting their coasts, and meeting friendly locals along the way. It’s perfect for outdoor lovers, especially those that like more soft outdoor adventure, and road trip fanatics. If you want a light travel book that isn’t history heavy, this is a great choice.
Submitted by: Megan from Hey, I’m Reading
The Devil in the White City
The Devil in the White City is a nonfiction book written by Erik Larson in 2003 and is one of the best history books set in the Midwest. It’s set in Chicago, Illinois during the 1893 World’s Fair. It is an interwoven story, telling the history of how Chicago won the World’s Fair over New York. It tells about the planning process, the buildings, gardens and landscaping, as well as key players during the fair. But underneath all that, there is another, more sinister story about a prolific serial killer in Chicago during this time.
While many of the buildings in the Chicago World Fair of 1893 do not exist anymore, this book is an insight into what the city would have looked like. This is one of the main reasons why people went up to Chicago, to see different cultures, beautiful architecture, and exhibitions from other parts of the world. This was the golden age of train travel, with working-class people saving a few weeks’ worth of wages, coming from near and far just to enjoy a day (or more) in the fair.
The book is also an interesting insight into the early days of travel, and why the World’s Fair is still one of the reasons to travel to see and enjoy a new city. It also provides insights into architecture, which Chicago is still famous for today. It is a city with towering buildings yet manicured garden landscapes, a great reason to visit the city.
This book provides a fascinating perspective on Chicago from the 19th century. Chicago is the Midwest’s biggest city, so reading about how it came to be the city it is today is a great way to inspire Midwest travel.
Submitted by: Ruby from A Journey We Love
Chicago: City on the Make
One of the best books set in the Midwest is Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren. This is actually an essay that has the length of a book, but you can consider it as a book. The book was published in 1951. At first, it received a lot of criticism, but nowadays, it is one of the most popular books about the city.
In the book, you can read about 120 years of the city’s history. It tells about the dark sides of the city, such as gangsters, hustlers, and corrupt politicians. It talks about the plight of the city’s downtrodden and looks at important events such as the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. But it is also about why the city of Chicago is such a great place in the Midwest and why so many people love it.
With this book, you know better what the city of Chicago is about, which makes a trip to the city much more exciting! Knowing the background of the city allows you to better enjoy the sights and culture of the city. Also, the instagrammable places in Chicago are much more fun to go to after reading the book.
Submitted by: Dymphe of Dyma Abroad
Thousand-Miler: Adventures Hiking the Ice Age Trail
If you’re a fan of books about walking long distances and thru-hiking, look no further. Thousand-Miler: Adventures Hiking the Ice Age Trail by Melanie Radzicki McManus is the tale of her trek along the 1,100-mile Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin, one of the longest hiking trails in the Midwest. At the end of her hike, McManus became part of the elite group of hikers that have completed the trail: the Thousand Milers.
We get to follow her adventures through Wisconsin’s woods, prairies, wetlands, farms, and bars while she worries about blisters and wildlife encounters and searches for Papa Bear, an elusive fellow hiker. We also get to learn about the trail’s first-ever thru-hiker Jim Staudacher.
This is a great book for those Midwest travelers who love hiking and the outdoors. It’s definitely s a must-read if you’re going to be hiking the Ice Age Trail. Don’t want to actually hike it? Well, this will at least make you feel like you might have.
Submitted by: Megan from Red Around the World
Mornings on Horseback
This is an absolutely must-read if you’ve been to or have plans to visit North Dakota. Mornings on Horseback is historian David McCullough’s phenomenal biography on the early life and career of Theodore Roosevelt, the future 26th president. McCullough is both a thorough historian and an exceptional storyteller, which makes his books both fascinating and engaging. Mornings on Horseback is one of his best.
The book details Teddy’s childhood as a young boy in New York high society, who was crippled by both an extreme case of asthma and an eccentric personality that made him an outsider. It follows him as he grows up and struggles to find his place in the world, and deals with multiple family tragedies.
The last section of the book is about Teddy’s experience in North Dakota as a rancher before he got involved in politics full-time. He talks about the history of Medora, the biggest town in western North Dakota at the time, and the many adventures the young Roosevelt had during his time “out west.” His ranch was located in what is now Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which should be a part of any Midwest roadtrip.
Mornings on Horseback gives a glimpse into life on the Midwestern frontier in the late 1800s, and into the life of a man who was shaped by his experiences spent there. It’s an excellent read to inspire Midwest travel and one of the best biography books set in the Midwest.
Submitted by: Maggie (me!) from Pink Caddy Travelogue
Have you read any of these books set in the Midwest? Do you think any books were left off this list? Let me know in the comments!
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I love the Devil in the White City! Such a well researched book and it reads so well. I definitely learned a lot from it about the city I grew up in 🙂
This is a great post! I love reading books that are linked to the places I travel. When I next travel to these areas I’ll definitely check out some of these books. Thanks for sharing!
A great booklist! I’ve never been to America’s mid-west but I loved reading Huckleberry Fin so perhaps I should go. There’s quite a few books on your list I haven’t read yet but would love to like Gilead! Thanks for sharing
What a great list. Unfortunately I have never been much of a reader, but I loved watching Huckleberry Finn movies when I was a child.
So many great suggestions. I’m putting THE GRAPES OF WRATH on my list of books to read. The only one on the list that I’ve read is Huckleberry Finn. I actually finished reading it when I was staying at a shelter during Hurricane Ivan back in 2004.
It looks like we are doing a road trip west in the fall. So these books might help to inspire our stops through the midwest. Or at least round out our knowledge of the history of some of the areas along our path. Maybe we will even look for some of these as audio books for our travels.
A great selection of books starting with the reminder to reread Huckleberry Finn and The Grapes of Wrath!
I’ve heard of most of these books before but have never read them. This is giving me some inspiration to get back into reading now!
What an awesome idea of a travel book list!!! I’ve never read these so I’ll def have to check some of them out! I grew up in the Midwest
I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read any of these books and I know I should have, even if I never visit the Midwest. I really should get on that, maybe they will inspire me to plan a trip!
I also love reading about a destination before I visit it. I haven’t read any of these books but there are some great options here 🙂
This is exactly what I needed! I have read some of these books, but some I never heard about.. great list, well done! 🙂
Aye Carumba Maggie, you have made me wonder what I have been doing with my life since I have only heard of 3 of these Midwest inspired travel books. Since we just got back from Casper, Wyoming where we learned more about the Oregon trail, I think we may have to check out “Where the Lost Wander” by Amy Harmon next because that definitely seems a bit interesting.
I have heard of The Grapes of Wrath but haven’t read it yet. I’ll make sure to read it before we travel to the Midwest, which I hope we’ll be able to do in a year or two!
There are lots of great options here. I love the Grapes of Wrath. I wish I knew about The Fourth Coast before my Lake Michigan Road Trip.
I actually…haven’t read any of these! And I had no idea so many of the “school classics” (that i clearly didn’t read hahah) were set in the midwest!
I love the Grapes of Wrath. That’s a great suggestion. Have you read Before We Were Yours? That is a great addition to the list as well.
There are a lot of books on this list I hadn’t even heard of! I definitely want to check out Gilead and Where The Lost Wander