The best novels with beautifully rendered Midwestern people and places

Annie Spence Author Of Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks
By Annie Spence

Who am I?

As a lifetime Midwesterner, I've found that, just as the richness and beauty of our beloved "flyover states" can be overlooked by the rest of the country, there is a powerful collection of Midwestern novels that don't get the attention they deserve. I once read a passage by a New York writer that described a character as being from “some non-descript Midwestern town.” The Midwest is only non-descript if you’re too lazy to describe it. I kind of like that I can keep the Midwest like a secret. But I’ll share these novels with you. Best enjoyed on the coast of a freshwater lake or in your favorite worn-out easy chair.


I wrote...

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks

By Annie Spence,

Book cover of Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks

What is my book about?

In Dear Fahrenheit 451, librarian Annie Spence has crafted love letters and breakup notes to the iconic and eclectic books she has encountered over the years. From breaking up with The Giving Tree (a dysfunctional relationship book if ever there was one) to her love letter to The Time Traveler’s Wife (a novel less about time travel and more about the life of a marriage, with all of its ups and downs), Spence will make you think of old favorites in a new way. Filled with suggested reading lists, Spence’s take on classic and contemporary books is very much like the best of literature―sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes surprisingly poignant, and filled with universal truths.

The books I picked & why

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The End of Vandalism

By Tom Drury,

Book cover of The End of Vandalism

Why this book?

Tom Drury has been called “the greatest writer you’ve never heard of” and when you discover his work, you’ll feel a thrill similar to the joy of knowing the gems hiding in plain sight throughout the Midwest (Get it? Plain sight?). The End of Vandalism, Drury’s first novel (you could read any of them- they’re all great, but start with this one as the same characters reappear in future books), takes place in a fictional Iowa town and follows the lives of three of its residents, who are involved in a love triangle. Drury writes real, beautiful, complicated, and thoroughly Midwestern characters. Although Grouse County is fictional, it could just as easily be a real place. And if you find you need more Iowa, read Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella (this is my sneaky way of recommending more than 5 books).


Chevy in the Hole

By Kelsey Ronan,

Book cover of Chevy in the Hole

Why this book?

It seems society wants either to willfully ignore Flint, Michigan or hold it up as an example of how wrong things can go. Ronan’s novel, set in Flint and Detroit, before and during the Flint water crisis, tells a fully realized story of this city that has so often been mistreated and misrepresented. The novel tells the love story of August, a man brought back to life from an opioid overdose and Monae, a young urban farmer. Both lovers have ties to Flint and Detroit that go back generations and Ronan expertly weaves stories of these family lines and the impact their history has on August and Monae. When I finished Chevy in the Hole, I found myself thinking of my own family stories in a different light. It’s a book that stays with you long after you put it down.


Song of Solomon

By Toni Morrison,

Book cover of Song of Solomon

Why this book?

You don’t have to choose what you like most about reading when you read Morrison because she has it all. Stirring plots, elegant language, realistic and gorgeously full characters. Song of Solomon, set in a fictional Michigan town, begins with a death but tells the story of the life of Macon Dead III, from the 1930s to the 1960s. It’s been called “The Great American Novel” and it is. It’s hard sometimes for a writer or an avid reader to get the feeling of getting lost in a book because, being so familiar with the structure of a novel and some of the tropes, there’s so much that can take you "out of it." But I got lost in Song of Solomon. I just dove right in and didn’t come up for air until I was finished and I’m so grateful for that feeling.


A Boy of Good Breeding

By Miriam Toews,

Book cover of A Boy of Good Breeding

Why this book?

Toews is a Canadian writer, not Midwestern, but I’m from Michigan and we tend to lump Canada in with us whenever possible. My list, my rules. The book takes place in the adorable town of Algren with heroine Knute and her daughter Summer Feelin’ as well as a cast of other quirky lovable small-town characters. Toews has the ability to write sweet and funny small-town stories without pandering to stereotypical character tropes. Whenever I think of this book, I think of the peaceful feeling it gave me one summer, reading on my porch steps or leaned over my grocery cart in line for checkout, whenever I had two free minutes to read. Toews later fiction is quite a bit darker and she does that well too, but I always love to sink into her earlier works when I want something feel-good.


Dandelion Wine

By Ray Bradbury,

Book cover of Dandelion Wine

Why this book?

This is my favorite book! It is all book genres depending on the chapter. It’s coming-of-age, it’s philosophical, it’s even a scary story sometimes! It’s about growing up and dying and really living in between. If it were a feeling, this book would be putting your bare feet onto soft, sun-warmed grass. The book was written as an ode to Bradbury’s childhood, which was in Illinois in the late 1920s; but, as with all the best summer novels and films, it evokes a timeless feeling. I re-read this book often and find I can just open it up to any chapter and be pulled into a passage that I love. In fact, I want to go read it right now.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in midwest, Michigan, and Illinois?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about midwest, Michigan, and Illinois.

Midwest Explore 17 books about midwest
Michigan Explore 38 books about Michigan
Illinois Explore 63 books about Illinois

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Once and Future King, The Three Mothers, and Salvage the Bones if you like this list.