The best historical novels set in the Midwest

Who am I?

History and historical fiction are my abiding passions, and as a child of the Missouri Ozarks, I’ve always been drawn to depictions of Midwestern and rural life in particular. I have studied 19th-century utopian communities for many years and have always been fascinated by the powerful appeal of such communities, and the internal dynamics that always seem to arise within them. My novel series follows the rise and decline of one such community, using it as a microcosm for American culture in general. What might seem like a byway of American history is to me a powerful source of insight.


I wrote...

Slant of Light: A Novel of Utopian Dreams and Civil War (The Daybreak Series)

By Steve Wiegenstein,

Book cover of Slant of Light: A Novel of Utopian Dreams and Civil War (The Daybreak Series)

What is my book about?

On the brink of the Civil War, a group of settlers led by James Turner, a charming, impulsive writer, and lecturer, and Charlotte, his down-to-earth bride, create a social experiment deep in the Missouri Ozarks. Inspired by utopian dreams of building a new society, Turner is given a tract of land to found the community of Daybreak: but not everyone involved in the project is a willing partner. Charlotte, confronted with the hardships of rural life, must mature quickly to deal with the challenges of building the community while facing her husband's betrayals. As the war draws ever closer, the utopians find neutrality is not an option. Ultimately, each member of Daybreak must take a stand--both in their political and personal lives.

The books I picked & why

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The Personal History of Rachel DuPree

By Ann Weisgarber,

Book cover of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree

Why this book?

This powerful, unflinching book brought me closer to the homesteading experience in South Dakota than I ever thought possible. Rachel’s struggles as a Black homesteader in 1917 and her fierce devotion to her family echoed with me long after I finished the book, and it was particularly meaningful to read about the complicated racial dynamics of that place and time. Rachel is an unforgettable character, and Weisgarber’s descriptive passages are magnificent.

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree

By Ann Weisgarber,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Personal History of Rachel DuPree as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Soon to be a Major Motion Picture Starring Emmy Award Winner and Oscar Nominee Viola Davis; "An eye-opening look at the little-explored area of a black frontier woman in the American West." --Chicago Sun-Times

Praised by Alice Walker and many other bestselling writers, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is an award-winning debut novel with incredible heart about life on the prairie as it's rarely been seen. Reminiscent of The Color Purple, as well as the frontier novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather, it opens a window on the little-known history of African American homesteaders and gives voice…


Morkan's Quarry

By Steve Yates,

Book cover of Morkan's Quarry

Why this book?

The Civil War west of the Mississippi doesn’t get much attention in historical fiction, but it’s an incredibly rich period, with storylines and characters to fill a hundred books. Morkan’s Quarry is one of my favorites from that period. It’s set in Springfield, Missouri, the site of one of the war’s first major battles. Michael Morkan operates a rock quarry just outside of town, and rock quarries have one product on hand that is highly prized during wartime – gunpowder. Michael and his son Leighton soon learn how thin the veneer of civilization is once a war is underway. The Civil War in Missouri was characterized by day-to-day savagery, private violence, and disrespect for the “rules” of warfare, and Morkan’s Quarry captures that spirit all too well. 

Morkan's Quarry

By Steve Yates,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Morkan's Quarry as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1861, the Civil War severs Michael Morkan from everything he loves and all that defines him--from his son, Leighton; from his love, Cora Slade; and from the quarry he owns in Springfield, Missouri. Forced to give his black powder to the Missouri State Guard, he finds himself indelibly labeled a rebel traitor and is imprisoned in St. Louis. Back in the Ozarks, Leighton joins the Federal Home Guards in hopes of paroling his father. When Leighton finally frees him, the two are pitched in a last gambit for their quarry and for the legacy of the name Morkan.


The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton

By Jane Smiley,

Book cover of The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton

Why this book?

While we’re on the subject of savagery, how about Bleeding Kansas? Smiley’s spirited and intelligent heroine, 20-year-old Lidie Newton, embarks from a comfortable life in Hannibal, Missouri, to Kansas in 1855, driven partly by idealism and partly by a desire to see the world. And see it she does, told in a marvelous first-person style that perfectly mimics the first-person travel/adventure narratives that were so popular in the 19th Century. I loved the narrating voice of this book. 

The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton

By Jane Smiley,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Lidie joins the pioneering Westward migration into America's heartland. It is harsher, more violent and more disorientating then Lidie could ever have imagined. They find themselves on a faultline - forces crash against each other, soon to erupt into the he American Civil War.


The Moonflower Vine

By Jetta Carleton,

Book cover of The Moonflower Vine

Why this book?

Unlike the novels of warfare and suffering, The Moonflower Vine is an intimate portrait of family life, set in 1920s Missouri. It was a bestseller when it was first published in the early 1960s, but has since suffered neglect. But it richly rewards the reader with its heartfelt depiction of three sisters and their aging parents, whose passions, aspirations, and failures are portrayed with complex sensitivity. I don’t think historical novels have to focus on historical events – capturing the spirit of an era is just as important. And this novel took me into rural life of a hundred years ago with great generosity.

The Moonflower Vine

By Jetta Carleton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Moonflower Vine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Wit, emotion and undiminished boldness. . . . This is a book which celebrates life and warms the heart.” —Tulsa World

A timeless American classic, this beloved family saga of the heartland is “deeply felt . . . dramatic . . . constantly alive” (Harper’s Magazine)

On a farm in western Missouri during the first half of the twentieth century, Matthew and Callie Soames create a life for themselves and raise four headstrong daughters. Jessica will break their hearts. Leonie will fall in love with the wrong man. Mary Jo will escape to New York. And wild child Mathy's fate…


The Emigrants: The Emigrant Novels: Book I

By Vilhelm Moberg,

Book cover of The Emigrants: The Emigrant Novels: Book I

Why this book?

If you like your historical fiction to have sweep, this is the series for you! Four novels that take their characters from Sweden to eastern Minnesota in the 1840s, through the Civil War, and onto the cusp of the modern age. Karl-Oscar and Kristina, their children, and their companions undergo incredible hardship as they make the journey and establish their new life in Taylors Falls. It’s the great American emigration story of struggle, achievement, and compromise, just as relevant today as ever. 

The Emigrants: The Emigrant Novels: Book I

By Vilhelm Moberg,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Emigrants as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Considered one of Sweden's greatest 20th-century writers, Vilhelm Moberg created the characters Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson to portray the joys and tragedies of daily life for early Swedish immigrants in America. His consistently faithful depiction of these humble people's lives is a major strength of the Emigrant Novels.

Moberg's extensive research in the papers of Swedish emigrants in archival collections enabled him to incorporate many details of pioneer life. First published between 1949 and 1959 in Swedish, these four books were considered a single work by Moberg, who intended that they be read as documentary novels. These reprint editions…


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Interested in Missouri, South Dakota, and farms?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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