The best historical novels set in the Midwest

The Books I Picked & Why

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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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