The best books about Missouri

9 authors have picked their favorite books about Missouri and why they recommend each book.

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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

This is a historical saga, but it becomes a crime novel because of what its highly articulate 20-year-old heroine Lidie must deal with in 1850s bleeding Kansas, when she goes on the hunt for her abolitionist husband’s murderer. Back country America can sometimes be a place most torn apart by historical change, with the quarter-century ravaging of Missouri and Kansas over the conflict of slavery. I especially love Smiley’s realism of place—the intimate, vivid detail of pre-Civil War river travel, St. Louis, Kansas City, and finally Bleeding Kansas. She never avoids contradiction. By allowing the paradoxes of history and place, as well as character, she can sometimes be shocking. No one is either purely good or bad, not the Free Staters, not the Border Ruffians. It is a fantastically real story set at a key historical moment in the heart of the country. 


Who am I?

One of my first vivid memories, growing up in Fort Smith, across the river from Oklahoma, is standing with my kindergarten class looking at Belle Starr’s sidesaddle and derringer and being both puzzled and intrigued by the museum lady volunteer’s apparent pride in this outlaw. Weren’t outlaws the “bad guys”? My hometown, being on the border of “lawless” Indian Territory, was just one example of the border nature of this whole nation. We were the nation where self-creation, often lawless and chaotic, was a point of fascination. That museum lady’s admiration of a lawless, self-defining woman was quite natural, as I believe is my ongoing fascination with the dark secrets hidden in the history of localities.

I wrote...

The Freshour Cylinders

By Speer Morgan,

Book cover of The Freshour Cylinders

What is my book about?

This suspenseful literary mystery takes us back to the historical events surrounding the mid-1930s discovery of the Spiro Mound, the most important pre-Columbian temple mound ever found in North America.  Weaving history with a compelling story of murder and greed, Morgan gives us an engrossing, sexy, and suspenseful read. 

The Freshour Cylinders won the American Book Award and Foreword Magazine’s Silver Award for Fiction.

The Broken Heart of America

By Walter Johnson,

Book cover of The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States

Beginning with the uprising in Ferguson over the police shooting of Michel Brown, which helped catalyze the national Black Lives Matter movement, a long and disheartening narrative unfolds of redlining and urban renewal, persistent racism, support of slavery, Indian removal, and other exploitive acts in support of “manifest destiny.” Not an easy or uplifting read, but an essential one: a reminder of a city’s parallel history, a city also justifiably proud of its 19th-century growth and prosperity, as a haven for immigrants, progressive labor movements, the fulcrum of Mississippi River trade, and as the gateway to the settlement of the West.  


Who am I?

My interest in the topic of these books has grown across four decades of teaching about cities and urban planning at Harvard, and in active practice as an architect and urban designer. At any moment a city’s very physicality reflects both a culture’s aspirations and the limitations of that culture to achieve those aspirations. Cities are, in a way, compromises in time: among efforts to preserve a past, overcome the challenges of the present, and pursuit of plans for the future. My book focuses on the role of American ideals especially in city and community building, while the five I recommend offer crucial counterpoints about the difficulties and setbacks encountered in reaching for national ideals.  

I wrote...

City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present

By Alex Krieger,

Book cover of City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present

What is my book about?

The book portrays the American inclination to experiment with forms of settlement, evident in both utopian and pragmatic efforts at reconceiving how and in what shape our towns, cities, and urban regions should grow. Such aspirational approaches to community and city-building have served as a parallel to the political efforts to establish a republic dedicated to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As post-revolutionary America expanded the frontiers of social and political institutions, the reevaluation of old-world institutions and traditions also extended to pondering how better to gather spatially in communities. 

Each of the chapters explores an effort, cultural trend, or belief about what makes a good neighborhood, a better town, a more humane city, and about some of the consequences of proceeding to build such places. 

Tending Roses

By Lisa Wingate,

Book cover of Tending Roses

When I read this book several years ago, I was just starting out in my writing career, and I remember thinking, If only someday I could write like this! Lisa Wingate has a beautiful way of eliciting emotion and empathy, of creating scenes and situations so true-to-life that she never fails to draw me in. Like all her books, Tending Roses takes a deeply honest look at human relationships—the good, the bad, and the in-between—and always with an underlying current of faith. Kate’s situation may be different from my own, but I could still relate to her feelings and struggles, her questions and doubts. That resonance—that connection—is what makes any story memorable.


Who am I?

I’m a native of Texas who loves bluebonnets, big skies, and barbecue! With 25+ books in print, I write about imperfect characters who discover their inner strength as they lean on God and learn to trust each other and themselves. I’m fascinated by the dynamics of personalities and relationships, as well as the backstories that made the individuals who they are now. If you’re looking for stories of true-to-life characters growing deeper in faith while dealing with all the messiness human relationships entail, here are some novels you may enjoy.


I wrote...

The Soft Whisper of Roses

By Myra Johnson,

Book cover of The Soft Whisper of Roses

What is my book about?

Six months into her marriage, Rebecca Townsend already doubts Gary’s promise of “till death do us part.” Betrayed by her first husband, she wants to get it right this time. But when her new husband’s unresolved family issues resurface, she’s afraid she and her son will be abandoned once again.

Just when Gary thought he’d found happiness with a woman who truly understood him, the death of his first wife blindsides him with grief and guilt. How can he possibly live up to his new wife’s expectations while fitting his resentful teenage daughter into the mix? A radical plan conceived by Gary’s ex-wife before her death risks tearing them all apart…or will it finally bring them together as the family God meant them to be?

Death in Lover's Lane

By Carolyn Hart,

Book cover of Death in Lover's Lane: A Henrie O Mystery

One of the best Henrie O novels, I love it that this takes place within the hallowed halls of the academia at the fictitious Thorndyke University, where the sixty-something journalism professor-turned sleuth encourages an ambitious student to dig up the dirt on three unsolved local crimes. Of course, the student gets killed, and against the wishes of the police and the powers-that-be Henrie O gets involved, dredging up a past everyone wants to keep buried. I now realize that not knowingly, but at a subconscious level, this novel inspired me to write mine!


Who am I?

Being an immigrant from India, a culture that places family values above all else, I am drawn to books that explore family conflicts, secrets, and the triumph of love against all odds. When an author incorporates these themes into a mystery, the book becomes more than a simple formulaic whodunnit story that educates me about the complexities of our lives.


I wrote...

Dharma: A Rekha Rao Mystery

By Vee Kumari,

Book cover of Dharma: A Rekha Rao Mystery

What is my book about?

Rekha Rao, an Indian American professor of Art History, propelled by her sense of duty, dharma, sets out to find the killer of her mentor and father figure. She walks a thin line between her match-making family and the Homicide Detective she is attracted to, but also distrusts. Her genuine concern for others allows her to connect with them and learn hidden secrets. Despite suffering bodily harm following a break-in of her home, Rekha tracks down the killer and, in that process, tastes the prospect of an unexpected romance, and discovers her true calling.

The Land of Laughs

By Jonathan Carroll,

Book cover of The Land of Laughs

I defy any reader not to fall in love with The Land of Laughs. Tom Abbey and ‘spirited girlfriend’ Saxony Gardner head to the small Midwestern town where children’s author Marshall France once lived and wrote, with the aim of persuading France’s daughter to approve a biography. They come to realise that the town has a personality that’s unlike any other, as much the author’s creation as his adopted home. Warm, surprising, funny, scary; if, like me, you were ever captivated in childhood by a favourite writer’s imagined world and wish you could go there again, then this is the book for your adult self.


Who am I?

They say that we begin by imitating what we love and find our personal themes in the process, and that’s certainly been true for me. I grew up reading horror and fantasy and now I write realistic fiction with something deeper and darker always throbbing under the surface. My subjects can be contemporary, like Nightmare, with Angel or The Spirit Box, but I’ve had some of my biggest critical successes with historical fiction. I’ve had parallel career paths in books and TV, each often crossing with the other, but it’s in the novels and short stories that you’ll find me uniquely invested.


I wrote...

The Bedlam Detective

By Stephen Gallagher,

Book cover of The Bedlam Detective

What is my book about?

It's 1912 and Sebastian Becker, Special Investigator to the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy, arrives in the West Country to interview Sir Owain Lancaster on his run-down country estate. Descending from his train in the coastal town of Arnmouth, Becker finds the entire community mobilised in a search for a pair of missing girls.

Sir Owain is one of only two survivors of a self-funded Amazonian expedition which saw his entire party wiped out, wife and child included. His explanation for that tragedy was a nightmarish fantasy of lost-world monsters and mythical beasts. The questions that face Sebastian: what really happened then, and how dangerous is this man now? A Kirkus 100 Best Books of the Year pick.

The Ozarks

By Vance Randolph,

Book cover of The Ozarks: An American Survival of Primitive Society

It is doubtful that anyone has been more associated with an American region than Vance Randolph is with the Ozarks. Ornery and darkly romantic, Randolph was always attracted to people on the margins. Few were more marginal than the Ozarkers in the early twentieth century. While we must take a lot of Randolph’s “nonfiction” with a dose of salt, The Ozarks, originally published in 1931, was the first book-length documentary take on the region and its people. It set the stage for generations of Ozarks observations to come. 


Who am I?

I can’t say that I was even conscious of having grown up in the Ozarks until stumbling upon a regional geography book in college. Once I learned that the rural community of my childhood was part of a hill country stretching from the outskirts of St. Louis into the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, I dedicated my life’s work to explaining (and demystifying) the Ozarkers – a people not quite southern, not quite midwestern, and not quite western.


I wrote...

A History of the Ozarks, Vol. 1: The Old Ozarks

By Brooks Blevins,

Book cover of A History of the Ozarks, Vol. 1: The Old Ozarks

What is my book about?

The Ozarks reflect the epic of the American people—natives and would-be colonial conquerors, the determined settlers and on-the-make speculators, the endless labors of hardscrabble farmers, and capitalism of visionary entrepreneurs. The Old Ozarks is the first volume of a monumental three-part history of the region. 

Brooks Blevins charts how these highlands of granite, dolomite, and limestone came to exist. From there he turns to the motivations behind the eagerness of many peoples to possess the Ozarks. Blevins places these settlers within the context of broader American history. But he also tells the varied and colorful human stories that fill the region's storied past—and contribute to the powerful myths that even today distort our views of the Ozarks. A sweeping history in the grand tradition, A History of the Ozarks, Volume 1: The Old Ozarks is essential reading for anyone who cares about the highland heart of America.

In Broad Daylight

By Harry N. MacLean,

Book cover of In Broad Daylight: A murder in Skidmore, Missouri

This isn't a novel but a true crime narrative, a depiction of a man named Ken McElroy gunned down on the main street of a small Missouri town in, well, broad daylight. No witnesses. No suspects. Well, the whole town, the whole county, are suspects. This guy raped very young girls then got them to marry him, shot people, stole cattle and equipment, burned down houses. This book was a jolt to me because my wife is from that area, an area I, a man who's spent most of my life in urban areas, had always thought bucolic, filled with amiable, honest, peaceful people. I started looking at the natives in a different light after this. And, not to freak anybody out here, chances are pretty good there’s been a terrible crime, if you’re lucky an unsolved one, committed not very far at all from where you are right now.


Who am I?

I’m the author of the Peter Pike private eye series. Pike regularly tangles with psychos; you can’t have crime novels without them. Why? People love psychos. Psychos horrify and fascinate us. Do we wish we could be them? Maybe. The best psychos are outwardly lovable and charming and get whatever they want, making you laugh and shudder at the same time. Wish fulfillment? Fantasy? Subconscious longings? Again, maybe. I know such fiction lets you dive deeply into what’s now called transgressive territory without consequences. Does fiction get any better than that?


I wrote...

Peter Pike and the Revenge of the Romanovs

By Neal W. Fandek,

Book cover of Peter Pike and the Revenge of the Romanovs

What is my book about?

Fabergé eggs. So small, so perfect, so golden, so priceless. So deadly.

Private eye Peter Pike and his sleuth-librarian fiancée Greta learn just how deadly when the Third Imperial Egg turns up in the Mississippi River town of Punica, Mo. Now it’s up to Pike and Greta to find the egg before a modern-day Rasputin, the actor Robert DeXero, a psycho cop, a shady college president and the Russian mob turn their world inside out. As the body count builds, Pike and Greta must find a way to keep their love alive – and stay alive. Based on true events: the Third Imperial Egg was lost after the Russian Revolution and only surfaced ten years ago in a Midwestern junk shop.

Sharp Objects

By Gillian Flynn,

Book cover of Sharp Objects

In Ember Natalie is let down by her father. She is forced to be the adult and raise her siblings. She has a tough childhood, or in her own words ‘never had one.’ Many people are not sympathetic to this but it is tough when you were never loved nor cared for as a child. Anyway, to take this to the extreme: Sharp Objects. I was intrigued by the mother in Sharp Objects and how Camille’s life has been affected by her mother. 

Sharp Objects has a lot to say about the parent's relationship with their child and how delving back into your childhood can be a dangerous and harrowing thing. It is such a brave and well-written book.


Who am I?

I have always been fascinated by people and I love stories. All we are is who we are to each other. Our childhoods are such a formative time and they echo into our future. We never really leave them behind. If we have a childhood wound we have to fix it. Childhood trauma and recovering from it is such a fascinating topic. Psychology has always intrigued me. We can suppress memories and then, boom!, they hit us and we have to deal with the fallout. I have read so many books on the topic and I look forward to reading more in the future. 


I wrote...

Ember

By Catherine Yardley,

Book cover of Ember

What is my book about?

Ember is a novel about how our childhood stays with us throughout our lives. We can go through our lives thinking it's not affecting us but sometimes it stays below the surface. Natalie’s life spins out of control when her younger sister gets married before her and announces her pregnancy at the wedding dress fitting. Their father walked out on them when they were children and now he is coming to the wedding. 

Ember is a love story set against a backdrop of family drama and toxic family members. Our childhood trauma never really leaves us. What's important is how we deal with it and move on. If you don’t heal your wounds you bleed over people who never cut you. That is what Natalie has to learn in Ember

The Moonflower Vine

By Jetta Carleton,

Book cover of The Moonflower Vine

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.


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 Boneshaker

By Kate Milford, Andrea Offermann (illustrator),

Book cover of The Boneshaker

Thirteen-year-old Natalie Minks loves to tinker and is fascinated when a traveling show comes to town with a mysterious contraption hidden under a tarp. But something is wrong with the show and its healer, Jake Limberleg. Natalie realizes for the sake of her town, she is the one who must discover the truth and finally set things right.

Like my book, Miraculous, The Boneshaker is centered on a traveling medicine show. The story is mysterious and atmospheric — two of my favorite things. I loved how the town’s past informed its present. Most of all, I loved Natalie’s bravery.


Who am I?

I write books to make sense of the world  — this gloriously weird, sometimes heartbreaking, marvelous place we call home. Years ago, while visiting a museum in St. Louis, I heard a woman give a talk on charlatans (people who intentionally deceive others for their personal gain). It sparked a number of questions in me: Why do we believe the things that we do? What might we be willing to try to change our circumstances? Exploring these ideas was the starting point for my book, Miraculous, and its mysterious stranger, Dr. Kingsbury. I hope the stories you read in these pages fill you wonder as they did me.


I wrote...

Miraculous

By Caroline Starr Rose,

Book cover of Miraculous

What is my book about?

Thirteen-year-old Jack knows what cured his baby sister when his family thought she might never get well—Dr. Kingsbury’s “Miraculous Tonic.” Dr. Kingsbury’s potion can cure everything from pimples to hearing loss to a broken heart, and Jack himself is a witness to the miraculous results and the doctor’s kindness. When Dr. Kingsbury and Jack arrive in Oakdale, the town at first feels like any other they’ve been to. But it’s clear Oakdale is a town with secrets, and its citizens are slow to trust strangers. 

Then Jack meets Cora, and a friendship neither expected starts to bloom. Together they uncover something else they didn’t expect. As they race to discover the truth, they’ll have to decide who and what to believe before it’s too late.

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