The small towns and rural landscape of the Midwest (though urban zones such as Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, etc. do exist) don’t get a lot of coverage for their societal struggles or forward-thinking. No, this region is most often referred to as the “fly-over states.” These works – some fiction, some not – prop themselves against that outlook and demand to be noticed for their uniqueness and diversity.
Region Three: The Midwest
Okay, so this book covers much more than just the Midwest, but due to his childhood in Des Moines, Iowa and the memories made there that influence his other observations, it felt like it could easily belong here. The work explores the U.S. by way of lesser-known destinations in an attempt to expose the “real” America through humor and simple observations instead of facts and figures.
The play centers on a black family in Chicago whose members each desire a “better” life – though most times they don’t agree on what exactly that means. Walter wishes for the American dream and dismisses his heritage for the likes of George Murchison’s outlook. This struggle between assimilation and heritage creates both the inner and outer conflicts for much of the play. Societal prejudices enhance the conflict and make the final decision that much more important.
Mark Twain’s memoir as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River explores the towns and cities from St. Louis to New Orleans both pre- and post- Civil War. It begins when he was first introduced to steamboating and his appreciation for navigation and then continues through his many trips. He reminisces about the old twons and the newer, bigger cities as well as the railroads and the competition between both modes of transportation that ensued. He also observes the greed and new style of architecture within the cities while weaving in his own stories, some true and some a little less so.
This coming-of-age autobiography follows Wright from his childhood in the South, where he never felt quite like he belonged and where he struggled at the hands of both the men in his life and society at large, to his adulthood in Chicago. He documents his hunger for life, humanity, and various ideals such as unity, equality, and tolerance both within the Communist party and outside of it when he decides to abandon it.
Esperanza tells a year’s worth of her story in a series of vignettes, each unresolved and out of order, as she grows up in a poor Latino neighborhood in Chicago. She wants to escape her neighborhood to find that elusive better life, but she promises (strongly, and repeatedly) to go back for the ones she must leave behind.
This true crime novel examines the murders of Herbert Clutter, his wife, and two of their children in Kansas by two parolees who were caught six weeks after the grisly crime. The relationship between the two killers is explored along with the details and scenes leading up to the crime itself. Capote claimed it as entirely factual, however, there is still some debate as to how much of the dialogue and scenes Capote fabricated to suit his story and version of events.
This young adult story between its titular characters – biracial Park and redheaded, overweight Eleanor – explores issues of racism, abuse, body image, teenage love, and bullying. Its setting in Omaha, Nebraska, makes various issues, especially those concerning race, that much more glaring.
The death of a biracial girl in a small town in Ohio (kind of the Northeast, but here it is) forms a familiar plotline with a not-so-familiar undertow of familial obligations, racial bias, and the aspect of never quite knowing those closest to you – or perhaps even yourself.
The story moves between Depression-era, rural Minnesota and contemporary Maine as it recounts the lives of an elderly woman and an adolescent orphan. It spends most of its time in Minnesota (describing frozen winters and sweltering summers) as it digs into the past of Vivian before and after she was adopted from the orphan train. A relationship between the two women forms as they realize just how much they have in common – good, bad, and inconsequential.
Morrison covers a year in the life of Pecola, a young black foster child, whose resentment of her own skin color and non-blue eyes combined with her rough upbringing and rape by her father leads her to lose her sanity. It’s a unique study on how not just society at large or even yourself, but a neighborhood, can use you (another character laments this fact after the insanity sets in).
This fictional autobiography of Rev. John Ames illustrates the lives of himself, his father, and his grandfather in the terms he wishes his son to understand. Driven to write his memories by his terminal illness, he crosses the complicated histories of the Civil War, abolition, religion, violence, shame, and pride within his family in unhindered words that never cause you to question his motives. Ames’s life began and will end in a secluded town in Iowa and it plays as much of a role in his memories as the other characters.
This coming-of-age novel centers on Cal, an intersex man who must come to terms with his gender identity, and his family as they assimilate into American life in Detroit. The depiction of Detroit as well as the mental, physical, and emotional impacts of being intersex on Cal’s life are detailed in a manner that have been lauded since its publication.
A summer in North Dakota includes a small town disguised as a Western-style tourist attraction, a generic version of what it used to look like. The illustrated novel serves as a coming-of-age in your twenties example as it follows an artist, Oliver, after he comes home for a summer after being away at grad school. It’s here that he “finds himself” as he comes into contact with various customers at the local Badlands Saloon.
– M. Ray Hall