Share 12 Gripping, Heartfelt, and Powerful Novels That Take Place in the American Midwest

12 Gripping, Heartfelt, and Powerful Novels That Take Place in the American Midwest

Kelsey Radomski writes for Branch & Bramble. She is a big fan of memoirs and music reviews. Follow her on Twitter at @kelseyradom to learn about upcoming literary events or concerts in the NYC metro area.

The Midwest has its own special kind of magic. The rural small towns dotted all along the rural landscape run rampant with gossip (especially when you can watch your neighbor from your kitchen window!) and nostalgia. If you’re daydreaming about drives down the county line roads and being able to see the stars at night, check out these 12 titles where small towns in the Midwest hold big secrets.


A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl
by Jean Thompson

Evelyn, Laura, and Grace are the glue that binds their family together. Tethered to their small Midwestern town and set three generations apart, we follow these women through social slights, heartbreaks, marital disappointments, infidelity, familial dysfunction, and mortality. A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl spans from World War II to the present, featuring women who regress, stall, and evolve over decades as they attempt to answer the burning question, “Can a woman serve her family and truly be free?”

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A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl
Jean Thompson

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The Round House
by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich transports readers to the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota to tell the story of a boy on the cusp of manhood who seeks justice and understanding in the wake of a terrible crime that upends and forever transforms his family. It is a powerful coming-of-age story, a mystery, and a moving novel of family, history, and culture.

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The Round House
Louise Erdrich

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The Women of the Copper Country
by Mary Doria Russell

Twenty-five-year-old Annie Clements spends the summer of 1913 the same way most women do in Calumet, Michigan: Sending their husbands and sons deep underground into dark coal mines each day while working in the homes of the elite, barely surviving off low wages. However, Annie quickly learns sticking up for herself and the town has mammoth consequences. In Annie’s hands lie the miners’ fortunes and their health, her husband’s wrath over her growing independence, and her own reputation as she faces the threat of prison and discovers a forbidden love. On her fierce quest for justice, Annie will discover just how much she is willing to sacrifice for her own independence and the families of Calumet.

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The Women of the Copper Country
Mary Doria Russell

From the bestselling and award-winning author of The Sparrow comes “historical fiction that feels uncomfortably relevant today” (Kirkus Reviews) about “America’s Joan of Arc”—the courageous woman who started a rebellion by leading a strike against the largest copper mining company in the world.

In July 1913, twenty-five-year-old Annie Clements has seen enough of the world to know that it’s unfair. She’s spent her whole life in the mining town of Calumet, Michigan, where men risk their lives for meager salaries—and have barely enough to put food on the table for their families. The women labor in the houses of the elite, and send their husbands and sons deep underground each day, dreading the fateful call of the company man telling them their loved ones aren’t coming home. So, when Annie decides to stand up for the entire town of Calumet, nearly everyone believes she may have taken on more than she is prepared to handle.

Yet as Annie struggles to improve the future of her town, her husband becomes increasingly frustrated with her growing independence. She faces the threat of prison while also discovering a forbidden love. On her fierce quest for justice, Annie will see just how much she is willing to sacrifice for the families of Calumet.

From one of the most versatile writers in contemporary fiction, this novel is an authentic and moving historical portrait of the lives of the crucial men and women of the early labor movement “with an important message that will resonate with contemporary readers” (Booklist).

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The Sisters of Summit Avenue
by Lynn Cullen

Estranged sisters Ruth and June could not be more different. Since her husband’s sickness, Ruth has been single-handedly raising four young daughters and running her family’s Indiana farm. June is blonde and beautiful, married to a wealthy doctor, and living in a mansion in St. Paul, Indiana. However, this doesn’t make up for her lifelong desire for children while the man she used to love more than anything belongs to Ruth. Their mother Dorothy attempts to bring them together but may find it impossible as she attempts to manage her own dark secrets. The Sisters of Summit Avenue is a heartfelt love letter to mothers, daughters, and sisters everywhere.

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The Sisters of Summit Avenue
Lynn Cullen

From the bestselling author of Mrs. Poe and Twain’s End comes a “poignant, beautifully rendered story of two sisters who find the courage to reclaim their bond after years of misunderstandings and heartbreak” (Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author) during the Great Depression.

1934. Ruth has been single-handedly raising four young daughters and running her family’s Indiana farm for eight long years, ever since her husband, John, was infected by the infamous “sleeping sickness” devastating families across the country. If only she could trade places with her older sister, June: blonde and beautiful, married to a wealthy doctor, living in a mansion in St. Paul. And June has a coveted job, too, as one of “the Bettys,” the perky recipe developers who populate the famous Betty Crocker test kitchen. But these gilded trappings hide sorrows: she has borne no children. And the man she loves more than anything belongs to Ruth.

When the two sisters reluctantly reunite after a long estrangement, June’s bitterness about her sister’s betrayal sets into motion a confrontation that’s been years in the making. And their mother, Dorothy, who’s brought the two of them together, has her own dark secrets, which might blow up the fragile peace she hopes to restore between her daughters.

An emotional journey of redemption, inner strength, and the ties that bind families together, for better or worse, The Sisters of Summit Avenue is a moving and heartfelt tribute to mothers, daughters, and sisters everywhere.

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What's Eating Gilbert Grape
by Peter Hedges

Gilbert Grape is a twenty-four-year-old grocery clerk who dreams only of leaving Endora, Iowa. He lives with absent sisters and his grief-stricken mother. Once the town sweetheart, she now mourns her husband’s suicide by eating until the floor beneath her literally collapses. Gilbert can only find comfort in caring for his younger brother, Arnie. With the arrival of Arnie’s eighteenth birthday and a beautiful new girl in town who befriends him, Gilbert finds himself at a crossroads. Change is coming for him and his family, just not the way he anticipated.

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What's Eating Gilbert Grape
Peter Hedges

Leo’s portrayal of Arnie Grape in the 1993 film “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” is arguably one of the most memorable of his career. It also marked the first of his many Oscar nods (and losses). The Peter Hedges novel on which the film is based follows Gilbert Grape (played by Johnny Depp): a 24-year-old grocery clerk stuck in a microscopic Iowa town where he looks after his morbidly obese mother and mentally disabled brother, Arnie.

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The Lager Queen of Minnesota
by J. Ryan Stradal

A family is split when their father leaves their shared inheritance entirely to Helen, his younger daughter. As a result, she builds one of the most successful light breweries in the country, while Edith struggles to make ends meet. Edith has a heart as big as their home state of Minnesota, Helen’s is as rigid as a steel keg. Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, grows up knowing that the real world requires a tougher constitution than her grandmother possesses. She earns a shot at learning the IPA business from the ground up. Will that change their fortunes forever and perhaps reunite her splintered family?

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The Lager Queen of Minnesota
J. Ryan Stradal

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Ohio
by Stephen Markley

Set over the course of a single evening, four former high school classmates converge on their hometown in northeastern Ohio. Passionate, drug-abusing young activist Bill Ashcraft returns to town with a mysterious package strapped to the undercarriage of his truck. Across town, Stacey Moore reluctantly confronts her family and the mother of her best friend and first love, searching for closure after his disappearance. Classmate and Iraqi veteran Dan Eaton goes on a date with the high school sweetheart he wishes he could forget, and beautiful-but-fragile Tina Ross reconnects with a washed-up high school football star. As the story evolves, these four separate stories come together as one. The joining of these narratives unearths dark secrets, revisiting old regrets and uncovering bitter betrayals.

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Ohio
Stephen Markley

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A Thousand Acres
by Jane Smiley

A successful Iowa farmer decides to divide his farm between his three daughters. When the youngest objects, she is cut out of his will. This sets off a chain of events that brings dark truths to light and explodes long-suppressed emotions. An ambitious reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear cast in a typical American community in the late twentieth century, A Thousand Acres takes on similar themes of truth, justice, love, and pride, and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.

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A Thousand Acres
Jane Smiley

An ambitious reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear cast upon a typical American community in the late twentieth century, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel takes on themes of truth, justice, love, and pride, and reveals the beautiful yet treacherous topography of humanity.

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The Simplicity of Cider
by Amy E. Reichert

Sanna Lund is content to live a simple, quiet life on her family’s apple orchard in Door County, Wisconsin, but that doesn’t seem possible when her single-minded brother attempts to convince their aging father to sell the land. He nearly succeeds until helpful and handsome single dad Isaac Banks arrives on the scene. Trying to shield his son Sebastian from his troubled mother, Isaac develops a deliciously complex relationship with Sanna. Sanna’s formerly simple life becomes increasingly complicated as an outside threat infiltrates the farm and tests the strength of each relationship.

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The Simplicity of Cider
Amy E. Reichert

Fall in love with The Simplicity of Cider, the charming new novel about a prickly but gifted cider-maker whose quiet life is interrupted by the arrival of a handsome man and his young son at her family’s careworn orchard by the author of The Coincidence of Coconut Cake and Luck, Love & Lemon Pie.

Don’t miss Amy’s newest work of women’s fiction: The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go!

Focused and unassuming fifth generation cider-maker Sanna Lund has one desire: to live a simple, quiet life on her family’s apple orchard in Door County, Wisconsin. Although her business is struggling, Sanna remains fiercely devoted to the orchard, despite her brother’s attempts to convince their aging father to sell the land.

Single dad Isaac Banks has spent years trying to shield his son Sebastian from his troubled mother. Fleeing heartbreak at home, Isaac packed up their lives and the two headed out on an adventure, driving across the country. Chance—or fate—led them straight to Sanna’s orchard.

Isaac’s helping hands are much appreciated at the apple farm, even more when Sanna’s father is injured in an accident. As Sanna’s formerly simple life becomes increasingly complicated, she finds solace in unexpected places—friendship with young Sebastian and something more deliciously complex with Isaac—until an outside threat infiltrates the farm.

From the warm and funny Amy E. Reichert, The Simplicity of Cider is a charming love story with a touch of magic, perfect for fans of Sarah Addison Allen and Gayle Forman.

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Dark Places
by Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn, master of dark tales set in the Midwest, draws readers in with the tragic story of Libby Day, survivor of “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” She doesn’t dwell on the testimony she gave during her childhood that pinned the murder of her mother and two sisters on her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben. When a club of true crime-obsessed women reaches out to her, she realizes she may be able to turn a profit off her tragic history. She agrees to reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club for a fee. Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns and proves the truth might cost more than it’s worth.

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Dark Places
Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn’s mega-bestseller Gone Girl was adapted into one of the most talked-about films of 2014, and now her second novel is getting the Hollywood treatment. If you thought Amy was an unreliable narrator, just wait until you meet Charlize Theron’s Libby.

Release date: August 7, 2015

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Best Friends Forever
by Jennifer Weiner

Valerie Adler, epitome of fame and fortune working as the weathergirl at the local TV station, and Addie Downs, sole caretaker of her troubled brother and trying to meet Prince Charming on the Internet, were once best friends. Addie dismissed their friendship in the wake of betrayal during their teenage years as Valerie became popular and Addie became the class scapegoat. However, when Valerie shows up at Addie’s childhood home in Pleasant Ridge, Illinois, terrified and covered in blood, a domino of events ensues that argues “sandbox love never dies.” Best Friends Forever is a grand, hilarious, edge-of-your-seat adventure—a story about betrayal and loyalty, family history and small-town secrets.

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Best Friends Forever
Jennifer Weiner

This heartrending novel charts the longtime friendship between Val and Addie, two young girls who grow up to be very different women: one achieving fame and fortune, one staying behind.

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Ordinary Grace
by William Kent Krueger

Thirteen-year-old Frank lives the life of an ordinary teen in New Bremen, Minnesota until a slew of tragedies befall him and his family. An accident, suicide, and murder follow him through the summer of 1961, forcing him into an adult world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal. Forty-one years later, he begins the long journey of coming to terms with his jaded past, as he attempts to understand a world that seems to be falling apart around him. A brilliantly moving account of a boy standing at the door of his young manhood, Ordinary Grace explores the terrible price of wisdom and the enduring grace of God.

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Ordinary Grace
William Kent Krueger

When tragedy unexpectedly comes to call on his family, thirteen-year-old Frank Drum finds himself thrust into a world of secrets, adultery, and betrayal. Set in 1961, Ordinary Grace is the story of what a shocking murder does to a boy standing at the door of adulthood and the fabric of a small Minnesota town.

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