I have a bias toward Midwestern culture, partly because I’m from New Lenox, Illinois, a former farm town in the greater amorphous magical region called Chicagoland, but also because I spent so many significant formative years in the Midwest beyond growing up in Illinois, including college in Minnesota and seven years in Ohio. I think I celebrate this region endlessly because I’ve now lived away from it long enough to really miss it. I live in Connecticut for work, and I like it here fine, but the Midwest is my true home.
As I’ve traveled the East Coast and the South, I’ve often had people remark with surprise that I would even miss the middle. I’m enamored of the subtle depth of Midwestern culture, our interesting mix of withholding politeness and goofy enthusiasm. The Midwest has its own complex aesthetic, culture, and history, with thousands of local subdivisions within the larger region. Its significance and its reality continues to be unsung, partly because people are often only willing to give cultural credit to places they’d like to vacation.
But considering how to represent all this texture wasn’t easy. First, I compiled a list of all the writers who might fit under the umbrella of “women from the Midwest writing excellent nonfiction.” The list includes Jo Anne Beard, Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, Patricia Hampl, Maya Angelo, Toi Derricote, Lynda Barry, Megan Stielstra, Kathleen Norris, Kathleen Finneran, and many others—and it turned out to be much too long for this entry. Suffice it to say there’s a wealth in this category.
The books I’m listing below are ones you may not have run across, all featuring the Midwest as a vibrant place with a specific character shaped by forces as diverse as history, economics, weather, migration and immigration.
1. Pieces from Life’s Crazy Quilt by Marvin V. Arnett
Written in linked mini-essays from a child’s perspective, Pieces from Life’s Crazy Quilt offers a portrait of life in African-American Detroit before and during World War II. The family stories presented here document a personal account of the Great Migration and its aftermath.
2. We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter by Rachael Hanel
We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down is a fond and thoughtful reflection on loss that is firmly centered in the town of Waseca, Minnesota with ripples outward to Hanel’s family history in the greater Midwest. The memoir centers on the death of her father but explores the geography of grief through the location of the town’s cemetery.
3. Ready for Air by Kate Hopper
Ready for Air, a memoir about a premature birth and becoming a mother, takes place in Minnesota, in and around the Twin Cities. As Hopper navigates her new life as a mother, the map of her days triggers memories of her pre-motherhood life.
4. The Nature of Home by Lisa Knopp
This essay collection explores the author’s relationship with the natural world, ecology, and current events. Knopp longs for Nebraska when separated from the state, and her long-distance relationship with a place carves out in acute detail what it means to miss a landscape.
5. The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere by Deb Marquart
The Horizontal World, a memoir, chronicles the author’s coming of age in North Dakota as she learns to navigate love. Told with humor, Marquart’s story weaves stories of her Russian immigrant grandparents with an exploration of how the “middle of nowhere” grows wanderlust and wildness in a certain kind of girl.
6. The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change by Rebecca McClanahan
The Tribal Knot is a family memoir told in multiple voices; McClanahan uses a wealth of letters and source documents to excavate relationships among family members in rural Indiana and inhabit their stories. This memoir infuses family drama, secrets, and scandals with urgency and compassion.
7. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen
Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, a memoir, tells the story of the Nguyen family’s transition from Vietnam to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Telling her story with humor and a child’s perspective, Nguyen uses Grand Rapids as a lens through which to interpret American life.
8. Packinghouse Daughter by Cheri Register
This memoir explores the legacy of Register’s working-class family, weaving together the story of her father’s work in a meat-packing plant in Albert Lea, Minnesota with a larger discussion of U.S. labor history. Register mulls over questions about the meaning of her father’s working life partly in an attempt to determine her own values as she crosses class lines.