It’s finally spring -according to the calendar- but we all know in Wisconsin, warmer weather doesn’t always come when we want it to.
While we shiver and wait impatiently for spring weather to stick around, why not get to know Wisconsin a little better from the comfort of a few good books? Whether these books take place in cities, farms or woods, let’s be honest, it’s all about location, location, location. In other words, Wisconsin. Anything set in Wisconsin is bound to be a winner, right?
Settle in for 11 novels set in Fish Creek, Madison, Milwaukee, Rhinelander and, of course, Green Bay.
1. The Art of Fielding – By Chad Harbach
I was reluctant to read The Art of Fielding. 500 pages of baseball? I thought, “Not for me.” But the book just kept appearing in my searches for Wisconsin novels. I gave in and started reading it.
This book is set on a private college campus in the fictional town town of Westish, but the more you read it, the surer you are that the school is our very own St. Norbert on the west side of De Pere. Ironically, there doesn’t seem to be even one character from the state, but each of their stories brings them together at the same Wisconsin college.
Henry Skrimshander comes to Westish from South Dakota, with his well-worn copy of The Art of Fielding, to play baseball for Westish. The lives of Henry, his friends and teammates (every one of them flawed) are inextricably linked as the novel builds.
Though the Badger State doesn’t play a huge part in this book, there there are moments when the author gets it just right with observations on Midwestern life like this one:
“It could barely have been nine thirty, but around the room checks were being paid, jackets donned. Midwestern living: the ten o’clock news and up at dawn.”- The Art of Fielding
While this is not the peanuts and crackerjacks baseball of popular American culture, it is just the book to read between Brewers games.
- Find out more about The Art of Fielding
2. Driftless – By David Rhodes
Unusual circumstances bring wanderer July Montgomery to the fictional town of Words in the driftless region of Southwestern Wisconsin.
The glaciers didn’t pass through this area of the state which includes Platteville, Madison and LaCrosse, making its rolling landscape unique. A town rooted in the past, just marginally in the present, each of the town’s characters has their own issues.
Their stories are stories many Wisconsinites will recognize: small farms taking on corporations, unions and corrupt big-business, providing for and taking care of your family, broken people, broken families, loneliness, illness, and faith.
Initially a stranger, July ties the residents of the small town together and finally escorts us out of Words as he leaves the town we come to know so well.
- Find out more about Driftless
3. The Orchard – By Larry Watson
Judging this book by its cover would be a mistake. It seems to be a romantic tale set in the rural Midwest, as you glance at the cover before cracking open this novel. Set in the 1950s Door County, within a few pages you discover it’s not a romance and it’s definitely not a typical novel.
The dark, interconnected stories of Sonja (a Norwegian immigrant), Ned (a well-known painter), Henry (a Door County native), and Harriet (a tortured artist’s wife), don’t unfold in chronological order.
“A winter like this one,” Weaver went on, “I wonder if it might just hang on. April, May– we’ve had snow in those months. June, July — maybe this year winter won’t leave.” – The Orchard
As their tragedies unfold, the author captures many of the familiar elements of Door County that put you right there: watercolor painting, artists, hunting, ice fishing, horses, and apple orchards are easy ones. But the author adds “information” like the divide between locals and tourists, the love-hate connection between the peninsula and Chicago, and a strong Norwegian presence.
This slim novel about muses and creativity, faithfulness and loneliness, and happiness and sorrow, is a delicious bite of Door County.
- Find out more about The Orchard
4. Whistling in the Dark – By Lesley Kagen
Milwaukee author, Lesley Kagen, set her book in 1959 Milwaukee. Sally O’Malley and her sisters reluctantly move to their new stepfather’s house on Vliet Street. The street and its buildings are where the mystery and Sally’s story begin. Two girls have been abducted and killed. Sally becomes the next intended victim.
While Sally’s mom is in the hospital for an extended stay, Sally and her two sisters are largely unsupervised. Her wild imagination and adventures in and around her 1950s Milwaukee neighborhood make this a fun Wisconsin read. During the course of the book we follow Sally to Shuster’s and Gimbels, as she heads down North Avenue, and passes Jerback’s Beer & Bowl. She hopes to win tickets to the Uptown Theater from the Finney Library and she loves Washington Park and its gorilla, Sampson.
This novel is rich with ’50s details (Oleo, Ovaltine) and innocence. It bring you back to a time when children roamed the streets and parks freely.
- Find out more about Whistling in the Dark
5. A Reliable Wife – By Robert Goolrick
Aristocratic and very wealthy, Ralph Truitt, welcomes Catherine, a mail order bride from Chicago during a Wisconsin blizzard.
A penitent/repentant Ralph has a plan to make things right in his life with his family, but Catherine has a plan as well. As their life together plays out on the page, it becomes clear that life doesn’t always go according to plan. Mentions of logging, iron foundry, and mining make you feel like you’re in Wisconsin, but decidedly not in a hometown way.
“The tiny train station in the frozen middle of frozen nowhere. Hell could be like this. It could could be darker very minute. It could be cold enough to sear the skin from your bones.” –The Reliable Wife
As the book opens during a blizzard, you might think the author wrote about one of our recent never-ending winters, but it’s set during a very cold, dark and desperate 1907 Wisconsin winter. The word ‘frozen’ appears frequently throughout the book in regards to the landscape, characters, and weather.
Winter is its own character and together with other desperate circumstances, make people do desperate things. This is a cold book and a tragic book. I could not put it down.
- Find out more about A Reliable Wife
6. Shotgun Love Songs – By Nickolas Butler
I’ll be honest with you. This one is my favorite book of the bunch. We all know Wisconsin is the perfect setting for novels, but what else is our state known for? Its people, of course.
Shotgun Lovesongs really captures the people, culture and landscape of Wisconsin. This bromance centers on the lives of five friends who grew up together in the fictitious small town of Little Wing, near Eau Claire.
A famous musician (based on Butler’s former classmate and Bon Ivr member, Justin Vernon), a man returned from Chicago’s city life, a pair of married high school sweethearts, and a rodeo rider with a head injury, are reunited in Little Wing where their lives collide. The town’s VFW, small-town cafes, silos, and mill help make this a true Wisconsin story. There’s such a strong sense of place, the author clearly knows, and appreciates, the state and small-town life. It could really be called Wisconsin Lovesongs; Wisconsin is its own character right alongside the people.
Author Nickolas Butler was raised in Eau Claire, went to school at UW-Madison, and currently lives in Wisconsin.
- Find out more about Shotgun Love Songs
Watch a video with author Nickolas Butler
7. Bone House – By Brian Freeman
Brian Freeman was born in Chicago and lives in Minnesota. We’ll forgive him because this is one damn good suspense novel.
The story begins in Florida, but quickly moves to Door County where the plot unfolds among many of the peninsula’s familiar landmarks.
Mark and his wife, Hilary relocate to Door County from Chicago and live on Washington Island. I worked in Door County for several summers and really enjoyed following this story up and down the peninsula as it unfolded. During the course of the story, Mark managed to become a member of the Bitters Club at the Bitters Pub, ride the car ferry many times from Northport to Washington Island, hide from danger on a moonlight Schoolhouse Beach, and traveled Highway 42 many times.
Door County is typically thought of as the Cape Cod of the midwest. This novel will definitely make you look at Door County in a different (creepy) light. You’ll never see it the same way again.
- Find out more about Bone House
8. Bitter Sweet – By LaVyrle Spencer
Looking for something a little lighter? This title is like candy for your brain. Set in 1990s Door County, Maggie Stearn, a teacher in Seattle, has been mourning the loss of her husband for more than a year. Her daughter is heading off to Chicago for college. Maggie decides to reconnect with friends from her hometown in Door County.
LaVyrle Spencer is from the Midwest, but she’s not lucky enough to be from Wisconsin. Nevertheless, she clearly spent some time in Door County. It’s like taking a tour of the peninsula as you read; characters read the Door County Advocate, live in Gills Rock, drive by the goats on Al Johnson’s roof, and eat Polish sausage for breakfast.
Peninsula Park, limestone, apple, cherry and plum orchards, fruit stands, barns, the Fish Creek General Store and deli counter sandwiches, Sunset Beach Park, the Whistling Swan, the White Gull Inn, Founders Square, the Cookery, Bailey’s Harbor Yacht Club, Cana Island, and antique shopping are just a few more of the delicious Door County details that make this novel so easy to devour.
This book is filled with romance, family and Wisconsin; it’s perfect for those looking for a little romance to heat up these cool spring evenings.
- Find out more about Bitter Sweet
9. Mattie Winston Series – By Annaliese Ryan
This series of mysteries is also light, but this time with a little humor. Author Annaliese Ryan is an ER nurse based in Wisconsin, so it’s no surprise that the main character in her mystery series is a former nurse living in Wisconsin.
Mattie is the deputy coroner in Northern Wisconsin and much like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, she finds herself in all kinds of humorous and potentially dangerous situations.
The setting isn’t a major part of the book, but it does shine through here and there with references to the weather, long johns, flannel shirts and parkas, a Northwoods Casino, long, dark snowy winters and of course, the Packers. We know Wisconsin is more than these things, but they do make the book feel a little like home.
- Find out more about Mattie Winston books
10. Loon Lake Mysteries – By Victoria Houston
Victoria Houston was born and raised in Rhinelander. Though she relocated for a while (we forgive her), she’s back living in Rhinelander. This cozy mystery series features Paul Osborne, a retired dentist. He teams up with local Police Chief, Lewellen Ferris to solve murders.
Set in Loon Lake, a small fictitious town in Northern Wisconsin, there are plenty of familiar Wisconsin towns like Manitowish Waters, Eagle River, Mercer, Crandon, Laona, and Rhinelander and, mentions of the gangster days in Northern Wisconsin, Chicago tourists, cultural details like tribal relations and casinos and of course, characters who fly fish. There are 15 books in the series.
11. Vintage – By Susan Gloss
This book is not only set in Madison, but also written by a Wisconsin author. Susan Gloss grew up in Green Bay, went to Notre Dame de la Baie Academy, earned her law degree at University of Wisconsin-Madison and currently lives in Madison.
Her references in Vintage to Madison landmarks, restaurants and places like Devil’s Lake, Lakes Mendota and Monona, Capitol Square, the Saturday Farmers’ Market and UW-Madison, give this novel a real sense of (Wisconsin) place.
Violet Turner’s vintage clothing store, Hourglass Vintage, becomes the backdrop to her new friendships and challenges. The store, located on East Johnson Street, is in trouble. So is each of the characters, in their own way. Violet and her new friends pull together to try to save the store and along the way, build friendships. This is the perfect read whether you love spending the day flipping through the racks of secondhand stores or you just like stories about love, friendship, and new beginnings.
Look for Many More Stories About Wisconsin
This is just the tip of the Wisconsin novel iceberg.
There are many more novels set in Wisconsin like The Dive from Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packard, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, The Cradle by Patrick Somerville, and Off Keck Road by Mona Simpson. The list goes on and on.
What titles would you add to the list? Leave a comment below!
You should be able to find many of these books at your local library. All of the books mentioned in this article are available through the Brown County Library system.
Catch Terra Fewless discovering, creating and parenting, one adventure at a time, on her website, Life as a Field Trip.