11 Novels to Read if You Love Wisconsin

Wisconsin-Novels

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Comments

  1. My mom is a mystery fan and she keeps telling me to read the Chloe Ellefsen Mysteries by Kathleen Ernst. They’re fluff, but the reason she’s so keen on me reading them is that Chloe is the collections curator (same as me) at Old World Wisconsin (where it would be a dream to work). Mom tells me that Chloe constantly reminds her of me. Except for the dead bodies and stuff… Here’s a link to Kathleen Ernst’s website: http://www.kathleenernst.com/

    • I wouldn’t describe Kathleen Ernst’s books as fluff. They’re mysteries, not literary fiction, but they all deal with the intersection of past and present, and tracing some serious themes which connect them. I thought her most recent book, “Tradition of Deceit,” did an especially satisfying job of that, braiding a number of seemingly disparate storylines together by the last page. Also, she’s wonderful at conveying a sense of place — which I assume we’re looking for when we pick up a book set in Wisconsin?

      • I stand corrected. And I’m glad to hear it. I’m just going with my mom’s track record of the types of mysteries she reads. Your description makes me want to read them even more.

  2. Barb Schevers says:

    Another good Wisconsin writer: The Chloe Ellefson Mystery series: by Kathleen Ernst – “Old World Murder” takes place in Old World Wisconsin excellent writing- creative

  3. Sharon Prellwitz says:

    You’ve missed Michael Perry of the Eau Claire area, mostly non fiction, but a good writer. Also A Manette Ansay who writes novels about southeast WI, more north of Milwaukee on the Lakeshore. I have 8 of her novels. Don’t forget Jess Riley of Oshkosh, she has written 3 novels. Driving Sideways is one of my favorite books. Also Paula Sharp who wrote The Woman Who Was Not All There and The Imposter. There is also Jane Hamiton, Greg Peck, Christina Schwartz, and Abby Frucht. I’m sure I’m missing some. I once did a search on Goodreads for Wisconsin Authors and came up with a list of over 100!

  4. Great suggestions so far! Keep in mind that Terra DID mention there are many other novels that could make this list. So she didn’t “miss” anything. And she actually read all of these books too!

  5. Madseacow says:

    Come and Get It by Edna Ferber. The book is a fictional account of Wisconsin’s logging industry, evidently around the Fox River Valley. Ferber attended Lawrence University for a while.

    • More than that–she was raised in Appleton and lived in a house near City Park. She worked for the Appleton Crescent (before it merged with the Appleton Post). There’s an elementary school named after her in Appleton.

    • Susan Hansen says:

      SO pleased you mentioned Edna Ferber!

  6. Melissa M. says:

    Family closet is set in Wisconsin. It is by Marjorie Dorner who was born and raised in Luxemburg Wisconsin which is about 15 minutes from green bay. Anyone who grew up in Luxemburg will recognize things in the book.

  7. ‘Tomorrow is a River’ by Peggy Hanson Dopp and Barbara Fitz Vroman. Takes place in the mid 1800 through the Civil War and the great Peshtigo fire. Lots of local history and memorable characters.

  8. “Dirty Helen” is a memoir written over 50 years ago by a woman who was a madam in Chicago and then moved up to Milwaukee. One of her great frustrations with the bar she had in downtown Milwaukee is that she couldn’t bribe the cops – they just wouldn’t take a bribe.

  9. Bobbi Jo says:

    Raen Smith’s books are all set in Wisconsin. Her House of Steel series is fantastic! http://raensmith.com/

  10. Mary Haines says:

    The Old Man and the Girl and the Turtle Flambeau Flowage…a wonderful story of a friendship between an older man, a teenage girl and fishing. Author is from Antigo, WI

    All Mine to Give…about a Scottish family who settled near the Fox River, worked hard, parents died of scarlet fever and the oldest boy was to find homes for his five siblings. As a fourth grade teacher I read this book to my class each Christmas and the kids loved it. A movie was made of it called The a Day They Gave Babies Away.

  11. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

  12. Deborah says:

    If you are looking for Wisconsin-set short stories rather than novels, there are the stories of Anthony Bukoski. Most are set in Superior and concern the Polish community there. He was born and raised in Superior and also lived and worked there (as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior). He is now retired from the university.

  13. Linda Malchow says:

    The Sweater Letter

  14. Claire Watkins mysteries by Mary Lotus are set in Pepin County. Great reads!

  15. The Story of Edward Sawtelle

  16. Little House in The Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Before the prairie……..

  17. Author, Marie Bostwick just launched a book set in Door County, The book, The Second Sister is about a family in a fictional town in Door County. She does mention some familiar fixtures such as Al Johnson’s restaurant

  18. “Rascal” by Sterling North, from Edgerton. It’s a memoir of a year when the young North raised a baby raccoon and dealt with the loss of his mother and with his brother off to World War I. “Rascal” won a Newbery Honor in 1964, and was adapted into the Disney movie “Rascal” (1969), starring Bill Mumy.

    It also became an anime cartoon series in Japan in the 1970s. The raccoon is arguably more popular than Mickey Mouse in Japan. http://gojefferson.com/rascal/ .

  19. Marshall Cook has a series of four mysteries set mostly in Wisconsin. The first is set in Iowa, but then he comes home.

  20. What? No mention of Jacqueline Mitchard? Her books aren’t all set in Wisconsin, but “The Deep End of the Ocean” was. Oprah’s book club inaugural selection, and later made into a motion picture starting Michelle Pfeiffer.

    • I am a long time admirer of J Mitchard’s column, so went to a reading and bought DEEP END…. Sorry to say, not so much. But I still like her column, but JS no longer carries it.

  21. Jim Franklin says:

    The books of the Sac Prairie Saga by August Derleth, not to mention all of the short stories, history, and essays he wrote.

  22. Jane Erickson says:

    Leslyn Spinelli has written two novels that take place in Madison, Taken for Granted and its sequel, Taken by Surprise. She is currently working on a third. She lives in Cottage Grove, WI.

  23. Others I’d recommend are The Turtle Warrior, by Mary Rolindes Ellis and takes place in northern Wisconsin and Falling through the Earth by Danielle Trussoni located in La Crosse. A bit of a different twist would be Mikawadizi Storms by Dennis Vickers, a fictional look at Wisconsin’s Native American’s approach to mining.

  24. I’d have to recommend A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan. Set in the Wis. Dells area after the Civil War. Very good read!

  25. Melissa D says:

    Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly, a classic teenage love story. Written way before my time, it holds up really well in a sweet, innocent way.

  26. Gina Tuchel says:

    Don’t forget Jane Hamilton’s The Book of Ruth. The story takes place in Honey Creek, WI!

  27. Liz Lincoln says:

    When Joss Met Matt by Liz Czukas. The 2 main characters meet as freshmen at UW-Madison, and spend the next 7 years falling in love. It’s set in Madison and Milwaukee. Liz grew up in Wauwatosa, went to UW, and now lives in Milwaukee.

  28. Bonny Oestreich says:

    I am hoping that someone could give me the name of the author who sets his mysteries in Adams Friendship. The main character is the editor of the weekly newspaper. I have enjoyed two his books and would like to read more. Thank you.

    • Rita A Lester says:

      I wouldnt say its Friendship but its near there………author is John R. Riggs and the books are A Garth Ryland Mystery and there are like 14 books in that series

  29. The Bodies Left Behind by Jeffery Deaver

  30. Joan Harris says:

    I would recommend Dan Woll’s ‘Death on Cache Lake’. It is a wonderful mystery/thriller, I read it in two days! http://www.amazon.com/Death-Cache-Lake-Dan-Woll/dp/1937391043

  31. Christine DeSmet’s Fudge Shop Mystery series is set in Door County. She has three titles so far; a fun cozy series with fudge recipes at the end of each book. She focuses on the Belgian heritage of the Door County area.

    • I agree! I love this newer series! I just picked up her newest “Five Alarm Fudge” at the library today and can’t wait to crack the cover. I also love the descriptions of the area and the focus on Belgian heritage!

  32. Boy, after reading all of these, many of which I might have suggested myself, I realize how far behind I am with my Wisconsin reading. Where to start? Think I’ll try Michael Perry, because so many friends have recommended his books o me.

  33. Rita A Lester says:

    Great reading are all the books by Bob McCurdy he has two series running with 10 books and another to be released soon.

  34. Teresa Gulyas says:

    Thanks for all the additional books mentioned in the comments. Love reading books set in Wisconsin – helps with missing my home state!

  35. Robin Dickman says:

    I loved Stupid Fast trilogy by Geoff Herbach. Very god set in fictional town (we all know is really Platteville) in southwest Wisconsin.

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