Readers often seek out books that take them to faraway places, following characters to bustling cities, dreamy deserts, or starry galaxies. There’s something exciting about sitting in the comfort of your own bed while imagining wizards hike through Middle Earth or secret agents speed through the streets of London. However, reading stories that take place closer to home has its own appeal. Living in the same or similar place as the main characters can make for a very lifelike and visceral reading experience.
No single book can fully capture the wonders (and frustrations) of living in Wisconsin, but the selected novels below help form a picture of what Wisconsin life is all about. Through literature, we can follow Wisconsinites from all walks of life – past and present. We can get to know an Ojibwe mother teaching her daughter how to mend a dress, a dairy farmer making ends meet during the Great Depression, or a talented architect trapped in a love triangle. From the cherry orchards of Door County to the grassy plains of the Driftless Area, these stories will remind you of home, or entice you to visit a new destination.
Selections are arranged chronologically by publication date.
Shoulder Season by Christina Clancy (2021)
Setting: Lake Geneva, 1960s-1970s
Some Wisconsinites may not have known our state was once home to a Playboy Resort. Lake Geneva’s Playboy Club attracted families looking for a summer getaway, vacationers from Chicago, and young Midwestern women looking for work. The club has been closed since the 1980s, but Christina Clancy’s latest novel brings it back to life. The novel is told from the perspective of Sherri, a nineteen-year-old girl in need of an income after her parents suddenly pass away. She, along with daughters of dairy farmers and factory workers, adorn tiny bunny costumes and uncomfortable stilettos and set to work serving drinks and helping hotel staff. At the Playboy Club, Sherri finds sisterhood with the other bunnies, gains financial independence, and experiences first love. This novel transports readers to an intoxicating paradise that’s close to home.
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler (2013)
Setting: fictional town called ‘Little Wing,’ present day
Henry, Lee, Kip, and Ronny grew up together in rural Wisconsin, but their lives have since taken different paths. Henry stayed home and married his first love, whilst the others left in search of something more. Ronnie became a rodeo star, Kip made his fortune in the city, and musician Lee found fame – but heartbreak, too. Now all four are reunited for a wedding, but amid happiness and celebration, old rivalries resurface and a wife’s secret threatens to tear both a marriage and a friendship apart. Nickolas Butler writes a remarkable and uncompromising saga that explores the age-old question of whether or not you can ever truly come home again. (Provided by publisher)
Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (2007)
Setting: Spring Green, the 1910s
Mamah Borthwick Cheney begins a clandestine love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright a few years after she and her husband commissioned the renowned architect to design a new home for her and her husband. Over time this powerful attraction sends them on a course that would send shockwaves to the big city of Chicago. Mixing historical facts with romantic turmoil Nancy Horan will keep readers enthralled right until the novel’s chilling end.
Orchard by Larry Watson (2003)
Setting: Door County, Great Depression
An affair blossoms in the orchards of Door County between a Scandinavian immigrant and a talented artist. Sonja moves from Norway looking for a new life and settles down in sleepy Door County. After starting a family with Henry, an apple farmer, she soon feels confined to the role of wife and mother. Fate leads Sonja to the studio of Ned Weaver, an internationally renowned artist where she begins modeling for his paintings. Jealousy ensues, forcing Sonja to walk a fine line to appease both men in her life while holding on to a sense of self. Larry Watson, the bestselling author of Montana 1948, builds tension between the characters with tight prose and character flashbacks.
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (1999)
Location: Madeline Island, the mid-1800s
This award-winning children’s chapter book tells the story of Omakayas, a seven-year-old girl of the Ojibwe Nation, and her life on an island in Lake Superior. Omakayas was the sole survivor of the 1847 smallpox epidemic and was adopted by another Ojibwe family. With this new family, she learns how tan moose hide, pick berries and scarecrows from the cornfield. Louise Erdrich, a member of the Anishinaabe Nation, continues the story of Omakayas and her adventures in nature with four other books in this series.
- The Kindred Spirits Supper Club by Amy Reichert – Wisconsin Dells
- Farm Girl: A Wisconsin Memoir by Beuna Coburn Carlson – Pierce County
- Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond – Milwaukee
- The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski – The Northwoods
- The Women: A Novel by T.C. Boyle – Southwestern Wisconsin
- Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kagen – Milwaukee
- Blankets by Craig Thompson – Marathon County
- Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright – location not specified
- Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink – Downsville, near Eau Claire