“Local color” or “American Literary Regionalism” is a term used to describe a literary genre that weaves place and landscape into a story in a way that brings to life the dialects, customs, and practices of a certain geographical area. The South boasts an impressive arsenal of authors in the genre that are well-known and loved: William Faulker, Haper Lee, Flannery O’Connor. The Midwest has its own trove of stories that unabashedly celebrate the plains, farming, and quiet life away from city lights.
There are certainly days that I dream of bustling city life filled with tall buildings and the thrill of high-speed movement all around, but then I remember the characters that I met in these books: the characters that lived where I live, who were brave and funny, creative and kind, complicated and unruly. These books remind me that adventure and possibility are not a privilege for the elite few, but accessible to all of us, even those who live in areas often described as remote and empty. The Midwest shapes its inhabitants in a unique way, and yields the most surprising stories, sometimes lovely, sometimes troublesome. Here are some titles that will make you fall in love all over again with Oklahoma and the great Midwest:
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson won the Pulitzer for this incredible novel about an elderly pastor in Iowa writing to his young son about what he learned in his years of ministry. Written in a stream-of-consciousness format, the prose is incredible and explores the complexities of family life and a life well-lived.
August: Osage County by Tracy Letts
This classic play about a troubled family in Oklahoma won a Tony award in 2008, and has wonderful character development. It is at once disturbing and humorous and will make you feel all the feels.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
An in-depth investigation of a serial killer in Holcomb, Kansas. Check out the movie too while you’re at it. This book set a new standard for true crime books and remains one of the most intriguing crime stories in modern memory.
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The classic coming of age story of Laura Ingalls is regionalism at its best. Each book in the series features her adventures in a different part of the country, navigating the challenges of homesteading and life on the prairie.
When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman
Addie describes her experience growing up in a conservative Minnesota family, and how her religious experiences shaped her college years, and her subsequent struggles with alcoholism. Good spiritual memoirs are hard to pull off, and Zierman does it with poise and grace, exploring the themes of hope and redemption with nuance and insight.