It’s always fun to read a good book that takes place in a close-to-home setting with familiar landmarks and recognizable regional culture. Lucky for us Wisconsinites, there is plenty of local literature to peruse from bestsellers to trashy paperbacks.
Below is a list of my favorite Wisco-based books in loose timeline form of when I enjoyed them from childhood to the present. All of these books are available through Amazon, the library or that indie bookshop that most deserves your business.
1. “Little House in the Big Woods” by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I read this book in second grade and became pioneer bonnet-obsessed from page one. Written in 1871, Wilder recalls a four-year-old version of herself living near Pepin, Wisconsin on the bank of the Mississippi River with her Pa, Ma, sister Mary and Carrie and her dog, Jack. I loved imagining myself in the Big Woods tapping sap from maple trees, feeding chickens and listening to Pa jam out on the fiddle. Everything about “Little House” – both the books and the TV series – seemed happier and simpler than it was for me in the late 1970s and 80s where stressed divorced parents and Tuna Helper were the norm.
However, the series has received a fair share of criticism, and rightly so. The Association for Library Service warned it portrayed “dated cultural attitudes towards Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.” Thus, when reading Wilder’s writing today it’s necessary to keep historical context at the forefront of your mind.
2. "The Westing Game" by Ellen Raskin
This Newberry Medal-winner was published in 1978, and I read it a few years later as a tween. The Westing Game is a murder mystery that takes place on Lake Michigan in the northern suburbs of Milwaukee. Raskin grew up in Milwaukee and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she studied journalism and illustration (Raskin designed the original cover of “A Wrinkle In Time” by Madeleine L’Engle). “The Westing Game” is set in basically two settings: a new apartment building called Sunset Towers and a mansion owned by a presumably-dead millionaire named Samuel W. Westing, possibly based on industrial tycoon Walter J. Kohler of the Sheboygan-based Kohler Company. The heroine, Turtle, is feisty, smart, clever and compassionate and exactly the kind of BFF I wished for when I read this book in 6th grade. This book taught me the tenets of “girl power” and made me a lifelong captain of #teamturtle.
3. “The Underground Communion Rail,” “The Laugh We Make When We Fall” and “Milwaukee Does Strange Things To People,” by Susan Firer
Susan Firer grew up within walking distance from Lake Michigan in the Milwaukee suburbs her entire life (today she still resides in Shorewood) and it comes up again and again in her poetry: Mars Cheese castle, Great Lakes Dragaway, Friday night fish fries, the Boat House, The Witch’s House, Lo Duca Brothers, The Bo Deans, Dick Bacon, Robert Burns Square, the Shorewood High School football field, Estabrook Park, her Catholic church on Santa Monica and many more delicious Brew City details. Firer was one of my favorite professors at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and her confessional writing is as lovely and intricate as vintage lace and deeply inspired me both personally and professionally.
4. "Blankets" by Craig Thompson
This autobiographical, 600-page graphic novel is set in Thompson’s hometown of wintery Marathon, Wisconsin where he grew up with fundamentalist Christian parents who censored his media consumption, permitting only “approved” TV shows and Christian music. Thompson later lived in Milwaukee where he attended the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. Written in 2003, I was already 30 when it came out, but feel like I had a second coming-of-age when reading Blankets. It helped me put into perspective my own feelings of alienation from my peers and family when I was growing up, failed love relationships (Thompson falls in love “under Blankets of snow” at a church camp with Raina), struggles with personal demons and the importance of critical thinking: meaning thinking beyond the narrow scopes constantly presented.
5. "Saturday Night in Milwaukee" by Gary Brandner
This book isn't easy to get your hands on – it's occasionally for sale by a private seller on Amazon or Ebay – but if you can track it down, I highly recommend this steamy, so-bad-its-good page-turner about a beer baron named Karl Reicherman who is unhappily married to an attractive woman he was unable to impregnate and then invites five people to spend the evening (the entire evening, as in a "sleep over") at his Whitefish Bay mansion. Best of all, the book is loaded with Milwaukee references, including Whitefish Bay, Shorewood, Brown Deer, River Hills, a strip club in South Milwaukee, the Brewers, Walnut Street (which, according to the book, is the place to score a hooker), the Performing Art Center (now Marcus Center for the Performing Arts) and Brady Street "where the hippies had moved in and, to nearly everyone’s surprise, seemed to be peacefully coexisting with the older Polish and Italian families." It's particularly fun to read when Brandner botches local references. The Pfister Hotel is spelled "Phister" and Miller beer is called "Miller’s" beer. This book made me cry-laugh when I read it a couple of years ago and for that I shall forever appreciate it.
6. “The Second Home” and “Shoulder Season” by Christina Clancy
Today, Christina Clancy lives in Madison but she says she will always be a Milwaukeean at heart. Her first novel, “The Second Home,” came out in 2020 and takes place in Cape Cod and Milwaukee. It tells the story of Anna Gordon, from age 17 to until she’s in her thirties, and her family, comprised of her parents, sister Poppy and adopted brother / love interest Michael. Clancy interviewed me in 2019 for details about the hipster life in 1990s Milwaukee, so it was particularly fun to see what she chose from my past to be a part of her characters’ experiences (Thursday Night Grateful Dead Tape Night at Thurman’s was one of the deets to make the cut). Clancy will release her second novel, “Shoulder Season,” this summer. It, too, takes place in Wisconsin, this time in Lake Geneva, where a young woman named Sherri gets a job as a “Bunny” at the famed Playboy Resort during the 1980s. (For a full interview with Clancy, go here.) Both of these books were a captivating, heartfelt breeze of a read and particularly engaging to me due to the Milwaukee name-drops. I devoured both of these books in just a few sittings and officially became a new fan of Clancy's writing in 2020. I can't wait to read what she writes next.
Other recommended Wisconsin-based books:
- “Black House” by Stephen King and Peter Straub
Straub is a Wisconsin native and this tale of horror is set in a small western Wisconsin town called Tamarack.
- “Wisconsin Death Trip” by Michael Lesy
This cult classic, published in 1973, is a non-fiction account of the murders, suicides, mental illness and more that took place in Black River Falls from 1890 to 1910 after the mines shut down leaving many residents destitute.
- “American Gods” Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is a famous writer from England, but he also owns a home near Menomonie, Wis. Part of the book takes place in the Dairy State and includes a visit to The House on The Rock which is described by Gaiman as “one of the holiest places in the United States.”
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.