Whether you’re participating in our Read Around the USA Challenge or simply found your way to our website researching books set in the Upper Midwest states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, or Wisconsin, you’ve come to the right place!
What Kind of Books are Included On This List?
Our curated recommendations strike a good balance between historical fiction, contemporary novels, and non-fiction books about the northern states. We’ve grouped the books by state and also indicated the time setting of each. You’ll also find a brief description of each state’s characteristics before the corresponding books.
You are welcome to choose any book you’d like to read for the challenge. But, we hope that our book lists, together with the added context about each state’s history, give you a good starting point.
History of Illinois
The history of Illinois dates back thousands of years to when indigenous peoples, such as the Illiniwek, Miami, and Shawnee, thrived on its fertile lands. In the early 1700s, French explorers began establishing fur trading posts in the region, but the British later won short-lived control of the area. Following the Revolutionary, American settlement increased. The Illinois Territory was formed in 1809, and less than a decade later, it became the 21st state.
Later in the century, Illinois became a key battleground in the struggle over slavery. Though he was born in Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln moved to Illinois as a young man and began his political career there. He emerged as a pivotal figure in the slavery debate, later becoming the 16th U.S. President who governed during the Civil War and was instrumental in ending slavery.
Illinois is predominantly flat with rolling hills and vast prairies, earning it the nickname “Prairie State.” The Mississippi River forms its western border, while the Ohio River delineates its southern boundary. These rivers and the Illinois River are significant in the state’s geography and economy. Northern Illinois is marked by higher elevations. The largest city, Chicago, is located on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan. This Great Lake significantly influences the state’s climate and is a vital resource for transportation, water supply, and recreation.
By population, Chicago is the third-largest city in the US and is known for its impressive skyline. The city’s architectural legacy began after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which led to a massive rebuilding effort and the advent of the skyscraper in the 1880s. The city is also famed for its contributions to the Prairie School, led by Frank Lloyd Wright, whose designs emphasize horizontal lines and natural elements. Chicago has a deep jazz and blues legacy and is home to many world-renowned museums, like the Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. Chicago is also known for its vibrant food scene, featuring iconic dishes like deep-dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs.
Beyond this major metropolis, Illinois is home to numerous other cities with unique characteristics and histories. Springfield, the state capital, is steeped in Abraham Lincoln’s legacy, housing his presidential museum, home, and tomb. Peoria, nestled along the Illinois River, is known for its rich industrial history and as a representative American city, often used in market research. Aurora, known as the “City of Lights,” was one of the first U.S. cities to implement an all-electric street lighting system. Champaign-Urbana, a twin city, is renowned for the University of Illinois, a research and higher education hub.
Books Set in Illinois
History of Indiana
Indiana was originally inhabited by indigenous peoples, such as the Miami and Potawatomi. The arrival of French explorers and fur traders in the 17th century led to the establishment of trading posts and a strong French influence in the region. In 1763, control of the area shifted from France to Britain. Following the Revolutionary War, the region became part of the United States upon the formation of the Indiana territory, which included present-day Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. Indiana later achieved statehood in 1816 as the 19th state.
The state played a crucial role in the Civil War, contributing large numbers of troops to the Union army. After the war, Indiana experienced rapid industrialization and population growth. Its economy diversified, moving beyond corn and soybean agriculture to manufacturing and mining. The city of Gary became a center for steel production, and South Bend became the home to the Studebaker auto manufacturing company. Indiana is also renowned for its high-quality limestone, used in iconic buildings nationwide, including the Empire State Building and the Pentagon.
In the north, Indiana borders Lake Michigan, featuring sandy dunes and industrial cities like Gary. South Bend, the home of the University of Notre Dame, is also located in northern Indiana. The central part of the state is called the Corn Belt, with flat to gently rolling terrain ideal for agriculture. The capital city of Indianapolis is located right in the center of the state, making it the focal point for transportation and a crossroad that connects different parts of the state. The geography of Southern Indiana is more varied, with the Hoosier National Forest and the hilly region around the Ohio River Valley. Located on the Ohio River, the town of Evansville is the commercial and cultural hub of Southwestern Indiana and the Illinois-Indiana-Kentucky tri-state area.
Indiana has a rich cultural heritage, with events like the Indiana State Fair showcasing its agricultural roots. The state has a deep-rooted love for basketball, known as the “Hoosier Hysteria.” Indiana is renowned for its high school basketball tournaments, producing many notable college and NBA players.
Indiana is also famously home to the Indianapolis 500 auto race, held annually at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. First held in 1911, the Indy 500 is one of the oldest and most prestigious events in the world of motorsport. Traditionally run on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, this event is often called “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and draws a massive international audience.
Books Set in Indiana
History of Michigan
Long before the arrival of European settlers, Michigan was inhabited by Native American tribes such as the Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi. The arrival of French explorers in the 17th century led to the establishment of the Great Lakes fur trade. As the fur trade declined in the 19th century, Michigan’s economy gradually shifted towards other industries, including lumber. Michigan’s path to statehood was complicated by the Toledo War, a boundary dispute with Ohio. The resolution in 1836, which granted the Upper Peninsula to Michigan, paved the way for it to become the 26th state in 1837.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the state became a hub for the automotive industry due to Henry Ford’s introduction of assembly line production methods. This innovation profoundly impacted the industrial landscape of Michigan, particularly in the Detroit area, which became known as the “Motor City.” The “Big Three” automakers – General Motors (GM), Ford, and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) – all continue to have a significant presence in the Detroit area, but their dominance in the industry began to wane in the late 20th century in the face of global competition.
As the auto industry faced challenges, so too did Detroit’s economy, which was heavily reliant on this sector. While the recovery process has been complex, the city is building back thanks to economic diversification, a culture and artistic renaissance, and many public-private partnerships focused on redevelopment and community initiatives. The decline in the auto industry has also had major impacts on other Michigan cities, including Flint. Once thriving from automotive manufacturing, Flint faced economic decline as the industry shifted. The city gained international attention during the last decade due to the Flint water crisis, which began in 2014, exposing severe infrastructure and environmental health issues.
Known as the Great Lakes State, Michigan is the only state in the U.S. bordered by four of the five Great Lakes and boasts the longest freshwater coastline in the US. The state is split in the upper and lower peninsulas. The Upper Peninsula (U.P.) is known for its rugged natural beauty and distinct culture. Due to its northern location, the U.P. experiences long, cold winters with substantial snowfall. The region is famous for its heavy lake-effect snow and is a popular winter sports destination.
The Lower Peninsula is easily identified by its distinct mitten shape, and much of this area features flat to gently rolling terrain. Michigan’s lower peninsula is a leading producer of cherries – especially tart cherries. The region around Traverse City, particularly, is famous for its cherry orchards and is often called the “Cherry Capital of the World.” The annual National Cherry Festival celebrates this important part of the state’s agricultural industry and culture.
Michigan’s two peninsulas are connected by the Mackinac Bridge, which crosses the waterway between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. This suspension bridge, one of the longest in the world, is regarded as a an iconic symbol and an engineering marvel. Located in Lake Huron, car-free Mackinac Island is a popular tourist destination known for its preserved 19th-century character, fudge, and the historic Grand Hotel.
Books Set in Michigan
History of Minnesota
Minnesota has a rich history, beginning with the Dakota and Ojibwe/Anishinaabe people, the state’s original inhabitants. European exploration started in the 17th century with French fur traders. Minnesota became a U.S. territory in 1849, following the Louisiana Purchase and subsequent treaties with Native Americans. It was admitted as the 32nd U.S. state in 1858.
The state’s fertile soil made it a leading producer of wheat. By the late 1800s, it was one of the top wheat-producing states in the U.S. This agriculture boom led to the development of related industries like flour milling. Minneapolis became a global leader in flour milling with companies like Pillsbury and General Mills utilizing the Mississippi River for their operations. Today, food processing remains a key segment of Minnesota’s economy, anchored by giants like General Mills, Hormel Foods, and Cargill.
Minnesota’s northern region borders Canada and showcases the rugged Boundary Waters, while the mighty Mississippi River originates in the state’s Itasca State Park. Known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” this nickname is no exaggeration. The state has over 11,000 lakes that are larger than 10 acres in size.
Hockey is exceptionally popular in Minnesota and is often considered part of the state’s identity, earning it another nickname: “The State of Hockey.” The long, cold winters create ideal conditions for ice hockey, both indoor and outdoor. Frozen lakes and ponds are natural venues for skating and hockey, making the sport accessible from a young age. The state boasts one of the highest rates of youth hockey participation in the US. Many children start playing at a young age, and the sport is a staple in community and school activities.
Separated by the Mississippi River, Minnesota’s Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are closely intertwined but still maintain their distinct identities. Minneapolis, the larger of the two, is known for its modern skyline and vibrant arts scene. St. Paul, the state capital, has a more historic and traditional character, with well-preserved neighborhoods and a focus on government and educational institutions. Other major cities include Duluth, Rochester, Bloomington, and Mankato.
Situated on Lake Superior’s shores, Duluth is a major port city known for its maritime heritage. The city offers stunning lake views and landmarks like the Aerial Lift Bridge. Home to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, Rochester is a hub for healthcare and medical research. Best known for housing the Mall of America, the largest shopping mall in the U.S., Bloomington is a suburban city with a strong retail and hospitality industry. Located in the southern part of the state, Mankato is a vibrant college town that is home to Minnesota State University.
Books Set in Minnesota
History of Wisconsin
The history of Wisconsin begins with the Native American tribes, like the Menominee, Ojibwe, and Ho-Chunk, who lived off this land for centuries. The arrival of French explorers ushered in an era of fur trading. By the early 19th century, lead mining attracted settlers to the region and paved the way for Wisconsin to become the 30th state in 1848. The lead miners often lived in temporary, makeshift homes as they moved around in search of rich lead deposits. These homes, dug into the hillsides or constructed hastily, resembled the burrows of badgers. The miners themselves were also compared to badgers, digging through the earth for lead ore. This association led to Wisconsin being nicknamed the “Badger State,” a name that has endured to this day.
In the late 19th century, dairy farming emerged as a significant industry in Wisconsin, earning Wisconsin the title “America’s Dairyland.” Today, the state is still renowned for its dairy production. Wisconsin leads the nation in cheese production, contributing a significant portion of the country’s total cheese output.
Wisconsin borders Lake Superior to the north and Lake Michigan to the east. Its landscape features rolling hills, vast forests, and over 15,000 lakes, including the notable Lake Winnebago. The Mississippi River forms part of its western border. Northern Wisconsin is part of the Northwoods, known for its thick forests and many lakes.
Situated on Lake Michigan’s western shore, Wisconsin’s largest city, Milwaukee, is known for its brewing history. Brew City is also known for its vibrant arts scene, including the Milwaukee Art Museum’s striking architecture. Nestled between Lakes Mendota and Monona, the state capital of Madison is home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is known for its political activism and progressive culture.
Other major cities in the state include Green Bay, Kenosha, Racine, and Eau Claire. Green Bay is an important port city on the Bay of Green Bay, an arm of Lake Michigan, and has a deep-seated passion for football as the home of the Packers. Located on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, Kenosha has a charming lakefront area and a rich history in manufacturing. Also situated along Lake Michigan, Racine is renowned for its architectural landmarks designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The city’s also has a strong Danish heritage reflected in its bakeries and the annual Danish Festival. Nestled at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers, the city of Eau Claire has a picturesque setting and a unique college-town charm.
Books Set in Wisconsin
We hope you enjoyed this book list and found several books to add to your TBR (to be read list). If you’re choosing a book for our reading challenge, you are also welcome to read any other book that meets the challenge prompt.
If you have a suggestion for a book that you think would be a great addition to this list, please fill out this form.
Book Recommendations for Other Regions of the USA
If you’re participating in our 2024 Read Around the USA Challenge and reading one book per region, you can find links to every region below. If you’re doing the Challenge and reading books from every state and territory, you can get an alphabetical index here.
- Books Set in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin
- Books Set in Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington DC
- Books Set in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota
- Books About Traveling Across America
- Books Set in California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington
- Books Set in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas
- Books Set in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware
- Books Set in Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and Nebraska
- Books Set in the U.S. Territories
- Books Set in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and Tennessee
- Books Set in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming
- Books Set in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont