Whether you’re participating in our Read Around the USA Challenge, or simply found your way to our website researching books set in America’s Heartland, you’ve come to the right place!
A search for “where is the heartland of America” will return many different results. Definitions focus on a range of factors from geography and agriculture to shared values. Some people use “heartland” synonymously with “the Midwest.” However, the more common definition includes a wider area, stretching north to south through the middle of the country.
The states featured this month, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and Nebraska, are located right in the center of the Heartland – the middle of the middle. You can find books set in the other Heartland states using our alphabetical index.
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 middle of the country. The list is broken down by state. You’ll also find a brief description of each state’s characteristics before the corresponding books.
Books That Take Place in the Middle of America’s Heartland
Books Set in Iowa
The first inhabitants of Iowa were Native Americans, including the Ioway and Sioux tribes, who lived in the area for thousands of years. In the 1800s, Iowa was part of the Louisiana Purchase, and it became a state in 1846.
The state’s early economy was based on agriculture, and today it remains the leading producer of corn and soybeans. It is also a significant producer of hogs, cattle, and eggs. Manufacturing, including food processing, is another major industry in the state.
For more than half a century, Iowa has been in the national political spotlight due to its early presidential caucuses. Since 1972, this has given the Hawkeye State disproportionate influence in the presidential nominating process. A strong showing in Iowa can boost a candidate in the polls, and the momentum helps them raise money.
The Iowa State Fair, which dates back to 1854, is the largest event in the state each year and one of the most popular state fairs in the country. Held annually in Des Moines, it features a variety of agricultural exhibits, livestock shows, and entertainment. Because the fair is held in the fall, six months before the caucuses, it’s also a very popular place for presidential candidates to campaign.
Among the popular tourist destinations in Iowa are the Bridges of Madison County, made famous by the 1992 book of the same title, and later the 1995 movie adaptation. While the book didn’t make our list (it hasn’t aged particularly well, in our opinion), we’d love to drive the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway, which runs through John Wayne’s hometown of Winterset.
Books About Kansas
While Middle America is a colloquial term often used to describe the group of states in the center of the country, Kansas is, quite literally, the middle of America. According to the United States Geological Survey, the geographic center of the lower 48 states is just outside of Lebanon, Kansas.
If you’ve never visited Kansas, then what you envision likely comes from the books you read as a kid. Thanks to the adventures of the Ingalls family living in their Little House on the Prairie, you can probably envision the vast, flat agricultural landscape. And Dorothy getting swept away from her Kansas home and dropped into the Emerald City, where she meets The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, probably left you weary of the powerful tornados that can ravage the Great Plains. But, of course, there’s much more to the Sunflower State than that.
As Dorothy said, “there’s no place like home,” and there’s no place quite like Kansas - from the expansive tallgrass prairies to the rolling Flint Hills, and from the small town charm to the aviation and aerospace industries of Witchita. And, of course, we’d be remiss not to mention the BBQ!
Kansas is home to Indigenous peoples of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kansa, Osage, Pawnee, Kiowa, Wichita, and Comanche tribes, among others. In the early 1800s, the westward expansion of the US reached Kansas, and in 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act created the Kansas Territory. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery soldiers began fighting for control of this land, leading to a violent period of conflict known as Bleeding Kansas. In 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state, and it played a significant role in the Civil War, providing soldiers and supplies to the Union army.
Books About Kentucky
When most of us think of Kentucky, horse racing is the first thing that comes to mind, with bourbon perhaps being a close second. Both of these are major economic drivers in the Bluegrass State, contributing billions of dollars to the economy each year.
The Kentucky Derby, held annually on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, is one of the most famous horse races in the world. The Kentucky Derby was first run in 1875 and has been held every year since, except for 1918 and 1945, when it was canceled due to World War I and World War II, respectively. Since 1950, this race has been part of the Triple Crown series (although the Crown was retroactively awarded to horses going back to 1919).
Horses also played an important role in Kentucky’s history long before the first Derby.
Many Native American tribes once called Kentucky home, including the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, and the Shawnee. Europeans migrated to Kentucky in the mid-to late-1700s across the Appalachian Mountains and through the Cumberland Gap. These early settlers, including most famously Daniel Boone, arrived on horseback and with pack horses because the Gap was too narrow for wagons. Soon after that, they began establishing Kentucky’s first racetracks. As the Europeans encroached on the land of the Indigenous people, horse thefts were common between the groups.
In 1792, Kentucky became the 15th state and the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains. When the Civil War began in 1861, Kentucky - the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln - officially declared its neutrality, although some 35,000 Kentuckians ultimately served as Confederate soldiers, and 125,000 served as Union soldiers. Race horses were also in high demand during the war, and many farms were raided for horses to carry out war duties.
Sixty years later, during the Great Depression, horses took on a new role as part of the Pack Horse Librarian project. The program hired women to deliver books and magazines to rural communities in Eastern Kentucky on horseback.
Books Set in Missouri
Long before the arrival of Europeans in Missouri, the land was inhabited by Native American tribes, including the Kickapoo, Shawnee, and Osage, among others. Due to its location on the border between the Union and Confederacy, Missouri was a hotbed of political tension in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and its strategic location along the Mississippi River made it the site of numerous Civil War battles.
Missouri was home to Mark Twain, who wrote the classics The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which are both set in pre-Civil War Missouri.
In the early 1860s, Kansas City also served as an essential hub for the Pony Express. This mail delivery service was only in operation for 18 months, but Kansas City was the starting point for all mail deliveries heading westward.
Missouri’s two largest cities are located 250 miles apart on opposite sides of the state. Kansas City, the larger of the two cities, overlaps the western border of Kansas and Missouri, while St. Louis is located on the eastern border, near Illinois. Today the two cities each have a unique character. St. Louis was founded nearly 90 years before Kansas City, so the city features a mix of classic and modern buildings, as well as the iconic Gateway Arch. Kansas City is known for its laid-back midwestern vibe and vibrant jazz music scene.
The Ozarks Mountains - which are actually a heavily forested series of plateaus - cover much of the southern half of Missouri. While the Ozarks have been the subject of negative stereotypes over the years, this area boasts outstanding natural beauty and a rich cultural heritage, including bluegrass music, gospel music, quilting, basket weaving, and pottery.
Books Set in Nebraska
As the song goes, “Omaha, somewhere in middle America.” While Nebraska often gets lumped together with other midwestern, agricultural states, there is plenty that makes this state unique.
Long before the arrival of the first Europeans, Nebraska was home to numerous Native American tribes, including the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux. In 1803, the US purchased a large amount of land west of the Mississippi River from France, including the area now known as Nebraska. In 1866, Congress passed a statehood bill for Nebraska, but President Andrew Johnson vetoed it. In February of 1867, Congress overrode Johnson’s veto. Nebraska became the 37th state in the Union, and the only state ever admitted over a presidential veto.
Nebraska is often referred to as the Cornhusker State, which is also the mascot of the University of Nebraska, located in Lincoln. During home football games, Memorial Stadium at UNL (capacity 85,000) has the third-largest population in Nebraska. The state is also home to the College World Series, the NCAA baseball tournament that has been held in Omaha each June since 1950.
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, which spans over 130 acres, is consistently ranked one of the best in the world. The zoo is home to the Lied Jungle (North America’s largest indoor rainforest), the Desert Dome (one of the world’s largest indoor deserts), and Kingdoms of the Night (the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit and indoor swamp). The conservation work conducted by the zoo also has a global impact. Other popular tourist attractions in Nebraska range from Chimney Rock (a towering rock formation designated as a National Historic Site) to Carhenge (an artist-created replica of Stonehenge built with cars instead of stones).
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