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10 Novels Set in the Great State of Wisconsin

The dairyland gets the literary treatment in these page-turners.

Novels can be portals to fantastic and otherworldly places—magical grade schools filled with moving staircases, epic battlefields overrun by vicious orcs, antique wardrobes that lead to snow-covered kingdoms, or even Russia. But sometimes you want nothing more than a story that reminds you of home.

1) The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

After the murder millionaire Sam Westing, sixteen unrelated would-be heirs are brought together at the Sunset Towers, a brand-new apartment complex Westing built on Lake Michigan, and given strange clues that send them all around the city — whoever figures out the mystery first gets Westing’s fortune and control of his company. This book has transcended its initial “children’s novel” classification and still maintains a following of vocal adult fans, including Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn and actor Neil Patrick Harris.

2) Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub

Stephen King, the godfather of the modern horror novel, rarely ventures outside of Maine, his home turf, when he’s creating a new story. But Peter Straub, a Wisconsin native, finally brought the Nightmare Master over to Cheese Land for their joint novel Black House. A sequel to their 1984 joint novel The Talisman, Black House revisits protagonist Jack Sawyer nearly twenty years later. Now an LAPD detective, Sawyer is sent to chase down a murderer in the fictional town of French Landing, Wisconsin, which provides mystery, thrills and crushing cosmic horror in a way that only small Wisconsin villages can.

3) Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

This novel follows four childhood friends who grew up in the small town of Little Wing, Wisconsin, where they re-converge as grown men. Full of the memories and conflict that homecomings always bring, Shotgun Lovesongs is a rewarding slice of Wisconsin life.

4) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Most scholars agree that Shakespeare’s biggest mistake was failing to set Hamlet in Wisconsin. Thankfully, David Wroblewski decided to take that legendary play, toss out all the Denmark crap, and turn it into an epic Wisconsin novel starring Edgar Sawtelle, a boy born mute, who lives near the Chequamegon National Forest with his family and their multiple hounds.

5) The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Set at Westish College, a fictional liberal arts school along the shores of Lake Michigan in northeastern Wisconsin, this novel follows a college baseball team, the Harpooners, across their Herman Melville-influenced season. If you happened to attend college in the northern reaches of the state, this novel captures the atmosphere of those times with great success. It also garnered a number of accolades, including the Guardian First Book Award. Harbach grew up in Racine, himself, and also founded successful literary magazine n+1.

6) The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go by Amy Reichert

Milwaukee-based writer Amy Reichert catalogues three generations of Wisconsin womenGina Zoberski, who runs a gourmet grilled cheese food truck, her critical mother Lorraine and her rebellious daughter May. After Lorraine suffers a severe stroke, Gina uncovers a family secret that sends her searching for answers. The novel is replete with in-depth sensory descriptions of food, making it the perfect pre-dinner read.

7) A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan

This haunting novel takes place just after the Civil War in the town of Friendship, Wisconsin. Jacob Hansen, a troubled veteran, returns to the town to care for his wife and daughter after the conflict has ended. The town experiences a summer drought and a diphtheria outbreak. It’s not exactly a beach read, but if you’re looking for some quality pain and suffering in your literature, this is the Wisconsin novel for you.

8) Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kagen

Sally and Margaret O’Malley are two young sisters in 1950s Milwaukee. They’ve lost their father, they’re mother is hospitalized and their stepfather is abusive. Against this backdrop, the sisters learn of the local murder of two young girls just like them and realize they could easily become the killer’s next target.

9) Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Wisconsin has been a setting for great literature for nearly a century now. Wilder fictionalized her 1870s upbringing in Pepin, Wisconsin, where she lived in the woods with her family. The novel, published in 1932 and the first of the immensely popular Little House series, is an American classic, and a worthwhile look at life in frontier Wisconsin.

10) American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Have you ever wondered what it might be like if a bevy of ancient mythological pals decided to hang out in Wisconsin for a while? Neil Gaiman has. The novel tells the story of a god- and goddess-filled roadtrip across the country, a country populated by gods old and new — the Odin, Anansi, Anubis types, and new gods like Technical Boy and Media. During this epic tale, our human protagonist Shadow drives through Madison, visits a holy site in central Wisconsin and then spends a significant chunk of the story hanging out “up north” — an activity we can all appreciate.



Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.