Prairie State book worms: 20 noteworthy novels set in Illinois

Caitlin WilsonReboot Illinois

Mar 03, 2015

With an endless option of settings (big cities, small towns, and rural communities), political intrigue, industry giants and cultural offerings, Illinois is the perfect backdrop for a good story. Whether it’s written to entertain, scold or teach, these 20 novels set in Illinois use their settings as context for their plots.

1. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

By Mark Twain

huck finn

Huckleberry Finn, a young teenager, travels along the Mississippi River through Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Arkansas on a raft with Jim, who is escaping slavery. Huck’s abusive, alcoholic father, Pap, lives in the woods on the Illinois side of the Mississippi.

From Amazon:

The book is noted for its colorful description of people and places along the Mississippi River. Set in a Southern antebellum society that had ceased to exist about twenty years before the work was published, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an often scathing satire on entrenched attitudes, particularly racism.

2. A Long Way From Chicago (1998)

By Richard Peck

a long way from chicago


Two children from Chicago, Joey and Mary Alice, spend summers with the grandmother in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

From Amazon:

Join Joey and his sister Mary Alice as they spend nine unforgettable summers with the worst influence imaginable-their grandmother!

3. The House on Mango Street (1984)

By Sandra Cisneros

the house on mango street

The book tells the story of Esperanza Coredero growing up in Chicago, with the narrative broken up into short snippets.

From Amazon:

Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous – it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.

4. Native Son (1940)

By Richard Wright

native son

In 1930s Chicago, Bigger Thomas is growing up in a poor neighborhood on the South Side. The African-American youth kills a white woman and the book follows the story of the events leading up to his crime, the consequences of the murder his trial and its effect on his community.

From Amazon:

Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Wright’s powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.

5. Dandelion Wine (1957)

By Ray Bradbury

dandelion wine

The novel is set in Green Town, Ill., (a fictional place) in the 1920s, where the story of almost-teenager Douglas Spaulding and his family is set in a series of short stories.

From Amazon:

Ray Bradbury’s moving recollection of a vanished golden era remains one of his most enchanting novels. Dandelion Wine stands out in the Bradbury literary canon as the author’s most deeply personal work, a semi-autobiographical recollection of a magical small-town summer in 1928.

6. Ordinary People (1976)

By Judith Guest

ordinary people

The Jarrett family, living in Lake Forest, Ill., deal with the death of one of their sons and the subsequent suicide attempt of the other.

From Amazon:

In Ordinary People, Judith Guest’s remarkable first novel, the Jarrets are a typical American family. Calvin is a determined, successful provider and Beth an organized, efficient wife. They had two sons, Conrad and Buck, but now they have one. In this memorable, moving novel, Judith Guest takes the reader into their lives to share their misunderstandings, pain…and ultimate healing.

7. The Devil in the White City (2003)

By Erik Larson

devil in the white city

The book, which is part novel and part history, is based on the real events of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. It combines the telling of the history of the city through the eyes of architect Daniel Burnham and the story of serial killer Dr. H.H. Holmes.

From Amazon:

Erik Larson—author of #1 bestseller In the Garden of Beasts—intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World’s Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction. 

8. The Jungle (1906)

By Upton Sinclair

the jungle

Set in a Chicago factory, this novel was written to expose the physical and societal dangers of the industrial revolution. The main characters, the immigrant Rudkus family, work in the city’s meat-packing industry and have to endure horrendous work and living conditions to support themselves in the city and stay alive in the factory.

From Amazon:

An ardent activist, champion of political reform, novelist, and progressive journalist, Upton Sinclair is perhaps best known today for The Jungle — his devastating exposé of the meat-packing industry. A protest novel he privately published in 1906, the book was a shocking revelation of intolerable labor practices and unsanitary working conditions in the Chicago stockyards. It quickly became a bestseller, arousing public sentiment and resulting in such federal legislation as the Pure Food and Drug Act.

9. Sister Carrie (1900)

By Theodore Dreiser

sister carrie

Eighteen-year-old Carrie Meeber leaves her home in small-town Wisconsin to move to the big city of Chicago and live with her sister and brother-in-law. She works in difficult conditions in a shoe factory and begins a relationship with a salesman who showers her with gifts. She begins to associate with the theater community of Chicago before moving to New York.

From Amazon:

An 18-year-old girl without money or connections ventures forth from her small town in search of a better life in Theodore Dreiser’s revolutionary first novel. The chronicle of Carrie Meeber’s rise from obscurity to fame — and the effects of her progress on the men who use her and are used in turn — aroused a storm of controversy and debate upon its debut in 1900. The author’s nonjudgmental portrait of a heroine who violates the contemporary moral code outraged some critics and elated others. A century later, Dreiser’s compelling plot and realistic characters continue to fascinate readers. 

10. Molly: An American Girl (1990)

By Valerie Tripp


Meant as book companions to the American Girl Doll Molly McIntire, the six children’s novels follow the young girl living in Jefferson, Ill. as she deals with school, Halloween costumes and her father’s service in the military during World War II.

From Amazon:

For Molly McIntire, life seems full of change. It’s 1944 and the world is at war. Her father is far away caring for wounded soldiers. Her mother is busy working for the Red Cross. And everyone in America is so serious and practical that glamorous Halloween costumes are hard to get. Molly’s special hula skirt is a huge success–until Ricky, her pesty big brother, plays a mean trick. Molly and her friends are determined to get back at him. One mean trick leads to another until the fighting goes too far.

American Girl Dolls Lindsey Bergman and Marisol Luna are also accompanied by books set in Illinois.

11. Song of the Lark (1915)

By Willa Cather

song of the lark

A young artist, Thea, leaves her hometown in Colorado to move to Chicago to study singing and piano. The painting from which the title of the book comes hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.

From Amazon:

This is Cather’s coming-of-age classic—the story of a young artist who leaves the mediocrity of her home town to seek fame and success in the big city. A bittersweet reflection on severing oneself from one’s past relationships and surroundings, The Song of the Lark explores the loss that ultimately accompanies an artist’s highest achievements.

12. Adventures of Augie March (1953)

By Saul Bellow

augie march

Augie March is growing up in Chicago during the Great Depression with his brother and single mother. As he grows up, he trains for a series of jobs, before always moving on to the next one.

From Amazon:

As soon as it first appeared in 1953, this novel by the great Saul Bellow was hailed as an American classic. Augie, the exuberant narrator-hero is a poor Chicago boy growing up during the Great Deptression. A “born recruit,” Augie makes himself available for a series of occupations, then proudly rejects each one as unworthy. His own oddity is reflected in the companions he encounters—plungers, schemers, risk-takers, and “hole-and corner” operators like the would-be tycoon Einhorn or the would-be siren Thea, who travels with an eagle trained to hunt small creatures. This Penguin Classics edition, with an introduction by celebrated writer and critic Christopher Hitchens, makes a literary masterpiece available to a new generation of readers.

13. Divergent Series (2011)

By Veronica Roth


The triology, the first novel of which was adapted into a move in 2014, tells the story of Beatrice Prior, or Tris, who is growing up in a post-apocalyptic version of Chicago. She finds that she doesn’t fit into any of the five categories created by her dystopian society.

From Amazon:

One choice can transform you. Beatrice Prior’s society is divided into five factions—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). Beatrice must choose between staying with her Abnegation family and transferring factions. Her choice will shock her community and herself. But the newly christened Tris also has a secret, one she’s determined to keep hidden, because in this world, what makes you different makes you dangerous.

14. Then We Came to the End (2007)

By Joshua Ferris

then we came to the end

The novel examines an ad agency workplace environment and how relationships develop among coworkers.

From Amazon:

No one knows us quite the same way as the men and women who sit beside us in department meetings and crowd the office refrigerator with their labeled yogurts.  Every office is a family of sorts, and the ad agency Joshua Ferris brilliantly depicts in his debut novel is family at its strangest and best, coping with a business downturn in the time-honored way: through gossip, pranks, and increasingly frequent coffee breaks.
     With a demon’s eye for the details that make life worth noticing, Joshua Ferris tells a true and funny story about survival in life’s strangest environment–the one we pretend is normal five days a week.

15. Across Five Aprils (1964)

By Irene Hunt

across five aprils


This children’s book tells the story of Jethro Creighton as he grows up during in 1860s Jasper County, Illinois, during the American Civil War. His family begins to split along Union and Confederate lines and fractures further when his brother is killed in the war.

From Amazon:

The Newbery Award winning author of Up a Road Slowly presents the unforgettable story of Jethro Creighton—a brave boy who comes of age during the turbulent years of the Civil War.

16. Book of Ruth (1988)

By Jane Hamilton

book of ruth

Set in Honey Creek, Ill., Ruth dreams of leaving her hometown, where she lives with her mother after her father left the family and her brother moves to college in Boston. Ruth marries and has a child, but becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her life with her alcoholic husband before the situation violently comes to a head and Ruth is left to reflect on her difficult life.

From Amazon:

Winner of the 1989 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award  for best first novel, this exquisite book  confronts real-life issues of alienation and violence  from which the author creates a stunning testament  to the human capacity for mercy, compassion and  love.

17. The Dresden Files (2000)

By Jim Butcher


This series of mystery novels follows Chicago-based magical detective Harry Dresden as he investigates supernatural occurrences in the city.  There are 15 books in the set.

From Amazon:

For Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, business, to put it mildly, stinks. So when the police bring him in to consult on a grisly double murder committed with black magic, Harry’s seeing dollar signs. But where there’s black magic, there’s a black mage behind it. And now that mage knows Harry’s name.

18. Summer of Night (1991)

By Dan Simmons

summer of night

This horror novel is set in 1960 in Elm Haven, Ill. Five friends discover a dead body and realize something terrifying is happening in their town.

From Amazon:

It’s the summer of 1960 and in the small town of Elm Haven, Illinois, five twelve-year-old boys are forging the powerful bonds that a lifetime of change will not break.  From sunset bike rides to shaded hiding places in the woods, the boys’ days are marked by all of the secrets and silences of an idyllic middle-childhood.  But amid the sundrenched cornfields their loyalty will be pitilessly tested. When a long-silent bell peals in the middle of the night, the townsfolk know it marks the end of their carefree days. From the depths of the Old Central School, a hulking fortress tinged with the mahogany scent of coffins, an invisible evil is rising.  Strange and horrifying events begin to overtake everyday life, spreading terror through the once idyllic town.  Determined to exorcize this ancient plague, Mike, Duane, Dale, Harlen, and Kevin must wage a war of blood—against an arcane abomination who owns the night…

19. The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)

By Audrey Niffenegger

time traveler's wife

A man spends his life jumping between moments of his life, traveling through time without warning, sometimes leaving his wife alone as an adult and sometimes showing up to visit her as a child.

From Amazon:

A dazzling novel in the most untraditional fashion, this is the remarkable story of Henry DeTamble, a dashing, adventuresome librarian who travels involuntarily through time, and Clare Abshire, an artist whose life takes a natural sequential course. Henry and Clare’s passionate love affair endures across a sea of time and captures the two lovers in an impossibly romantic trap, and it is Audrey Niffenegger’s cinematic storytelling that makes the novel’s unconventional chronology so vibrantly triumphant.

20. Zombie, Illinois (2012)

By Scott Kenemore

zombie illinois

The sequel to Zombie, Ohio, follows three Chicagoans (a South Side priest, a reporter and a musician) in the midst of a zombie attack on the city.

From Amazon:

Between the barricaded neighborhoods and violent zombie hunters, the trio encounters many mysterious occurrences that leave them shaken and disturbed. When the mayor of Chicago is eaten by zombies on live television, and a group of shady aldermen attempt to seize power in the vacuum, these unlikely friends realize that they have stumbled upon a conspiracy to overthrow the city . . . and that they alone may be qualified to combine their talents to stop it.

Related: Brazilian accounting tricks alive and well in Illinois
Sep 06, 2016

Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, has been kicked out of office for cooking the books in violation of the country’s Fiscal Responsibility Law. It appears her largest offense is diverting funds…

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