Map of books set in Illinois written by Illinois authors on Andrea Reads America
Andrea Reads America: Illinois

Illinois is home to Chicago — the biggest city in the midwest. When researching Illinois, it was tricky deciding among the many novels set in The Windy City: The Jungle, The Adventures of Augie March, Maud Martha. Unlike my usual trouble of trying to find one non-caucasion author, I was excited to see the diversty inherent in Chicago-based literature — African American men and women authors; Hispanic men and women authors — and I ultimately settled on Native Son and The House on Mango Street from Chicago.

But Chicago is not the only place in Illinois. Like every state, Illinois is also home to  small towns, and to agriculture: to endless rows of corn. In addition to the books set in Chicago, I chose a couple of small town novels to get a feel for other parts of the state: Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Book of Ruth. The write-up below is for The Book of Ruth, but if you enjoy Ray Bradbury, and want another glimpse of small town Illinois, I recommend Something Wicked This Way Comes as well.

Native Son book cover by Richard WrightNovel: Native Son
Author: Richard Wright, moved to Chicago at 19
Setting: 1930s southside Chicago, IL
Categories: Literary fiction, African American Literature

Set in Chicago, Illinois in the 1930s, Native Son is not a sugar-coated tale. It is a tale of a black man trapped by rules that pin him down, pen him in, force him to live in a certain (rat-infested) part of the city, make him only have certain kinds of (subservient) jobs, instill fear in him in every interaction in the wold of whites, and kill his ambitions (to be a pilot) because in the world he lives in, he will never realize those dreams.

Native Son is the story of crime and criminals, and specifically, the crimes of Bigger Thomas, who, because he is a black man, is deemed a criminal before he commits his first crime.

In Native Son, Bigger Thomas is not a hero. He is not likable. He commits atrocious acts, knowingly, and without remorse. But what’s fascinating about Native Son is the psychology of those crimes. As Wright writes in the powerful courtroom scene, when Bigger is on trial for the murder and rape of a white woman,

Do men regret when they kill in war? Does the personality of a soldier coming at you over the top of a trench matter? No! You kill to keep from being killed!

The genius in Native Son is Wright’s ability to get us inside the mind and emotions of a poor black man who turns to crime because it is the only way he can truly be liberated — it is the only way he has control over his own life. Bigger is not admirable. The reader is not on his side. But he represents something bigger (ha!): what happens to humans when they are not free.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros book cover Novel: The House on Mango Street
Author: Sandra Cisneros, born Chicago, IL
Setting: Chicago, IL
Categories: Vignettes, Hispanic Literature

The House on Mango Street is a small book where every word has impact. Set in the Latino district in Chicago in the 1950s, Mango is a series of vignettes from the life of Esperanza, who comes of age in the book. Cisneros is a poet, and her artistry with words is a gift to anyone who reads this novella. Her language is colorful, moving, and engages all the sense, as in the half-page chapter called “Hairs”:

But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pincurls all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring. The snoring, the rain, and Mama’s hair that smells like bread.

Cisnero’s prose jumps off the page, and the plot happens underneath them. The novel begins when Esperanza is a young girl, pedaling bicycles with her friends or piling in a neighbor’s cousin’s shiny yellow Cadillac with 12 other kids, riding around the block several times. It progresses through watching a friend, Sally, mature, and the ugliness that happens to Sally with boys, with Sally’s father, and with Sally’s 8th grade marriage to an abusive man who keeps her locked inside.

The House on Mango Street progresses through ugliness in Esperanza’s own life, to her deep desire to escape, and ultimately to her writing to remember the friends and neighbors she left behind. The result is beautiful.

The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton book cover Novel: The Book of Ruth
Author: Jane Hamilton, raised Oak Park, IL
Setting: Northern Illinois
Categories: Literary Fiction

In The Book of Ruth, we move away from Chicago and into small town northern Illinois. The setting seems to be the 1970s, but really, the story is timeless. Hamilton depicts the life of a down and out, common, poor girl, Ruth: a girl with a mean mother and without a role model to help her rise up from her poverty-stricken situation.

Despite self-talk of stupidy, Ruth, who is our narrator, writes eloquently. She devours audio-books, especially Dicknes, when she keeps her blind neighbor company, yet she fails all her subjects in school. She is low and without guidance, and as a result lives the only life she feels she is capable of living: working at the town dry cleaner, finding her glory on the bowling team, and marrying a toothless man she fell in love with when she found him drinking beer, lounging in an inner tube in the middle of the lake.

Ruth is an innocent, and a bad life happens to her. This book could be set anywhere — the corn and the winters put it in Illinois — and it is a story of how difficult it is to break out of what we are born into. Ruth manages to maintain a raw hope, and innocent love, in the face of a life that would break most of us.

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