7 Books Set in Indiana, Heartland of the Midwest
Deborah E. Kennedy, author of "Billie Starr’s Book of Sorries," recommends books by Hoosier State writers
When I first started dating my partner, I mentioned to his family that I was from Fort Wayne, Indiana, a town famous for having a mayor named Harry Baals (pronounced the dirty way) and for being, according to Men’s Health magazine, the third most sexually satisfied city in America, three years running. Despite being armed with such noteworthy trivia, my boyfriend’s parents still insisted on telling their friends I was from somewhere in Nebraska. Maybe Illinois or Iowa, they said. One of those flat, forgettable states with a lot of corn and a vaguely backward population that seemed to subsist solely on a diet of mayonnaise-based casseroles and basketball. My almost in-laws are lovely people, by the way. Not a bit snobby or inattentive as a rule, but they were born and have lived most of their lives in Oregon. Until I came around, they hadn’t mingled much with Midwesterners, so to them, one flyover state was as good as another.
That kind of casual dismissal used to bother me, used to rankle, and I would go to great lengths to prove my individuality and defend my home state against any perceived slight-slash-indifference. Now, though? I mostly let it go. I’m older, I’ve mellowed, and I’ve also come to believe that being written off by whole swaths of one’s countrymen can actually be a boon, particularly if you’re a writer. There is no more fertile territory than the unknown. The writer Michael Martone, also from Fort Wayne, often puts it this way: most readers know more about India than they do about Indiana. That means Hoosier writers have the chance to introduce the wider world to the state’s northern lakes, central plains, and rugged, southern hills and to the complex, fascinating, and funny people who live there. What a privilege.
Stories set in Indiana have a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf. Here are just a few of my favorites.
Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford
The words “heart-wrenching” and “wondrous” and “powerful” and “richly observed” have all been used to describe this award-winning memoir of family, Black girlhood and Black joy, racial strife, and self-actualization, and they all apply. All of those words and then some. Ford, a Fort Wayne native, writes of growing up without her father—during her formative years, he was serving time in a local prison—and of working tirelessly to earn her mother’s love. When Ford is sexually assaulted by a boy from her school, she learns the truth behind her father’s imprisonment: he is in jail for rape. Rather than allowing this realization to tear her world apart, Ford makes herself whole through the act of writing. This book is as inspiring and enthralling as it gets.
The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty
Read enough books set in Indiana, by Indiana writers, and you’ll start to notice the rust. The rust and rot and despair at the center of things, and that’s because the state used to be one of America’s most productive industrial hubs. Well-paid manufacturing jobs were everywhere… until they weren’t.
In this luminous National Book Award-winning debut, Tess Gunty takes us to the fictional town of Vacca Vale and the affordable housing complex, La Lapinière, commonly referred to as the Rabbit Hutch, where a smart and ambitious young woman named Blandine ruminates on Christian female mystics and ponders an act of eco-terrorism. Without resorting to spoilers, I’ll just say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and if you’ve noticed this book’s title being bandied about for some of the top awards in publishing, that’s no coincidence. It manages to achieve that much-sought after but rarely realized goal of an ending that is both surprising and inevitable. I can’t wait to see what Gunty writes next.
Plain Air: Sketches from Winesburg, Indiana by Michael Martone
If you thought Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio was a smoldering study in Midwestern dreams deferred, imagine a larger cast of characters transplanted to a post-industrial Indiana town where everyone’s lives are thrown into disarray—and often discontentment—by the closure of the local eraser factory. Then you have some idea of the unique magic of Michael Martone’s Plain Air: Sketches from Winesburg, Indiana. Martone has become one of Indiana’s most beloved writers, next to Kurt Vonnegut and Gene Stratton-Porter, thanks in no small part to his intimate knowledge of the workings of the human—and Hoosier—heart. Plain Air is soulful and funny and deft and anything but plain. It crackles and sparkles like fireworks over knee-high corn and then falls back down to earth in embers to burn there in secret.
Pimp My Airship by Maurice Broaddus
Hoosiers often refer to their capital city as “India-no-place.” It’s a gentle dig at its modest nightlife and overall mild vibes, but anyone who’s read Maurice Broaddus’s take on the town might beg to differ. In his hands, Indianapolis is unrecognizable, but for a few familiar place names. Set in a vague, dystopian future after America lost the Revolutionary War, Pimp My Airship follows the misadventures of the poet Sleepy, his sidekick, (120 Degrees of) Knowledge Allah, and a privileged young woman named Sophine awakened to the politics of oppression when her father is murdered. Broaddus brings his characters and all the disparate, shining threads of the story together in a big and beautiful masterstroke at the end. Never has Indianapolis seemed more steampunky.
The Town of Whispering Dolls by Susan Neville
The dolls on your great aunt’s guest bed are creepy, sure, but they can’t hold a candle to the roaming— and headless—dolls that haunt this beautiful and strange collection from Indianapolis native Susan Neville. Neville, a professor of creative writing at Butler University and the author of The Invention of Flight, Indiana Winter, and the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award-winning In the House of Blue Lights, imbues these stories with just the right amount of magic realism and lyricism, as well as righteous anger and no-nonsense grit. In “Here,” one of the book’s standout pieces, a grieving mother lashes out at war plane flying overhead. In another, “Plume,” a politician skips town, poisoning the place in his wake. Neville’s world of ghostly robots and misunderstood marionettes pining for a different life would almost defy description if it weren’t somehow so viscerally familiar.
All Good People Here by Ashley Flowers
First things first, it doesn’t get any more Midwestern, any more Hoosier, than insisting that your town is full to the brim with good people. We’ve all heard the shopworn line, “things like that just don’t happen here, not in our nice, tight-knit community.” Ashley Flowers, known to her legions of fans as the host of popular podcast Crime Junkie, is more than happy to set the record straight in this transporting, fast-paced novel about murder and memory set in the small town of Wakarusa.
Margot Davies, a Wakarusa native and a successful journalist, returns to Indiana to take care of her ailing uncle. Soon, she’s swept up in the investigation of two murders, one of which took place when she was still a young girl. Spoiler alert: the ending’s ambiguous, but it’s clear that Margot learns some hard lessons about herself and the pleasures and perils of going home again.
In God We Trust (All Others Pay Cash) by Jean Shepherd
In my humblest of opinions, no list of noteworthy authors writing in or about Indiana is complete without Jean Shepherd, the Hoosier humorist best known these days for being the narrator of the perennial holiday favorite, “The Christmas Story.” You know, that wacky comedy about Ralphie and his tireless— some might say problematic and unhealthily obsessive—quest for a Red Rider air rifle? The movie is based on a handful of linked narratives that form the heart of this zany, sweetly observed novel based on Shepherd’s Hammond, Indiana childhood. Framed as a very long conversation with a very patient barkeep, In God We Trust is a hilarious and tender sendup of family, home, and the seductive powers of nostalgia.