I recently heard Rilla Askew speak, and she eloquently described the influence that Oklahoma has on her writing. Eschewing classification as a regional author, she insists that Oklahoma, the place, allows her to explore American issues and ideas. Oklahoma seems to function as a character in her novels. Just read these opening lines from The Mercy Seat: “There are voices in the earth, telling truth in old stories. Go down to the hidden places by the waters, listen: you will hear them, buried in sand and clay.” The place that Askew reveals is alive with memory, secrets, and knowledge; you can almost hear it breathing. Askew is deeply influenced by Southern writers, notably William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. But, I believe Oklahoma literature also has rightful place among the fiction of the Midwest.
Perhaps because I inhabit the northeastern corner of our state and I’m geographically closer to the Great Plains than the Mississippi delta, I find more in common with the fiction of the Midwest than that of the Deep South. And, perhaps because of my own ancestors’ poverty, no-nonsense work ethic, and stoicism, I can relate to the steely reserve and practicality of many characters in Midwestern fiction. Below are some of my favorite titles that are firmly rooted in the landscape, character, and feeling of the Midwest.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Plainsong by Kent Haruf
My Antonia by Willa Cather
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal –A new favorite, this novel is a recent release.
I’m sure that I am overlooking many. What are your favorite Midwestern novels? Earlier this year, The Daily Beast implored us to “Respect the Midwest!” See why writer Anna Clark wants you to reconsider this “mythic landscape” and view her own list of the best novels on the Midwest.