As the weather begins to cool and we head into National Novel Writing Month—and as we look for any excuse to distract from the constant harassment of presidential election coverage—it is a perfect time to escape into a good book.
The state of Michigan, for its part, has produced several incredibly gifted authors, as we’ve discussed before, but let’s take the search to a more specified level. We’re not just talking about authors, we’re looking for the best books that are set in Michigan that have been published over the last 25 years.
Now, a conclusive list may be difficult to draft. We will certainly not pretend this list is definite and unalterable, especially as new literature surrounding the Great Lakes State continues to be written, but the noteworthy books below should find a way onto every bookshelf in northern Michigan.
Before we countdown our list of five, we have two honorable mentions: Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven and Travis Mulhauser’s 2016 debut novel Sweetgirl. The former is a story set mostly along Michigan’s Lower Peninsula coastline following a flu pandemic that kills off most of the world’s population, and it was nominated for the National Book Award. The latter takes us to Mulhauser’s hometown of Petoskey, or the fictional Cutler County as it’s called in the book, and follows a brave 16-year-old girl as she struggles to find her lost mother in harsh blizzard. Both are fast-paced and captivating reads.
5. The First Phone Call from Heaven by Mitch Albom (2013)
From Goodreads: “The First Phone Call from Heaven tells the story of a small town on Lake Michigan that gets worldwide attention when its citizens start receiving phone calls from the afterlife. Is it the greatest miracle ever or a massive hoax? Sully Harding, a grief-stricken single father, is determined to find out. An allegory about the power of belief—and a page-turner that will touch your soul—Albom’s masterful storytelling has never been so moving and unexpected.”
4. Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell (2011)
From Goodreads: “Bonnie Jo Campbell has created an unforgettable heroine in sixteen-year-old Margo Crane, a beauty whose unflinching gaze and uncanny ability with a rifle have not made her life any easier. After the violent death of her father, in which she is complicit, Margo takes to the Stark River in her boat, with only a few supplies and a biography of Annie Oakley, in search of her vanished mother. But the river, Margo’s childhood paradise, is a dangerous place for a young woman traveling alone, and she must be strong to survive, using her knowledge of the natural world and her ability to look unsparingly into the hearts of those around her. Her river odyssey through rural Michigan becomes a defining journey, one that leads her beyond self-preservation and to the decision of what price she is willing to pay for her choices.”
3. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (1999)
From Goodreads: “It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan. Times may be hard, and ten-year-old Bud may be a motherless boy on the run, but Bud’s got a few things going for him: 1. He has his own suitcase filled with his own important, secret things. 2. He’s the author of Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself. 3. His momma never told him who his father was, but she left a clue: flyers of Herman E. Calloway and his famous band, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression! Bud’s got an idea that those flyers will lead him to his father. Once he decides to hit the road and find this mystery man, nothing can stop him—not hunger, not fear, not vampires, not even Herman E. Calloway himself. Bud, Not Buddy is full of laugh-out-loud humor and wonderful characters, hitting the high notes of jazz and sounding the deeper tones of the Great Depression. Once again Christopher Paul Curtis, author of the award-winning novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham, takes readers on a heartwarming and unforgettable journey.”
2. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)
From Goodreads: “Middlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967 before moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret, and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic.”
1. True North by Jim Harrison (2004)
From Goodreads: “True North is the story of a family torn apart and a man engaged in profound reckoning with the damage scarred into the American soil. The scion of a family of wealthy timber barons, David Burkett has grown up with a father who is a malevolent force more than a father, and a mother made vague and numb by alcohol and pills. He and his sister, Cynthia, a firecracker who scandalizes the family at fourteen by taking up with the son of their Finnish-Native American gardener, are mostly left to make their own way, and often to play parent to their dissolute elders. As David comes to adulthood—often guided and enlightened by the unforgettable, intractable, courageous women he loves—he realizes he must come to terms with his forefathers’ rapacious destruction of the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as well as the working people who made their wealth possible. In the course of thirty years of searching for the truth of what his family has done and trying to make amends, David looks closely at the root of his father’s evil – and threatens to destroy himself.”