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An Iowan Reading List: Books that Evoke the Spirit and Place of Iowa


Whether it brings you into a specific place, period, or just articulates that inexplicable feeling of home, a good book has a special ability to illicit the spirit and energy of a place unlike any other medium.

On this hour of Talk of Iowa, a look at books that evoke Iowa as a place and culture.

Host Charity Nebbe is joined by Adult Services Coordinator at Iowa City Public Library Maeve Clark, Adult Services Librarian at as Carnegie-Stout Public Library in Dubuque Mike May, and Professor of Librarianship at Drake University Bruce Gilbert.

Here are a few of our book experts' top picks for “books that evoke Iowa.”

Maeve's Picks

The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa by Marvin Bergman, Davud Hudson, and Loren Horton

“It is a biographical dictionary of Iowa people. If you want to know about people in Iowa, particularly early people, it’s a great place to start.”

A Thousand Acres and Some Luck by Jane Smiley

“(Jane Smiley) writes so well about Iowa, and she doesn’t sugar coat anything, but she’s also very humorous. I really like A Thousand Acres because it shows what can happen on a family farm, and there’s no way you can talk about Iowa and not talk about farms and agriculture.”

Little Heathens: Hard Times by Mildred Armstrong Kalish

“It’s a great intergenerational book. So if you have a child in your life who doesn’t really know what happened in the Great Depression, you can share the stories of the Great Depression… Mildred Armstrong Kalish writes splendidly of the story of her life and how hard it was during The Depression and how the family stuck together.”  

Other notable titles from Maeve….

  • An Iowa Album: A Photographic History 1860-1920 by Mary Bennett
  • The life and times of the Thunderbolt Kid : a memoir by Bill Bryson
  • Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper by Art Cullen
  • Ghosts of Johnson County by Lori Erikson
  • Life of Black Hawk by Black Hawk

Mike's Picks 

A Stretch on the River by Richard Bissell

“He wrote about Dubuque, Iowa and his life on the river in Dubuque… a city that he really loved. If you want to understand Dubuque, read Richard Bissel.”

Memories of a Non-Jewish Childhood by Robert Byrne

“It describes what growing up Catholic in Dubuque was like, the struggle between being pious and devout, while being human with flaws. Very funny and irreverent. The mannerisms and attitudes persist, and the cityscape.”

Not a Sound by Heather Gudenkauf

“This book was kind of based on Dubuque. It’s not named as Dubuque, but when you’re from here and you read it, you can start to recognize coffee shops and businesses and it kind of makes you feel like you’re inside of the story looking outwards. It’s a really great experience.”

Other notable titles from Mike…

  • By the Iowa Sea by Joe Blair
  • Universal Harvester  by John Darnielle
  • 7 ½ Cents by Richard Bissell
  • Before She Was Found by Heather Gudenkauf (coming soon!)

Bruce's Picks

 Arrowood by Laura McHugh

“A ‘mystery’ novel set almost entirely in Keokuk, this deserves more readers than it has gotten so far. Told from the viewpoint of a young woman who moved away and then came back to take care of the family home, the author presents present-day Keokuk as a central, vital character.”

Interior Places by Lisa Knopp

“Even as a lifelong Iowan, one learns many new things from this book: That there was a large atomic-bomb building facility in Muscatine that is still fenced off; the nature of Aldus Leopold's youth in the state; and the history and future of the loess hills. The book is extremely readable.”

Sugar Creek Almanac, by Cornelia Mutel

“It’s a very well written book. It's kind of a Sand County Almanac of Iowa. That’s one way to think about it. It goes through the seasons through one particular year, and it’s interspersed with stories of the challenges we have with carbon…”

Other notable titles from Bruce…

  • Bottomland by Michelle Hoover
  • Interior Places by Lisa Knopp
  • Moo by Jane Smiley
  • How to Light a Water Heater and Other War Stories by Donald Kaul
  • Home by Marilynne Robinson
Katelyn Harrop is a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa