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The most common advice to any young writer is write what you know. Well, author Jennifer Wilson is from the Midwest, and she has this essay on three authors from her part of the country who have done just that. It's for our series Three Books.
JENNIFER WILSON: Let's face it. Coastal writers get more street cred. I would be fine with that. They've got more traffic, it's a trade-off. But so many great books are overlooked because of it.
Here are three that probably would've gotten more hype if their authors had been at the right Lower East Side cocktail party. "Saul and Patsy" by Charles Baxter chronicles a marriage between smarty pantses. The star is the ever-fussy Saul, a teacher in a humble Michigan city, where the blankness of the Midwestern landscape excited him. The story unfolds over the years as Saul and Patsy start a family, and their quaint lives are infiltrated by children - their own and others'. One in particular jars their complacency - Saul's mentally imbalanced student, Gordy, who stalks Saul's family. Jonathan Franzen gets all the brainy Midwestern-writer applause, but I sure like the quieter Baxter, with his funny and thoughtful prose that doesn't scream but speaks. Side note: I read an Amazon editorial review about this book, and it starts out: Poor Charles Baxter, doomed to be forever thought of as a writer's writer. That right there - the curse of the Midwestern writer in action.
Being an Iowan, I feel weird shouting out "The Mitten" twice, but I love "The Lake, The River & The Other Lake" by Steve Amick. It's a sprawling novel about a fictional tourist town in Michigan lake country. It's so jam-packed with quirky and awesome characters, I just can't help it. There's the Ojibwe Indian, Roger Drinkwater, who is driven mad by Jet Skis. The bigoted orchard owner Hubert vonBushberger, who is blindsided when his son secretly marries a migrant worker - she shows up for work pregnant at the start of the season - and vonBushberger's daughter, who makes matters worse by bringing home a Japanese dude. Think of this as an edgy, dark Lake Wobegon.
In the beginning of Kent Nelson's novel, "Land That Moves, Land That Stands Still," Mattie's husband dies in a farming accident on their Black Hills, South Dakota, ranch. She has to step up to the plate - that's what we do around here - and enlists the help of her daughter, a runaway Indian boy, and a hired woman with a dark past. Three chicks and a kid operating an alfalfa ranch already have the cards stacked against them, but then the bully neighbors decide they want the land and will stop at nothing to get it. It's a violent and moody tale - no fluffy "Traveling Pants" business for this book - but the characters are entrancing. I could go on and on, flagging quotes and everything, but my personal copy is missing. Considering my iron-fisted book-loaner policy, this act of borrowing bravado is further proof of the book's compelling nature.
I would love to add a few other titles to this entirely out-of-character Midwestern ploy for attention, but the editor here are only giving me a few seconds. I'm pretty sure if I was from, say, New Hampshire, I'd have gotten at least four recommendations, maybe five. See what I mean?
BLOCK: Jennifer Wilson is the author of "Running Away to Home." You can comment on this essay at npr.org/books.
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