Today we continue our literary journey with a stop in Illinois. This Midwestern state is known for being a mixture of urban and rural, city and farmland, as well as for being home to many of the different cultures that make up America. Illinois is famous for corn and Abraham Lincoln, for gangsters roaming Chicago in the 1930s and for sports. Illinois boasts cities, farms, wetlands and forests, all situated in the heart of country. Illinois is home to Chicago, perhaps the most important of the Midwestern cities, and while Illinois is considered by many to simply be a flyover state, in many ways, its history and people represent some of the most important aspects of America. Join us as we take a closer look at the Prairie State.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
While it is not explicitly stated that the book takes place in Illinois, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is widely considered to be set in the author's own hometown of Chicago. This small, beautiful novel was originally published in 1984 and was meant to represent a sort of book that would be accessible to anyone at any age. However, The House on Mango Street has grown into a modern classic and is often listed among the most important and influential books on the Latin American experience.
The House on Mango Street follows its main character, Esperanza, whose name means "hope" in Spanish, but who feels little hope herself, through her life in a poor Latino neighborhood in this fictionalized Chicago as she observes the lives of the people around her and how they are shaped both by Mango Street and each other. The following passage details Esperanza's life before they moved to their new neighborhood, which she does not like because it isn't the home her family dreamed of. Though Esperanza doesn't like the Mango Street house and wants to escape it, it becomes part of who she is, in spite of her feelings that it isn't home:
The house on Mango Street is ours and we don ‘t have to pay rent to anybody or share the yard with the people downstairs or be careful not to make too much noise and there isn’t a landlord banging on the ceiling. But even so it’s not the house we’d thought we’d get.
We had to leave the flat on Loomis quick. The water pipes broke and the landlord wouldn’t fix them. We were using the washroom next door and carrying water over in empty milk gallons. That’s why Mama and Papa looked for a house, and that’s why we moved into the house on Mango Street, far away, on the other side of town.
Our parents always told us that one day we would move into a house, a real house that would be ours for always so we wouldn’t have to move each year. And our house would have running water and pipes that worked. And inside it would have real stairs, not hallway stairs, but stairs inside like the houses on T.V. And we’d have a basement and at least three washrooms so when we took a bath we wouldn’t have to tell everybody. Our house would be white with trees around it, a great big yard and grass growing without a fence. This was the house Papa talked about when he held a lottery ticket and this was the house Mama dreamed up in the stories she told us before we went to bed.
But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It’s small and red with tight little steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath. There is no front yard, only four little elms the city planted by the curb. Out back is a small garage for the car we don’t own yet and a small yard that looks smaller between the two buildings on either side. There are stairs in our house, but they ‘re ordinary hallway stairs, and the house has only one washroom, very small. Everybody has to share a bedroom.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is a nonfiction book set during a very specific time in Chicago's history: 1893, a time when the city was host to The World's Fair and also gripped by a string of terrifying murders that would go on to be linked to notorious and prolific serial killer, H.H. Holmes.
Larson's book focuses in on this juxtaposition of terror and progress, showing how the fair shaped not only Chicago, but the entire nation, while also showing how Holmes used the fair as a sort of morbid hunting ground, luring people into his hotel, which was the site of his many grisly murders. The following passage details Chicago's efforts to secure the fair in hopes that it would cement them as an important U.S. city during a time when the Midwest was often considered unimportant in the greater fabric of the country, as most important and urban centers were located on the east coast:
Chicago’s population had topped one million for the first time, making the city the second most populous in the nation after New York, although disgruntled residents of Philadelphia, previously in second place, were quick to point out that Chicago had cheated by annexing large expanses of land just in time for the 1890 decadal census. Chicago shrugged the sniping off. Big was big. Success today would dispel at last the eastern perception that Chicago was nothing more than a greedy, hog-slaughtering backwater; failure would bring humiliation from which the city would not soon recover, given how heartily its leading men had boasted that Chicago would prevail. It was this big talk, not the persistent southwesterly breeze, that had prompted New York editor Charles Anderson Dana to nickname Chicago “the Windy City.”
Stay tuned next month as we explore some of the best books from the state of Indiana!