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Books Tue Sep 01 2015

Best Chicago Novels by Neighborhood

Last week, the New York Public Library released its list of the Best New York City Novels by Neighborhood, pairing the city's best works of fiction with the neighborhoods in which they take place, from Henry James to Teju Cole. Since Chicago's literary history is just as impressive, I thought I'd take a crack at the City of Big Shoulders' best novels, neighborhood by neighborhood, from Henry Blake Fuller to Sandra Cisneros.

The Song of the Lark


The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg (2012). Jewish family life, food, and one of the city's funniest novels.

The Song of the Lark, Willa Cather (1915). Named after the famous painting that hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Back of the Yards

The Jungle, Upton Sinclair (1906). The definitive story of the old Union Stockyards.


Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks (1953). Our greatest poet's only novel.


The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson (2004). A thriller set against the backdrop of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, serial killer H. H. Holmes' hotel was located in Englewood. It's non-fiction, but written like a novel. (GB tour of historic sites.)

Garfield Park

Windy McPherson's Son, Sherwood Anderson (1916). The author of Winesburg, Ohio's first, semi-autobiographical novel.

Hyde Park

Chasing Vermeer, Blue Balliett (2004). Two neighborhood kids embark on a Goonies-style art adventure. (GB Book Club interview.)

Letting Go, Philip Roth. The great American novelist's first book, about social tensions at the University of Chicago in the 1950s.

The Great PerhapsThe Great Perhaps, Joe Meno (2009). A University of Chicago professor confronts his cowardice. (GB Book Club review.)


The Chicago Way, Michael Harvey (2007). Hardboiled detective fiction in the present-day city (the first in Harvey's "Michael Kelley" series).

Lincoln Park

The Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon (2008). A turn-of-the-century murder mystery of sorts at Webster and Hudson.

The Evolution of Bruno LittlemoreThe Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, Benjamin Hale (2011). The story of a chimpanzee from the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Little Village

I Sailed with Magellan, Stuart Dybek (2003). The immigrant experience during the reign of Richard J. Daley. (GB Book Club preview.)

Peel My Love Like an Onion, Ana Castillo (2000). Flamenco dancing and Chicano life in the far west side. (GB Book Club preview.)

The Loop and Near North Side

The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger (2003). Time-traveling Henry works at the Newberry Library, dines at the Berghoff, Fine Arts Cafe, and Ed Debevic's with his wife, but they also frequent a few Lakeview haunts, like Ann Sather's and the Vic. (GB Book Club preview.)

The Pit: A Story of Chicago, Frank Norris (1903). The golden age of the Chicago Board of Trade.

O, Democracy, Kathleen Rooney (2014). Semi-autobiographical tale of Rooney's time working in Senator Dick Durbin's office in the Loop.

Years of Grace, Margaret Ayer Barnes (1930). Coming of age in the Gold Coast.

The Cliff-Dwellers, Henry Blake Fuller (1893). Downtown Chicago in the age of Daniel Burnham.

Near South Side

The Girls, Edna Ferber (1921). Three women (77, 32 and 18) working as maids on the eve of World War I.

With the Procession, Henry Blake Fuller (1894). A socialite and grocer in the old Prairie Avenue District.

Near West Side

Chicago: A Novel, Alaa al-Aswany (2007). Egyptian students at post-9/11 UIC. (GB Book Club capsule review.)

The House on Mango StreetSister Carrie, Theodore Dressier (1900). A small-town Wisconsin girl moves to Chicago at the turn of the century.

Knock on Any Door, Willard Motley (1947). An Italian immigrant turns to a life of crime (and gets the Humphrey Bogart treatment).


The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros (1984). Life among Chicanos and Puerto Ricans in one of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods.


Death in Uptown, Michael Raleigh (1991). A contemporary murder mystery, and the beginning of Raleigh's Paul Whelan series.

Washington Park

Native SonNative Son, Richard Wright (1940). The seminal novel of life on the pre-war South Side.

The Studs Lonigan Trilogy, James T. Farrell (1932-1935). A different, Irish-American take on the neighborhood.

West Rogers Park

Crossing California, Adam Langer (2005). A tale of growing up in the traditionally Jewish neighborhood on Chicago's far north side, the California in the title refers to the street, not the state. (GB Book Club discussion.)

West Town & Wicker Park

The Man with the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren (1949). One of Algren's seminal works set in and around Ukrainian Village, later turned into a Sinatra movie.

The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow (1953). Bellow's Chicago version of Huck Finn, set in Humboldt Park during and after the Great Depression.

Office Girl, Joe Meno (2012). (500) Days of Winter along Chicago Avenue in 1999. (GB Book Club review.)

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Leah / September 1, 2015 11:33 AM

Oooh, On Bittersweet Place by Ronna Wineberg is another great one for Uptown.

Dallas / September 1, 2015 11:41 AM

Great list! I would also recommend Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris, which is set in a downtown ad agency.

Fred LeBaron / September 1, 2015 1:31 PM

Family Pictures, by Sue Miller, is set in Hyde Park in the 60's and 70's. Lots of Hyde Park vibe.

Adam Morgan / September 1, 2015 2:00 PM

Great additions, everyone! My to-read shelf is growing.

Tim Jones-Yelvington / September 1, 2015 2:21 PM

"Flamenco dancing and other Chicano delights"?? Really?????

Donal / September 1, 2015 2:42 PM

The Last Catholic in America and Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? By John Powers. About growing up in Mt. Greenwood/Morgan Park--he went to school at St. Christina and Brother Rice. Patent Leather Shoes the musical played in Chicago for years and years. Very funny.

Susan / September 1, 2015 2:49 PM

Anything V I Warshawski books by Sara Paretsky...

Hillary / September 1, 2015 2:58 PM

Great list! I would also recommend Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul by Karen Abbott.

Mike Gebert / September 1, 2015 9:26 PM

My suggestion for the near north side-- specifically River North-- would be Fredric Brown's 1947 The Fabulous Clipjoint, sort of a detective novel (it spawned a series, but isn't exactly one itself) which is very evocative of the time when River North was factories and dive bars where you could get killed all too easily.

jenna / September 2, 2015 12:59 PM

American Skin by Don Degrazia for lakeview

AR / September 2, 2015 5:37 PM

Painted Cities for Pilsen.

Cassie / September 3, 2015 2:22 PM

Michael Raleigh writes about Uptown and the old Newtown. His book "In the Castle of the Flynns" is about Roscoe Village.
J. A. Konrath writes mystery novels about Wrigleyville

Cassie / September 3, 2015 2:24 PM

Michael Raleigh writes about Uptown and the old Newtown. His book "In the Castle of the Flynns" is about Roscoe Village.
J. A. Konrath writes mystery novels about Wrigleyville

Bonnie / September 3, 2015 4:16 PM

Time Traveler's Wife

Albus / September 4, 2015 4:51 AM

missing is the Rasin in the Sun a great chicago classic centered on the city sordid history of segregation

Strannik / September 4, 2015 1:07 PM

I would recommend "Painted Cities" by Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski for Pilsen, and "The Old Neighborhood" by Bill Hillmann for Edgewater

Lisa Litberg / September 4, 2015 10:48 PM

Rogers Park: Crossing California by Adam Langer; many by Stephen Elliott but my fave is Happy Baby, and Free by yours truly. :)

Jacob S. Knabb / September 4, 2015 11:37 PM

Always sad to see Eric Charles May's BEDROCK FAITH & Bayo Ojikutu's FREE BURNING omitted from these lists.

Dodd Dumanois / September 6, 2015 11:10 AM

Mango Street is set in Pilsen? That isn't a Puerto Rican neighborhood, plus the real Mango Street is out west.

Mike Raleigh / October 15, 2015 9:20 AM

Nice to see one of my books listed. My new one, PEERLESS DETECTIVE, is set around Old Town in the 70s.
Also, James T. Farrell's Danny O'Neill books begin in that same Washington Park area. You could list any of his books as representative of a Chicago neighborhood.

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