Name a story set in Los Angeles.
Now name another, and another, and another,…
Name a story set in New York City.
Now name another, and another, and another,…
Now name a story set in a named city in the Midwest (as long as it’s not Chicago or Detroit). Now name another, and another, and another…
I am not accustomed to meeting the Midwest in ink, on screen, or in song. Oh, exceptions abound. But it is so, so easy to avoid Midwest-set stories. It is even easier to avoid stories located in a specific Midwestern city, not just a specific Midwestern state. Besides, many of the region’s most iconic stories are set in cities just as fictional as their plotlines. Good luck finding Smallville, Kansas; Hawkins, Indiana; or Gilead, Iowa.
The cover photo for this piece is the skyline of Kansas City, Missouri,
but I could change it to the skyline of almost any other
Midwestern city (except maybe St. Louis),
and you’d probably never notice.
I know fictional New York City far, far better than I know real New York City. Unless I move there sometime soon, my fictional experiences will always outmatch my lived experiences. Though I’ve spent only a few days there, I’ve spent thousands of hours reading and watching stories set in NYC. My imagined NYC brims with characters and stories: from Spider-Man swinging through the skyline to Xiomara Batista writing poetry in Harlem to real-life figures like Nellie Bly reporting on injustice and Ruth Reichl reviewing restaurants.
Midwest cities are a place to pass by,
a slightly larger dot in the middle of the wide expanse of flyover country.
US media industries center around our country’s two most populated cities, with book publishers often located in NYC and movie studios often located in LA; no wonder we see those places so often in American fiction and nonfiction. I can’t fault New Yorkers or Californians for their attraction to stories about their big, beautiful, diverse homelands.
Beyond the intra-industry factors, the market for big-city stories is, well, bigger. Hundreds of thousands of people live in small(er) US cities like Minneapolis or Columbus; hundreds of millions of people live in New York and LA. And of course, if you’re telling true stories, some places will always overshadow others. Washington, D.C., dominates military dramas, Boston dominates Revolutionary War biopics, and Nashville dominates country music backstories. When you’re recounting seismic events, the epicenter matters.
Big-city stories are universally resonant, or at least nationally so;
small-city stories belong only at the local level.
Stories will populate our imaginations long before experiences do. This is the cry of millions of individuals crying for better representation, for more narratives that don’t just rely on stereotypes to relay character. But stories don’t just contour our impressions of real human beings: stories also inform our imaginations of real places in the world. Just as stories can prejudice us against people we’ve never met, they can prejudice us against places we’ve never been.
Midwest life is only rural and ideally temporary and utterly dull.
When home rarely appears onscreen or on the page, home starts to feel less lovable, less worthy, less redeemable. I’m sure other stereotypes prevail about other US regions, and I know other stereotypes prevail about other countries of the world. But I’ll speak for the region where I’ve lived for most of my life: the fictional Midwest is far, far from the real place.
We need stories with full, rounded human beings, and we need to give the same dignity to the places these people inhabit. I can notice the gap between the fictional Midwest and the real Midwest because I know so many forms of the “real” Midwest (whatever that is). But I don’t know enough of the South or the Southwest or the Pacific Northwest to distinguish flattened stereotypes from individual stories.
I’ve grown to love so many places through stories, and I mourn that—in fiction and nonfiction—some places are easier to visit than others. When we read a story, no matter its genre, our affection for its setting grows. Even if the portrait is unflattering, we have still gained a deeper image of the place than any news brief or tourist brochure could provide.
Even commonly depicted places can find themselves stereotyped into inaccuracy. But when a place is hardly (if ever) depicted, a place can be stereotyped into invisibility.
Midwest life—especially with specific experiences or references—is not worth recording.
Until I meet characters in Omaha as often as Orange County, I’ll be squealing with delight every time I discover a story or song set in a specific Midwestern location.
In July, I slipped into John Green’s Indianapolis in The Anthropocene Reviewed. Green describes both the shared joy of caravanning bike rides to the event in 2018 and the unmooring reality of the crowdless speedway in 2020. I had never pondered what the Indy 500 means to Indianans; it was just another NASCAR race I ignored. But to these people, to these people who called this place home, the race was a chance to gather, to laugh, to tell the same stories over and over again. It was part of the complicated wonder of calling that place home.
In August, I slipped into Big Red Machine’s melancholy, Ohio-laced musings in “The Ghost of Cincinnati.” Aaron Dessner sings about emptiness, about driftlessness in a sea of nostalgia and uncertainty. The song didn’t make me love Cincinnati, exactly, but it did help me imagine what it would be like to be someone shaped by that home.
For the last few years, I’ve slipped into thousands of cities and towns I would’ve never explored without the post calvin. My fellow writers have reshaped my imagined versions of Madison, Wisconsin, St. Louis, Missouri, and so many places we’ve made into our homes.
No single story could ever shatter the stereotype, could ever add enough glory to an often-quiet place. But little by little, these stories, songs, essays, and blogs can reshape the Midwest of our imaginations a little closer to what many people call home.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.
“But I don’t know enough of the South or the Southwest or the Pacific Northwest to distinguish flattened stereotypes from individual stories.” Same — and even a story set in rural Michigan is hard for me, a suburban gal, to separate from the stereotypes.
Also, I’ve never been especially interested in New York City, despite the enormous quantity of NYC-centric media I’ve consumed. But reading N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy novel “The City We Became,” where each of NYC’s burroughs becomes personified, gave me the clearest glimpse I’ve ever had into why people are so drawn to that city.
At one point in drafting, I actually had a tangent that referenced THE CITY WE BECAME! Such a fascinating trip to that city, and as you said, such a compelling way to meet the boroughs. A friend recently mentioned that (of all NYC’s boroughs) the Bronx felt the most like a place she could call home. Because of TCWB’s Bronca, I could understand why my friend might say that!
That rural/suburban/urban divide is one of the reasons media depictions feel so lacking to me, too! There’s not much (specific) storytelling about what’s in-between tiny town and big city. (The Midwest doesn’t always mean rural, and New York/California/etc. don’t always mean metropolitan.)
“When you’re recounting seismic events, the epicenter matters.” What a beautiful line! I read it this morning and was still thinking about it hours later. There’s something peaceful about living in a place where historic events are scarcer—when I first moved to Boston after four years at Calvin, I couldn’t properly sleep for weeks because I wasn’t used to a place that was so “happening”—at all hours!