Mark Athitakis’s book, The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt, is a deep dive into the books that show—or have missed—how the Midwest has evolved from the land of laborers and factory workers to, well, lots of things.
It’s a much-needed version of a conversation that’s been taking place since November, when the nation was shocked at how many traditionally blue Midwestern states voted for Donald Trump as their next president.
That the populace and cultures of Midwest are more complicated than many thought wasn’t new to Athitakis, even before November. And he didn’t need to look to his news feed to notice it. He found it in literature, where it had been sitting there all along.
It just took Athitakis to point it out to the rest of us—and the critics have been taking notice.
A recent review in the Chicago Tribune praised Athitakis for seeing the Midwest for “what it really is.”
And doing that, Tribune critic John Warner wrote, is especially important now. At a time when the minute-by-minute news cycle keeps much of our attention, Athitakis’s book is, he writes, more relevant than ever in the Trump era:
“I remember election night as the returns rolled in, feeling something close to certain that the people I come from, the people I know, would not vote for a vulgarian like Trump. At the same time, I also knew, deep down, that the current narrative of the Midwest as an exemplar of the country, is one of alienation and uncertainty. The myths have lost their potency.
“Through this series of essays on the new Midwest, Athitakis provides a lens that helps us see contemporary times more clearly.”
Warner is hardly alone.
Lithub, in a recent article titled, “Why Literature and Pop Culture Still Can’t get the Midwest Right,” noted that, “After an election that illustrated not only how divided the American people are, but also how little we know of one another … we must first try to understand it.”
The article praises Athitakis for taking on that exact problem:
“He delves into how writers have yet to really interrogate the region’s modern-day relationship with issues surrounding social class, place, and race. This lack has resulted in a reading public that has difficulty imagining Midwestern literature—and therefore, the region in general—beyond Protestant work ethic, American dream-chasing, and the hardworking immigrants of the early 20th century.”
The Chicago Reader had similar things to say in a review that put “The New Midwest” with another Belt book, “How to Speak Midwestern.”
“Long before Trump made [Chicago] a go-to reference for the antiheartland, the midwest’s largest city had an often uneasy relationship with the rest of the region, which in turn was, and is, more than a little wary of Chicago as well. Athitakis highlights how novelists have used that tension as a driving force in their stories, presenting the region’s large cities as a more welcoming, cosmopolitan option for those who don’t find room for themselves in the prairie.”
The New Midwest is not about Trump, not a book aimed at taking on Washington or even anything directly political. It is rather a potent reminder of the role literature plays—and needs to play—in our lives, and why we better pay attention.
Order your copy of The New Midwest here.