Books to take a train by
June 20, 2014 8:43 AM   Subscribe

Next week, I am taking the Empire Builder from Chicago to Portland, Oregon. In a previous question about train travel, someone suggested reading books that take place along your train route. This is an idea I love ... and I have at least 47 hours to pass! So: what are your favorite (kindle) books which occur in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, or Oregon? Bonus for rural themes. I am not a big mystery fan, but if it is particularly excellent, I'll read it. Romance is out. Otherwise, I'm open to anything!
posted by ChuraChura to Writing & Language (41 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A Laura Ingalls Wilder book, for sure. Little House In The Big Woods takes place in Wisconsin, but is the most kiddy of all the books. I'd probably go with one of the books that takes place after the family moves to De Smet, South Dakota, because they're more YA in tone. Little Town On The Prairie or The Long Winter are probably what you want. There's also On The Banks Of Plum Creek that IIRC takes place in Minnesota. I believe By The Shores Of Silver Lake takes place in both Minnesota and South Dakota.

My Antonia comes to mind, even though I think it takes place in Nebraska.

Doesn't One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest take place in a mental institution in Washington state?
posted by Sara C. at 8:50 AM on June 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

American Gods by Neil Gaiman presents a mythic, fictional sort of America, and IIRC, a good chunk of it takes place in the northern midwest, WI or MN or someplace close, I believe.

I'm currently reading The Boys in the Boat, which has some pretty and evocative descriptions of Washington in the 1920's and 30's. It's pretty Seattle focused, but it also might interest you. It's a good read so far.
posted by DGStieber at 8:51 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The first two are the first books in mystery series; they both have an excellent sense of place, and although they both take place in Montana, their perspectives are different and fascinating:

Coyote Wind - First in a series about a Metis cattle inspector in Montana

The Cold Dish - First in a series about a sheriff in modern-day Montana

Love Medicine
- Louise Erdrich! North Dakota! Fantastic book.
posted by rtha at 8:54 AM on June 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Badland, by Jonathan Raban. Melancholic social history of the Montana/Dakota badlands. A little bit similar to how John McPhee writes, if you know his work.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:56 AM on June 20, 2014

Something by Louise Erdrich would also probably be apropos. Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, and Tracks all take place in North Dakota.
posted by Sara C. at 8:56 AM on June 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

James Crumley has a series with a detective in a small Montana town.
But I think Son of the Morning Star is the best book to read on this trip, even though the Little Big Horn is quite a bit south of your route.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:00 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Garrison Keillor (of A Prairie Home Companion fame) has written a fair chunk of books set in his fictional Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon.

Also seconding American Gods. A good bit of it does take place in Wisconsin.
posted by brentajones at 9:01 AM on June 20, 2014

Blood Lure by Nevada Barr takes place in Montana.

She's a former(?) national park ranger, so all her books have a great sense of the outdoors. Really awesome stuff. It's a mystery, though.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:03 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Many of Dan Chaon's books and short stories take place in North Dakota. Await Your Reply is un-put-down-able.
posted by matildaben at 9:04 AM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, another one I thought was fun: Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:08 AM on June 20, 2014

I just finished reading Mink River, which is set in a small town on the Oregon coast. I think this would be an amazing book to read on a train - it's lyrical & poetic, deeply rooted in its setting.

Molly Gloss's The Hearts of Horses is set in Eastern Oregon, among cattle ranchers and shepherds
posted by linettasky at 9:09 AM on June 20, 2014

My go-to is an audio version of Travels with Charley.
posted by MichelleinMD at 9:14 AM on June 20, 2014

Best answer: Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner.
posted by three_red_balloons at 9:16 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Main Street is as small-town Minnesota as a book gets.
posted by substars at 9:16 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

By the Shores of Silver Lake is actually in large part about the building of the Chicago-Northwestern Railroad. It's not precisely on your route but the descriptions of the grading, as seen by a teenage pioneer girl, are amazing and give a wonderful sense of the scale and audacity of the great railroad-building era—make time to read the chapter "The Wonderful Afternoon" if you can.
posted by peachfuzz at 9:16 AM on June 20, 2014

I really love the writing of Jess Walters and most of his novels take place in Spokane, Washington.
posted by brookeb at 9:18 AM on June 20, 2014

Response by poster: I really wish I could read the Laura books - they're WITHOUT A DOUBT my favorite books from childhood - but I haven't been able to find them for kindle and I don't really have space for hard copies of all 9 books.

These are great so far - thanks!
posted by ChuraChura at 9:22 AM on June 20, 2014

Best answer: I've recommended it here too many times already, but Morte d'Urban by J.F. Powers would be perfect. It even includes a couple of discussions of the Empire Builder.

J. Robert Lennon's On the Night Plain is excellent.

For non-fiction I'd recommend Jack Nisbet's book about David Thompson, the first European to map large portions of your route. Thompson's story isincredible and relatively little known.
posted by otio at 9:24 AM on June 20, 2014

Best answer: Oh! I almost forgot: Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail.

It's East to West and generally more southerly than your route, but still. It's a geologic history of the Gold Rush trail, and uses a lot of diary and letter excerpts from settlers heading west from Missouri that describe the landscapes and geologic formations they encountered. Meldahl is really good at writing about geology for a lay audience. It's been one of my favorite books since it came out.
posted by rtha at 9:30 AM on June 20, 2014

Sometimes A Great Notion takes place in Oregon.
posted by aka burlap at 9:33 AM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Norman Maclean's stories mostly take place in the Upper Missouri River area - Montana and Idaho. You'd probably recognize A River Runs Through It. Brad Pitt not available in book form.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance covers a journey from Minnesota to Northern California, including lengthy sections in Montana.
posted by LionIndex at 9:37 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read this a couple of years ago: Power Ballads by Will Boast. It's a book of interconnected short stories about working musicians. I believe some (not all) of the stories take place along your train route.

From my Goodreads review (I write these so I'll remember the book, not really for anyone else.)
I really loved this book - I loved how the stories were related, but featured different main characters (and one was a standalone). I thought the characters were so incredibly well-developed, which can't be easy in a short story. Also he got the amateur/struggling musician atmosphere down.

Finally there's a part in one of the stories that literally made me EEP in surprise. I was at the laundromat when I read it - good thing the dryers are loud!

posted by lyssabee at 9:51 AM on June 20, 2014

Where'd You Go, Bernadette takes place in Seattle and is a lot of fun.
posted by jabes at 10:08 AM on June 20, 2014

Best answer: The White Cascade. Nonfiction, the story of the avalanche with the most fatalities in US history, and the trains that got caught up in it. It's an excellent read. You'll be going right by the spot where it happened when you hit the Cascade Tunnel. Not the original tunnel, but maybe a mile away.

I would not recommend this book nearly as much if you were going in winter. But since it's summer - enjoy!
posted by true at 10:17 AM on June 20, 2014

Not trying to parrot honestly, but Wilder, Erdrich, Keillor, Lewis' "Main Street" and "Sometimes a Great Notion". All of them sprang to mind.

How about Snow Falling on Cedars? Some of Cowboys Are My Weakness is set in the West, and Alaska.

I would add Stewart Holbrook, namely the collections Wildmen etc... and Far Corner. He is THE man for local color in the Northwest, a former and sadly forgotten celebrity who was also very funny. Long before Joaquin Phoenix and "Chris Gaines" he had the shtick as Mr. Otis ... artist! Details here.

Check your local used bookstore for a beat up paperback of Far Corner. It's worth packing.
posted by mitschlag at 10:17 AM on June 20, 2014

The Lewis and Clark Journals (Abridged Edition), by Lewis and Clark.

It's geographically compatible with about half of your journey.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:21 AM on June 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

I read a very interesting article yesterday in Harper's, 21st Century Limited. It's in the July edition, I read it in print in the library, online version only available to subscribers. It will give you some perspective on trains in the US. I'm taking the train from Savannah to NYC in a little more than a week. I've done it before and love it.
posted by mareli at 11:04 AM on June 20, 2014

Best answer: This question made me think of Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, probably because my copy has train tracks on the cover. It's set in Idaho in the mid-20th century.
posted by yarrow at 11:36 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not a book suggestion, but I was thinking if you listened to an audiobook version, then you could listen to the words as your eyes took in the sights/locations passing by your window--perhaps especially nice in the observation car. And maybe a nice set of over-the-ear headphones to drown out chatter or people playing on their phones.
posted by blueberry at 11:44 AM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Check out Population: 485 by Michael Perry (or his second book Truck: A Love Story) for nonfiction stories of life in very small town Wisconsin. The first book is about his adventures as a paramedic, the second about restoring an old truck and meeting a dream woman or two. Very entertaining, lots of quirky characters, easy reads.
posted by catatethebird at 11:47 AM on June 20, 2014

Best answer: I second Housekeeping - it's set in a fictional town in Idaho, but it is based on Sandpoint, Idaho, where the author grew up. Sandpoint is the only Amtrak stop in all of Idaho.

I also recommend Bold Spirit, the true story of a Victorian-era woman who walked from Eastern Washington to New York City. Jack Nesbit writes a lot about the history of the Northwest, and if you're interested in the geology of that area Glacial Lake Missoula is pretty interesting, although it sadly does not appear to be available on the Kindle. The Big Burn is set in Idaho, just south of where the Amtrak line goes through.

Enjoy your trip! I've taken that exact route on the Empire Builder many times, and it is gorgeous.
posted by helloknitty at 11:51 AM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Along the Lewis and Clark lines, you might try Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. An amazing story.
posted by elmay at 12:13 PM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For stories of rural Montana, Ivan Doig. You can't do better than that.

I also highly recommend anything by Sherman Alexie, as much of his writing centers around the Spokane indian reservation.
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 12:31 PM on June 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The first chunk of Twain's Roughing It is a fantastically fun account of his overland trail journey, by stagecoach, from Missouri to Nevada. Though you'll be north of his route, you'll still be making a westward trek across the country.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:26 PM on June 20, 2014

Came to recommend Ivan Doig and Norman Maclean-as a native Montanan I can vouch that they capture the spirit of the state better than anyone else I've read.
posted by purenitrous at 2:02 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nothing Like it In the World, by Stephen Ambrose
Or another of the many accounts of the crossing of the continent.
Also, seconding Molly Gloss, but for her book The Jump-Off Creek

posted by mmiddle at 5:11 PM on June 20, 2014

This just came out, haven't had a chance to read it yet, but plan to.
Montana: Then and Now
posted by rudd135 at 5:13 PM on June 20, 2014

For Idaho: I really liked Stegner's Angle of Repose, Thurman's The Blacker the Berry, and McCunn's Thousand Pieces of Gold (+1 for Housekeeping, also.) On my get-to-it list is Ozeki's All Over Creation, Spinbauer's Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, and the post apocalyptic SF Swan Song, by McCammon.

If you like mysteries, there's CJ Box's Blue Heaven, and I believe Steve Roos writes mysteries, although I haven't read anything by him yet. Patrick McMannus writes mysteries and comedy.

If you like Stephen King, there's The Stand.

My husband just reminded me about Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson. I haven't read it, but he liked it. It's shorter, more a novella.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:52 PM on June 20, 2014

Oh! Oh! I knew I had bookmarked this somewhere: Lists of authors and books by state.

I could have sworn there was one in my bookmarks for mysteries by country/state/profession, etc, but I can't find it.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:05 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis is one of the most compulsively readable academic texts I've ever encountered, and it illuminates the relationship between Chicago and its environs in fascinating ways. The railroad is also central to its argument.

also nthing Sometimes a Great Notion (which I read on the train from Chicago to Tahoe!) and Housekeeping.
posted by dizziest at 7:04 AM on June 21, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you all! The train ride was a success! I spent most of my ride staring out the window at the really beautiful scenery and chatting with crusty men on their way back from the North Dakota oil fields. I ended up reading the Little House books, and started Badland; when I get a little more money, my kindle will be well stocked! (Take the Empire Builder but in a few years once the track work is complete - it's beautiful, but the train was 10 hours late due to oil trains).
posted by ChuraChura at 9:49 AM on July 3, 2014

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