Books About Chicago – List Inspired by Leonard Pitts, Jr / Grant Park
The city of Chicago, the setting for part of Leonard Pitts Jr.’s novel Grant Park, truly is the “city with big shoulders,” as poet Carl Sandburg put it. It is just…so……BIG. Big in a different way than New York City in its scope and sprawl – its sweeping views of Lake Michigan, the giant buildings that crowd the lakefront, the gorgeous riverside parks, the endless suburbs that role on for mile after mile after mile.
It has a bigger-than life- history as well. And Chicago politics! Fueled by ambition and corruption, a political machine that’s had an outside influence on the entire country’s politics.
I love books that have a strong sense of place. The plot whizzes by so fast in Grant Park, the reader’s glimpses of Chicago are tantalizingly brief. So here are some books that delve more deeply into America’s Second City.
The first book is a work of nonfiction, and it pertains directly to the plot of Pitts’ novel. Grant Park begins on the historic election day of 2008, when Illinois politician and Chicago resident Barack Obama is about to be elected the first African American president of the United States.
David Remnick’s superb biography-in-part of Obama, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, tells Obama’s personal and political story, right up to the point of his inauguration into his first term as president.
Remnick is the editor of the New Yorker, but he was, for many years, a superb reporter. It shows in this book, as he tells Obama’s story; his restless childhood, his years in Hawaii, his college and law school education in the Ivy League.
The Bridge really catches fire when it retraces Obama’s ascent through Chicago politics. After achieving some success in Chicago as a community organizer, Obama decided to take on a well-entrenched Chicago politician, Bobby Rush, in a battle for Rush’s Congressional seat. Both candidates were African American, so race was not an issue – but Obama’s youth and outsider status crippled him at the polls.
Obama lost, but it was one of those defeats that opened the way to better things – he went on to become a state senator, then a U.S. senator. Then president of the United States.
Remnick interweaves Obama’s story with that of America’s civil rights movement. On inauguration day, Obama meets up with Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights pioneer whose skull was fractured by an Alabama state trooper as he tried to cross the bridge at Selma. Obama handed Lewis a note – “because of you, John,” it said.
I almost hate to mention it, because half the readers in this country have read it by now, but I have to say that one of my favorite Chicago books is The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.
The Devil in the White City is set at the time of the Chicago World’s Fair (also called the Columbian Exposition) in 1893. Chicago was a big, messy place. Its slums and stockyards and terrible working conditions would inspire reform movements and at least one great, muckraking novel, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.
Larson told two main stories. The first was the design and construction of the fairy-tale like “White City,” buildings of the fair that were almost otherworldly in their beauty and scale. Daniel Burnham was the chief architect, and Larson tells how Burnham pushed his vision through.
Chicago built it, and people came – millions of people, traveling hundreds of miles to see the city. Many were young single women – alone and looking for work (it was a time of economic depression) or simply a good time.
Of course, the darker story in this book is the “Devil” part – H.H. Holmes, a ruthless serial killer, preyed on these women – abducting them, them, probably torturing them, and then killing them.
I cannot visit Chicago today without thinking of this book. The footprint of the fair is still there. And Holmes – it’s easy to imagine him stalking Chicago’s back streets. A stunning story of light and inspiration, darkness and evil, “gripping” is an understatement for this book
I bet Erik Larson read Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie while he was researching his book. It’s the story of Carrie, a naive young woman from a small Wisconsin town who travels to Chicago in search of fortune, fame and love.
Now, I would never recommend a novel published in 1900 without re-reading some of it – I just did, and I was amazed at the clarity and precision of Dreiser’s prose, and his unsentimental view of human nature.
One of my Chicago relatives recommended this book for its portrait of the city in the late 19th century. At that point, the city, then with a population of 500,000, was attracting 50,000 new people a year, and developers were throwing up streetlights and sewers as fast as it could. Sister Carrie has it all – he tumult of the streets, the boom-town atmosphere and the fragile hopes of women like Carrie who were drawn to the city like a moth to the flame.
A lesser-known writer with Chicago in his blood is Ward Just. I have loved every one of his books. His 2005 novel An Unfinished Season showcases his knowledge of the city where he grew up.
Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of Wils Ravans, a young man just out of high school who takes a summer job as a copy boy at a Chicago newspaper. He keeps busy in the summer evenings romancing debutantes at parties along Chicago’s wealthy North Shore.
Wil’s days are an education in Chicago-style politics and its collision with yellow journalism. His nights are immersed the heartbreak of first love. Just, a newspaper reporter for many years, has a hyperacute eye for politics and class differences, and a near-photographic memory for whatever period he is writing in. This is the third book in what Just called his “Chicago Cycle” – the other two are Jack Gance and A Family Trust.
Did I mention Chicago, politics, newspapers and social class? Throw in crime and private detection, and you have the great mystery series by Sara Paretsky, starring one of the toughest private eyes ever, V.I. “Vic” Warshawski.
Paretsky is Chicago born and bred, and these mysteries simply live and breathe Chicago. Vic is of mixed Jewish-Italian-Polish heritage – her father, the Polish one, was a Chicago police officer, and Vic has a love-hate relationship with the Chicago police. Come to think of it, Vic has a love-hate relationship with just about everyone, except maybe her dog. Vic’s life story reflects the history of the city – her working class upbringing, her immersion in the student protests of the 1960s, the emergence of women in positions of power, despite a lot of push back.
These books have intricate plots that often involve white-collar crime, and you often feel like you are being given a peek into the inner workings of the city. The first one, Indemnity Only, was published in 1982 – there are 17 altogether. Keep those hits coming, Sara.