Book Towns

By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine / Inspired by Marlon James’ My North

When Marlon James moved from Jamaica to Minnesota nearly a decade ago, he only really knew two things about the state: It’s where Prince and Bob Dylan were from, and that it was a great place for books. And that doesn’t just mean great for reading them. Minnesota is a state of writers, including James, who’s the Man Booker Prize-winning author of A Brief History of Seven Killings. From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s St. Paul, to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Walnut Grove, here’s a handy guide to visiting the hometowns of some of other notable Minnesota authors.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, St. Paul

Arguably Minnesota’s most famous writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald left fingerprints all around St. Paul. He was born at 481 Laurel Ave. in 1896, and after his family briefly moved to Buffalo, New York, they lived in a bevvy of St. Paul houses and apartments—including 294 Laurel Ave. (with his grandma), 593 Summit Ave. (where he wrote This Side of Paradise), and a Victorian home at 626 Goodrich Ave. (with his wife Zelda and their children). And, while those are all private residences, there are a few Fitzgerald haunts you can actually visit, including The Commodore, a newly reopened bar and restaurant in his former hangout The Commodore Hotel, and the University Club, he and Zelda’s defacto country club.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Walnut Grove

A horse-drawn carriage and five actors reenact a moment from Ingalls Wilder's life on the prairie during Wilder Pageant in Walnut Grove. Laura Ingalls Wilder ultimately only lived in Minnesota for three years when she was a kid, but Walnut Grove and her family’s homestead on Plum Creek are central to her lore. Of the eight original Little House books, only the fourth, On the Banks of Plum Creek (published in 1937), is technically set there, but the 1970s TV show inspired by the books cemented Plum Creek’s place in history by setting the show entirely in Walnut Grove. Ingalls Wilder to-dos in Walnut Grove include the Laura Ingalls Museum, the site of the family’s dugout home on Plum Creek, and the annual Wilder Pageant—a live-action reenactment of key moments in her family’s Walnut Grove story, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this July.

Maud Hart Lovelace, Mankato

Set in Deep Valley, (a fictionalized version of the town she grew up in, Mankato, at the turn of the 20th century), Maud Hart Lovelace’s 13 Betsy-Tacy books celebrate the exploits of childhood friends Betsy (Lovelace) and Tacy (Lovelace’s actual childhood best friend Frances Kenney). The books are basically a where’s-where of Mankato, and with the help of the Betsy-Tacy Society, the city has annotated a 19-stop “Discover Deep Valley” tour that includes stops at the childhood homes of Lovelace and of Kenney (both National Literary Landmarks) and Glenwood Cemetery where Lovelace is buried. The Blue Earth County Historical Society also has a variety of Lovelace artifacts on display.

Sinclair Lewis, Sauk Centre

Two couples read a historical marker outside the Sinclair Lewis Home in Sauk CentreSinclair Lewis only stayed in the tiny central Minnesota town of Sauk Centre through high school, but he left his impression on the city, and the city in turn, on him. The inspiration for the fictional town of Gopher Prairie in Lewis’s seminal 1920 novel Main Street, Sauk Centre has paid equal heed to Lewis. While the freestanding Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center has closed, his childhood home at 812 Sinclair Lewis Ave. is also a museum, and each July the city celebrates Sinclair Lewis Days (July 12-15 this year).

Wanda Gag, New Ulm

Newberry- and Caldecott-winning children’s book author Wanda Gag spent the majority of her career in New York City, but it was the southern Minnesota town of New Ulm that shaped her. While the town is known more for being home to the second oldest family-owned brewery in the country, Schell’s, Gag and her book, Millions of Cats (1928)—which is credited with being the oldest American picture book still in print—is a close second. Her colorful Queen Anne-style childhood home at 228 North Washington St. (now officially called the Wanda Gag House) has been meticulously restored, and now acts as a museum of both Gag artifacts and Gag’s artwork. The Brown County Historical Society, just down the street, also has an extensive collection of research, art, and artifacts, and the New Ulm Public Library has a collection of her art.

My North is a weekly video series created in partnership with Mpls.St.Paul Magazine and Explore Minnesota. If you missed Marlon James' story, view it here.

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