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Novel Destinations

Books transport us to faraway fantasies and magical lands. They can also serve as travel guides to their settings. Here, 14 spring trips inspired by books, movies, and music.

Novel Destinations
Photo by Stephan Hoglund

(page 1 of 5)

You've never been to these places but feel as though you have. The familiar landscape, the people who seem like friends—you’ve found the place where imagination and reality merge, the heart of literary travel. As I learned while researching my book Off the Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs, and Girls on Getaways, fiction has inspired travel since at least the early 19th century, when bookish British travelers climbed into carriages, novels in hand, to tour the literary landscape of England and Scotland: Dickens’s London, the West Yorkshire moors of the Brontë sisters. Harry Potter tour buses now cruise London. Fans of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo flock to Stockholm. Here in the upper Midwest, the land and towns are no less populated by our imagination, and to visit with a writer’s descriptions in mind enriches these places we might assume we know. We’ve mapped out the itineraries for you. All you have to do is put down whatever you’re reading and go.

Searching for Argus

No GPS can direct you to Argus, North Dakota. Yet, between Wahpeton and Fargo, in the Red River Valley, you’ll recognize snapshots of the scenery and people of Argus, the fictional setting of many of Louise Erdrich’s beloved novels, including her latest, Round House, for which she won the National Book Award last year.

Where to go

Start in Wahpeton, where Erdrich grew up and her parents taught in a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. Wahpeton isn’t a hotbed of charm, but it is an authentic farm community at the edge of the Western plains, which Erdrich captures so intensely in her fiction. As the New York Times put it, “Everything in Argus is raw, from its climatic extremes....to its courtship rituals.” When Fidelis Waldvogel arrives in Argus in The Master Butchers Singing Club, he turns in a circle to get his bearings. “There was horizon to the west and horizon to the south,” Erdrich writes. “There were streets of half-grown trees and solid-looking houses to the north. And a new limestone bank building and a block of ornately bricked stores on the principal street stretched down to the east. The wind boomed around Fidelis with a vast indifference he found both unbearable and comforting.” When you’re in Wahpeton, go to that limestone bank building on Dakota Avenue and you’ll find the Red Door Art Gallery, offering regional and Native American art. (Rocco Landesman, head of the National Endowment for the Arts at the time, stopped in and called the gallery “creative place-making at its finest.”) Says Erdrich: “The landscape around my hometown has changed a great deal since I finished The Beet Queen. Giant corporate sugar production has taken over the farmland.” Like so many farming communities, the main street struggles to stay vibrant. Nevertheless, Erdrich says, “Wahpeton still inspires me.” From there, head north on I-29, where you’ll recognize the inspiration for the “Scales” chapter in Love Medicine and, like many of Erdrich’s characters, you’ll arrive in the big city of Fargo.


The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich


In Wahpeton, the Red Door Art Gallery (reddoorgallerywahpeton.com), Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard antique shop (701-591-0134), and Bookhaven used-book store (701-672-5830) are all along Dakota Avenue. Bagg Bonanza Farm Historic Site (8025 169th Ave. SE, Mooreton) is an example of the huge farms spawned by the railroad. Don't miss the back room of Zandbroz Variety store (420 Broadway, zandbroz.com) or the Plains Art Museum (704 First Ave. N., plainsart.org) in Fargo.


The Hotel Donaldson: 17 plush rooms, artisan food, and the HoDo lounge (101 N. Broadway, Fargo; hoteldonaldson.com).


On April 20, the Erdrich sisters (Louise, Lise, Heid, Angela) will give their first public reading together at the Stern Cultural Center (800 N. Sixth St., Wahpeton, 701-671-2298).


The joke, of course, is that the Coen brothers’ classic comic noir isn’t set in North Dakota (which didn’t stop an unfortunate Japanese woman from arriving in Bismarck 10 years ago, looking for the $1 million loot from the supposedly “true story”).

➻ Where to go

Many of the locations used by the Coens have been razed in the past 17 years, like the Embers and the King of Clubs. But the Lakeside Club, where Marge interviews the hookers, is alive and well in Mahtomedi, serving steak, fries, and popovers (10 Old Wildwood Rd., 651-777-4097). And the site of the José Feliciano concert was none other than the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (501 W. 78th St., chanhassendt.com).

➻ Where to stay

Book a room at the Hitching Post Motel in Forest Lake, where Jerry is arrested (23855 Forest Blvd. N., 651-464-1900). Knotty-pine walls, quilts on the bed—oh fer Minnesotan. 

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