Coming to Chicago: Immigrant Stories

As we explore Exit West and the theme Beyond Borders in this season of One Book, One Chicago, we reflect on the immigrant journeys many people have taken to our own city. Since before Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the first non-Indigenous resident, arrived in the 1780s in what would become Chicago, this land has welcomed people from around the world and around the nation. Many came seeking better opportunities for themselves and their children, freedom from oppression and discrimination, educational opportunities, and the culture and special spirit of Chicago. No doubt you too have a story about how you or your family became Chicagoans! 

If you love stories of coming to Chicago, you’ll enjoy these books that share the experiences of newcomers in our city. 

Now an American classic, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair depicts the challenging lives and difficult conditions of the largely immigrant workers in Chicago’s meatpacking industry through a Lithiuanian-American family. This novel is so powerful that after reading it, President Theodore Roosevelt was moved to demand reforms in food and drug laws.  

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is one of the most beloved depictions of Mexican-American life in Chicago. We chose it as the spring 2009 One Book, One Chicago selection, but if you missed it then, pick it up now for rich stories from the life of young Esperanza as she comes of age.

Through interconnected stories set around the Ukrainian Village neighborhood in the 1960s, When Luba Leaves Home draws upon the experiences of writer Irene Zabytko. Often humorous and rich in characters, the stories trace Luba’s coming of age as she goes to college, buys a car and thinks about what it means to leave her immigrant community behind.

In The Lake on Fire, Chaya escapes across borders twice—once fleeing from the anti-Semitic horrors of Russia, and again from rural Wisconsin in search of a better life in Chicago. Set partly during Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, this is a rich historical novel.  

Chicago by Brian Doyle is a love letter to the city. Following the adventures of a young man who, like so many Chicagoans, moved here for a job after college, the book paints a picture of that special spirit and charm that draws newcomers to the city we call home.

Do you have a great story to share about coming to Chicago? Let us know in the comments!  

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