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Best Books About the American West

Updated on March 23, 2012
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For over 150 years, the American West has been a land of opportunity to explorers, settlers, religious outcasts, cowboys, miners, fortune seekers, scoundrels, and outlaws. But the American West was also home for thousands of years to many native peoples, who lost their lands and their lifestyles to American settlers and fortune seekers. This history of the American West, whether you call it Manifest Destiny, dominion, or subjugation, is a verdant one that supplies significant material for novelists and storytellers. Some of my favorite authors write about the American West in very different ways.

The American West is a fascinating and varied place, balancing wilderness and Utopian beauty (think Arizona vs. Oregon). Writers and artists of the late 19th century played their part in telling and retelling the story of its settlement and domination until the stories themselves were not so much a history as a mythology. This mythology is now a well-accepted fact of American life and culture, and continues to be revisited in places like Wickenburg Arizona (my adopted hometown) and played out by foreign tourists who want to be cowboys and live the dream for themselves, if only on a dude ranch, while on vacation.

In most well-written books where place is as important a theme as characterization, the place itself becomes a central character in the story. Many of the following books fit this description. If you don't have time or inclination to visit a dude ranch and try on the mythology of America, try escaping into one of these books instead.

"Our land is everything to us... I will tell you one of the things we remember on our land. We remember that our grandfathers paid for it - with their lives." - John Wooden Leg, Cheyenne

Novels by and about Native Americans

Reading about the Old West would not be complete if it did not contain some pictures of Native American life, as told by Native Americans living in modern society. Some of the following books are quite political, such as the books by author Leslie Marmon Silko, while others are fascinating because they paint a picture of modern Native American life which balances living in a modern world with remembering and honoring old traditions. Tony Hillerman's books fit this description. This category of writing has recently exploded with excellent works by a host of Native American authors with interesting stories to tell. My selections are representative of books that have been in print for some time.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

First published in 1977, Ceremony is the story of Tayo, a man with anglo and Laguna heritage who has survived prison camps in WWII, and returns to the reservation. Most of the novel is set in Gallup, New Mexico; this setting adds a bleak and haunting tone to a novel that darkly explores Tayo's journey of self-discovery. Silko, an accomplished poet and storyteller, blends tribal stories of Spider woman and the Sacred Giant Brothers into Tayo's modern setting using poetic language that haunts.

I first read this book in college at a much younger age than I am now, and I remember being horrified by images of cruelty, violence, sex, abuse, and drug use. Some scenes from this book are disturbing, and I do not recommend this as young adult reading. Nevertheless, this book is the work of a gifted poet and storyteller, and is an important work of serious literature by a Native American woman writer.

Gardens in the Dunes (1999) by Leslie Marmon Silko

Set in the early 20th century Arizona, Southern California, Cape Cod, and Europe, this story is the poetic tale of two unlikely characters who become connected. Hattie, a high-strung, intellectual upper-class white woman and Indigo, one of the last surviving Sand Lizard people of Southern Arizona. Indigo is a young pre-adolescent girl who finds herself shipped to an Indian School in California, tries to find her place in a world that has destroyed her homeland and culture, and is trying to reform her into something that she can never be. Hattie is the new bride of a botanist who is part scientist and part adventurer. Unknown to Hattie, he is also caught up in a succession of wild business propositions that will eventually drive him to ruin. The tale is poetically told, with richly descriptive characterizations of place and characterizations of people. Author Silko contrasts the almost wild gardens in the most remote canyons of Arizona with cultivated theme gardens of Cape Cod and Europe, and use these descriptions to tie the characters together and make several thematic points. This book is not as masterfully written as Stegner's novels, but is an ambitious and beautifully descriptive read. Readers who may be put off by this author's obvious feminist message will enjoy the book as an interesting capture of a wild west that has been modernized, almost.

Tony Hillerman Mysteries

Tony Hillerman is a prolific writer in the Suspense/Mystery genre. Not being a reader of mysteries, I would never have picked this author's books up if it were not for the strong recommendation of my local libarian! I read just one book, and I was hooked.

Here are three titles to get you started, but be aware that they are a small number of mysteries published by Hillerman:

  • Skinwalkers
  • Dance Hall of the Dead
  • The Blessing Way

Tony Hillerman's novels feature detectives from the Tribal Police force. Hillerman features two Native American detective heroes: Sgt. Jim Chee and Officer Joe Leaphorn. Jim Chee is an "old salt" on the force, and set in his ways, like many officers who have logged years of service. Joe Leaphorn is much younger, and a lot more troubled by fitting in with his Indian heritage while performing the duties of his job and advancing in his career. Almost all of Hillerman's books feature crimes that take place on tribal lands, and his books make interesting reading for their fast pace, interesting characterization, and page-turning events. Most of Hillerman's books attempt to give a suburbanite a unique private peek at lives on tribal lands.

How true to tribal traditions and Native American attitudes are Hillerman's books? I'm not sure, to be perfectly honest. But these are page-turning summer reads. And definitely belong on my list of books that feature the American West as an additional character in his books.

Equipment at an abandoned mine near Wickenburg Arizona.
Equipment at an abandoned mine near Wickenburg Arizona. | Source

Books About Fortune Seekers

The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner

This novel about Bo and Elsa Mason and their two sons is a tragic and heartbreaking epic story about this family's ill-fated quest to make it rich. This book ties as my all-time favorite writing of fiction with C.S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces. The Big Rock Candy Mountain is the story of Bo and Elsa Mason and their children as they seek their fortunes in the American West (including bleak South Dakota, Rough and tumble Washington and Oregon, Canada, Alaska, Utah, and finally Nevada during the beginning of the 20th century. The story details the desperate dreams of Bo Mason to "make his pile."

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Angle of Repose is also the story of an ill-matched marriage. This book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, and is another strongly characterized and plotted novel, though it is slowly paced. This story explores the story of the narrator's grandparents, Susan and Oliver Ward, by historian Lyman Ward who is disabled and bedridden in Grass Valley California.

I enjoyed this fascinating look at life in the wild and lawless mining camps of the late nineteenth century. Like Gardens in the Dunes (and published earlier), this story tells of an upper class East Coast woman who is swept off her feet by an adventurous man--a geologist and mining engineer.

Coming from a progressive Eastern background, Susan Ward clings to untenable and unrealistic expectations for civilizing the mining camps they inhabit. A particular dream of establishing a proper Victorian home in one of the desolate, dangerous, and remote mining camps of the Western United States brings embarrassment to her husband and drives him into an enormous hole of debt that becomes one of the propelling factors in his decision to move from place to place. Susan's husband Oliver is relentlessly driven to succeed as a mining engineer, and though he loves his wife, he loves mining and the West even more. Their marriage is fraught with complications and incompatibilities, making this book another fascinating, multi-layered work by Stegner.

Books that Feature the Modern Southwest

Many people will recognize Barbara Kingsolver as the accomplished writer of the ambitious Poisonwood Bible and of the more recently published Prodigal Summer. But three of Barbara Kingsolver's early works feature feel-good plots while addressing themes of community, adoption, and family in the unique setting of Tucson and the fictitious town, Grace, Arizona.

The Bean Trees and its sequel, Pigs in Heaven, are stories about a Kentuckian who moves to the Southwest, and on the way, adopts an abandoned and abused Native American child in Oklahoma. Somehow, despite these dark themes, these two books are pleasant to read, and the characters and storylines are lighthearted. These books are the chick lit of the American West. They are perfect as summer vacation reads, and don't require the emotional energy of the previous books by Stegner. Barbara Kingsolver is a favorite writer. If you are looking for more serious fiction by this writer, go ahead and pick up the Poisonwood Bible. It is a fascinating look at religion and culture set in Africa.

The other book by Barbara Kingsolver, set in Grace Arizona is Animal Dreams. The lead female character returns to her hometown on the Arizona border in search of herself, her roots, and her place in the universe. She discovers that Grace has a lot to offer her. You will delight in the descriptions of cool tiled patios, lush, fragrant gardens, and peacocks that play an important role in the story.

Books Featuring Cowboys

Well, sort of.

My two selections in this category should have included The Horse Whisperer, Lonesome Dove, and any number of books by Louis L'Amour. The problem is, I haven't read those books, so you'll have to go explore those ones without my review.

My book titles featuring cowboys are Plainsong, and Eventide, both by Kent Haruf. I discovered these books about three years ago and drank them in. They are marvelous! Kent Haruf's novels seem simple on the surface, but are simple like Rilke or Hemingway.

Both Plainsong and Eventide are the stories of the inhabitants of Holt, Colorado. In this small, isolated community on the Colorado plains, no-one can escape knowing everyone's business, but the community code of behavior requires that all people there live as though they lead private lives. The two short novels comprise the stories of several characters whose lives interconnect, but the appeal of these "mythic cowboy" novels is Haruf's prose style. Few writers can write as piercingly and poetically with so few words.


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