Here is a list of some of my favourite novels that take place in the American West. This includes both historical Westerns and contemporary stories set in the rugged and wild areas that we consider the West. There are so many good ones, but I chose these due to the heavy use of location and setting, so much so that the West itself often becomes as important as any character.
Blood Meridian by Cormack McCarthy
Style and punctuation aside, this beautifully brutal book captures a much overlooked part of Western history, and the lesser-talked about repercussions of ‘independence’, and ‘freedom’. It deals with what really happens when people are allowed to run amok on a frontier. This book rips the romance out of the American West myth, and sometimes that is a good thing.
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
One of my top five favourite books, this rowdy romp tells the tale of a rag-tag band of environmentalists who are in love with and devoted to the Utah red rock desert. They launch an offensive against the powers they believe are out to ruin the land that they love. The environmental themes of the book come second, however, behind the humorous and fun-to-follow characters and the craziness of the plot.
Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
This is actually a collection of three novellas, but the self-titled feature is one of the best stories of a family in the West ever written. Harrison somehow uses omniscient point-of-view to show lifetimes of trials and tragedy in a few pages that would fill volumes if elaborated. But he uses just the right words and phrases to make you forever remember Tristan and his brothers and the women they love. Set in the gorgeous Montana backcountry, with a constant tension between civilisation and the wild, it is a tale I reread at least once a year.
Winter in the Blood by James Welch
This is a contemporary Western, set again in Montana, but features a conflicted young man from an Indian reservation and his search for place and peace in a confining modern world. The book is haunting, depressing at times, and tragic. Just as life on so many reservations can sometimes be. A great book about another overlooked part and people of the West.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
This one is THE classic Western. It has everything: cowboys, cattle drives, Texas Rangers, bandits, Indians, prostitutes, riverboat gamblers, open prairies, cow towns, stampedes, hangings, horse thieves and more. It paints a grand view of the mythic West, without showing it in too romantic a light. Not as anti-Western as Blood Meridian, but as honest. The people that make up the book – and there are a lot – are realistic, flawed people that could exist in any time and place. A wonderful escape into a time that I’m glad we no longer live in.
The Big Maria by Johnny Shaw
This is a personal favourite, and one I’m surprised more people haven’t read. It’s a contemporary treasure hunt, set in the deserts of the Southwest, featuring three down-on-their-luck men as they set out to find gold in a lost mine that could turn all of their lives around. Problems abound, however: stubborn burros, starving mountain lions, a mine field, and… oh yeah, the fact that the mine rests inside a military bombing range. A well told adventure that had me laughing to the point of tears at times. Heartily recommended.
Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie
The Western fur-trade era was very short lived, but still resonates profoundly throughout the modern West. Set in a time before European settlers had made much of an impact, when men wandered through the mountains living off the land and trapping beavers to sell annually, the book evokes images and feelings of freedom from civilisation. It also paints brilliant pictures of the West in its wildest state, before towns and parking lots and supermarkets covered the land.
Flint by Louis L’Amour
I’m going to admit a bit of bias on this one, as L’Amour was one of the staples of my young reading diet. That said, I still consider Flint to be one of his best, and therefore one of the best Westerns ever written. It features a rags-to-riches young man who was orphaned, raised tough, then went on to make a fortune back East but later, when he has terminal cancer, returns to the West of his youth to die in peace. Instead, he gets drawn into a range war and jumps in to help the underdog. That is what makes the story so fun: the fact that the main character is always willing to make a stand for what he thinks is right. If nothing else is learned from these types of books, hopefully that lesson will resonate with readers.
When the Legends Die by Hal Borland
Another book that exposes the hardships of modern Native American youth. It’s the story of a young Ute man who grew up with a strong connection to the land, but was ripped away and forced to go to a reservation school and later wandered away from his people and tried to make a name for himself on the rodeo circuit. He returns to the land and his people in the end, but it shows the constant seeking and yearning of a young adult in a confusing and minimalised part of the West.
Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher
This book is also set in the fur-trade era, but is not nearly as famous as Big Sky. The movie based on the novel, however, is very well known. Supposedly, this revenge saga was the basis of Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson, which happens to be one of my favourite movies – partly because it was filmed not too far from where I live. The book is heavy on romance and violence, but was an enthralling read when I was young and lived a life not too different from the one I was reading about. This is not the best book about the Mountain Man era, but one of the most fun to read.
Erik Storey is a former ranch hand, wilderness guide, dogsled musher and hunter, and has earned a number of sharpshooter and marksman qualifications. He spent his childhood summers growing up on his great-grandfather’s homestead or in a remote cabin in Colorado’s Flat Tops wilderness, and now lives with his family in Grand Junction, Colorado. Nothing Short of Dying, his first novel in a series featuring drifter-with-a-mission Clyde Barr, is published by Simon & Schuster.
Author portrait © Samantha Storey