On How the West Was Won

As the sole Westerner on the Book World staff, I feel geographically obligated to highlight some of my favorite novels about the settling of the West. These aren't triumphalist, manifest-destiny books, but fiction that grapples with what it feels like to go out into a fierce, unfamiliar land. Are there books that have made you want to yoke up the oxen and head for the Oregon trail -- or made you thankful that the frontier has long since closed?

1. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy (1985)
This book, about bounty hunters massacring Indians along the Texas-Mexico border, could just as easily have gone on Ron's list of scary books. I read it over a decade ago and still cannot get out of my mind the scene of Comanches rising up out of a herd of cattle, dressed in blood-stained wedding veils and the uniforms of slain soldiers, to slaughter (somewhat justifiably) a group of filibusters.

2. A Sudden Country, by Karen Fisher (2005)
A dream-like account of a woman reluctantly emigrating with her family to Oregon. As she tries to protect her children from the various hazards on the trail, she embarks on a nearly wordless affair with the trapper who is guiding the wagon train. This is Fisher's first novel and was inspired by her family's own emigrant story. Her style reminds me very much of Michael Ondaatje, especially in "The English Patient."

3. Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner (1971)
A reader responding to Marie's list of books about troubled marriages suggested "Angle of Repose." The book certainly qualifies. A wheel-chair bound historian researches his grandparents' lives: The grandfather was a pioneering mining engineer, the grandmother a cultured artist who felt unmoored in the West. They had a certain uneasiness with each other, and with what they represented of new and old America.

4. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry (1985)
What could be more exciting than a cattle drive from Texas to Montana? Especially one with river snakes, psychopathic outlaws, whores and a friendship that is mysterious to everyone outside of it. While there's a certain amount of Western mythologizing going on here, the book is nearly impossible to put down.

5. The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter van Tilburg Clark (1940)
I would be no kind of native-Nevadan at all if I didn't mention this classic, written by a man who spent his childhood as well as his later years in the great Silver State. "The Ox-Bow Incident" has some of the archetypal elements of a traditional western -- cattle rustlers, a posse -- but it's really a morality tale about the dangers of a group taking the law into its own hands.

-- Rachel Shea

By Rachel Hartigan Shea |  October 18, 2007; 7:01 AM ET Fiction , Rachel Hartigan Shea
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I usually do not like Westerns, but I LOVED Lonesome Dove. The miniseries was great too.

Posted by: Missicat | October 18, 2007 8:56 AM

Paul Horgan, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning (for history) The Great River, is a fine writer of historical fiction, much of it set in the New Mexico territory. His novel, A Distant Trumpet, features many of the stereotypes (Indian wars, noble savages, dutiful yet principled military men, selfless wives standing by their husbands), yet manages through graceful prose and a first-rate story to be anything but a light read.

In a different vein, the Black Elk books by John Neihardt are powerful and heartbreaking evocations of white ascendancy in the West. Their subject is a Lakota (Sioux) medicine man who survived the Indian wars. Neihardt visits this extraordinary man at his camp many years after the fighting and elicits an incredible story of courage and spiritual enlightenment against the background of violence and genocide. Black Elk Speaks and The Sacred Pipe are works of anthropology, history, spirituality, and owing to their poeticism, literature.

Posted by: Bill | October 18, 2007 11:07 AM

You're right that Blood Meridian would not be out of place in a list of horror novels. The Judge is a monster more frightening than any vampire. But I concur with your selection of it as one of the best novels about the West -- so lyrical, and its over-the-top violence exposes the hellish chaos that characterized the West's settlement. It reveals the ugliest themes in the most seductive language.

Posted by: Bill | October 18, 2007 3:25 PM

I'm ashamed to say I've never read Black Elk Speaks. I'll have to add it and Paul Horgan's "Distant Trumpet" to my bedside table. Thanks for the recommendations!

Posted by: Rachel Shea | October 18, 2007 5:45 PM

Thank you for your recommendations.

Another great novel about the west, in particular the California Gold Rush in San Francisco, is Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune. Amazon's book description reads, "An orphan raised in Valparaíso, Chile, by a Victorian spinster and her rigid brother, young, vivacious Eliza Sommers follows her lover to California during the Gold Rush of 1849. She enters a rough-and-tumble world whose newly arrived inhabitants are driven mad by gold fever. With the help of her good friend and savior, the Chinese doctor Tao Chi'en, Eliza moves freely in a society of single men and prostitutes, creating an unconventional but independent life for herself. The young Chilean's search for her elusive lover gradually turns into another kind of journey, and by the time she finally hears news of him, Eliza must decide who her true love really is."

Posted by: Sharon | October 20, 2007 8:20 PM

Another excellent suggestion! I remember being blown away by Allende's Eva Luna, but I haven't read Daughter of Fortune.

Posted by: Rachel Shea | October 22, 2007 12:25 PM

For what it's worth, I thought Daughter of Fortune was Allende's worst book. But Amy Bloom's new book, Away, has some good scenes set in the West. How about Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath?

Posted by: Marcy | October 22, 2007 1:25 PM

I like the idea of broadening the definition of what a Western is, and Grapes of Wrath is a perfect example of that. Some others that come to mind: Willa Cather's My Antonia and David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars.

Posted by: Rachel Shea | October 23, 2007 1:49 PM

I've read all 5 of the western novels you listed and Karen Fisher's A Sudden Country has no place on this list, as its just not a very good book. Instead I heartily recommend Paul Horgan's A Distant Trumpet or Oakley Hall's masterpiece Warlock.

Posted by: LouisBranning | October 31, 2007 1:59 PM

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