Malcolm Brooks’ new book, Painted Horses, is getting loads of acclaim from fans and critics alike. It’s a sweeping novel with all the trappings of a classic Western: the unforgiving-yet-gorgeous landscape, the struggle between greed and compassion, and, of course, lots of horses. The main character, Catherine LeMay, is an ambitious young archaeologist commissioned to search for Native American artifacts in a desolate canyon in 1950s Montana. Her ruthless employer hired her for her gender and youth, betting she’ll fail at her task and thus allow him to flood the canyon and build a profitable dam. We follow Catherine in her endeavors, occasionally taking jaunts through her memories. Along the way, we meet John H., a vaguely sad and sharply charming mustanger-cum-landscape painter; Miriam, Catherine’s smart and capable Native American assistant; and Jack Allen, a brutal horse catcher assigned as Catherine’s guide. The characters are well-developed, and the novel begins at a comfortable, methodical pace before building to a nail-biting crescendo. Brooks’ writing shines most brilliantly in his depiction of the canyon’s wild horses. He brings these creatures vividly to life, capturing their indomitable, majestic spirit and presenting it as a metaphor for the West itself.
Now, be warned: if you read Painted Horses (which you should!), you’re likely to find yourself suddenly head-over-heels for Westerns. Luckily, we’ve got you covered, with these essential cornerstones of any Western collection.
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
I’m just going to come out and say this: there are books out there as good as Lonesome Dove, but few that are better. This book and its sequel, Streets of Laredo, simultaneously show the 19th-century West at its grittiest and most idealistic. Retired Texas Rangers Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call decide to take a break from ranching and ragging on one another to take one last adventure together: a cattle drive to Montana, where they plan to settle for good. Put mildly, there are some bumps in the road. You’ll laugh hard and cry harder, and it will all be completely worth it. Trust me.
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
We don’t traditionally think of this Great American Novel as a Western—it’s short on cowboys and whiskey, for one thing. There are barely even any cows! However, I make the case that it should be included. The Joad family, decimated by the Great Depression, decides to add their number to that of so many Americans forced West to look for work in the Dust Bowl migration. From the outset, the Joads’ journey is hard, and it only gets harder as they get closer to the promised land of California. Though this novel will bend your faith in humanity nearly to the breaking point, it will also reassure you that hope does indeed spring eternal. There is no greater ode to American tenacity, stoicism, and dignity. In my book, that makes The Grapes of Wrath an honorary Western. No library is complete without it.
The Hot Kid, by Elmore Leonard
Okay, after those two heavy reads, you’re really going to need some fun. Happily, nothing’s more fun than reading Elmore Leonard. He introduces us to Carlos “Carl” Webster, a U.S. Marshall sworn to rid 1920s Oklahoma of such scum as “Babyface” Nelson and the notorious John Dillinger. Leonard is at his best with this work, giving us line after line of quick-witted dialogue delivered by a host of, shall we say, idiosyncratic characters. The word this novel conjures up is that defining hallmark of the West itself: wild.
Close Range: Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx
With this collection of 11 short stories, Proulx evokes the shimmering, hazy line on the Western horizon. You know, the one that blends fantasy with reality. In addition to featuring some of the best titles ever, like “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water,” these stories truly captivate us with the beautiful mystery that is the American West. Proulx sweeps into rural Wyoming like a dusty gust of wind, picking up her characters one by one just long enough to make you miss them when she sets them down again. This collection is forlorn, magical, and hauntingly beautiful. Bonus: it features a little story you may have heard of, by the name of “Brokeback Mountain.”
Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy
Blood Meridian, as it is typically known, is perhaps best defined as the anti-Western Western. Think the Old West was all fun and games and teepees and singin’ songs under the stars? Well, it wasn’t, and McCarthy is here to let you know it. Some people say that if you haven’t read McCarthy before, you shouldn’t start here, but I say, if you’re going to do a thing, just go do it, goshdarnit! With that said, proceed with extreme caution if you have a weak stomach. As the title suggests, there’s quite a bit of blood. And guts. And other bodily fluids. You get the picture. If you can get past that, you’re in for a literary masterpiece. Many have compared McCarthy’s prose to that of Faulkner, and with good reason. It’s driving, lyrical, and seems to follow its own set of rules. Like Faulkner, McCarthy doesn’t hold your hand through the tough times. He presents the heart-rending truths of the 1850s frontier with a dispassionate frankness. His nonchalance makes you want to wail at him, “Hey, don’t you care? People are dying horrific deaths over here and everything is terrible!” The seeming indifference of his narration is what stirs readers’ own humanity. Pretty clever, if you can stomach it.
Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner
Angle of Repose centers on Lyman Ward, a history professor confined to a wheelchair by a devastating bone disease. As Lyman comes to terms with his illness and disintegrated marriage, he finds purpose in exploring the lives of his grandparents through letters written by his grandmother, Susan. Spanning two centuries and the width of the North American continent, this book is a treatise on the recurring themes of life, and in particular, marriage. Compromise, self-discovery, betrayal, and bitter disappointment are all central figures in this grand, ambitious novel. Another main character is, of course, the West itself. Susan’s marriage to husband Oliver comes springing to life against a backdrop of pioneer camps and ore mines as the two follow a wayward path that winds throughout the frontier landscape. It’s a rough-yet-elegant novel that will leave you wistful for a time you’ve never known, and, I’m afraid, will do little to quell your budding Western addiction.
What are your favorite westerns?