Top Ten Western Novels
The discovery of the Americas and the mysterious, unexplored West fired the imagination of Spanish conquistadors, English pilgrims, French fur traders, and the legions that have followed over the centuries. In spurts, awestruck and hypnotized by the power and beauty of the land, we pushed the boundaries of the known Western Hemisphere to the edge of dense forests, over endless grassy prairies, through towering barrier mountains, and finally across scorched deserts to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Explorers, naturalists, soldiers, cowboys, poets, adventurers, treasure hunters, army wives, artists, gold miners, traders, stockmen, European noblemen, and just about anyone else you can think of who traveled by foot, horse, or wagon under the vast western sky and could put pen to paper felt compelled to write about the American West. And it hasn’t stopped yet.
Demographers, census takers, historians, and social scientists will tell you that the frontier closed some hundred plus years ago. But don’t say that to those who know better. There are counties where the population of ranch critters outnumber the people, where vast areas of wilderness seen only by a very few stretch to the horizon, where ranch families with deep roots to the land survive in hard country miles from civilization, where it’s foolhardy to venture unprepared into the high country, and where wildlife thrives undisturbed in remote, hidden canyons.
In some ways, for better or worse, the West is still the West, sprinkled with remnants of old frontiers and burgeoning with 21st-century new ones. It continues to remain fertile ground for writers of every stripe.
Until recently, with twelve Kevin Kerney novels under my belt, my stripe was that of a crime writer. But now with the release of The Last Ranch, the final book in my American West trilogy, the genre lines that once defined me have blurred. Am I now a writer of Westerns? Should my recent work more accurately be called historical fiction? Is there a sub-genre for literary Westerns? What about “Classical Westerns”? Finally, if books of any category are rousingly good stories that entertain and inform, who cares?
Regardless of where I might be pigeonholed as a writer, as a reader I’m eclectic, which simply means I’m all over the map with no one favorite category in either fiction or nonfiction. With that in mind, here, in no particular order, are ten of my favorite novels that are firmly anchored in the West.
House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday. A powerful story of a young Native American’s return from war. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Momaday once wrote, “The place of infinite possibility is where the storyteller belongs.” It’s such a dazzling insight, I used it as the epigraph in The Last Ranch.
Little Big Man, Thomas Berger. A superb, side-splitting, provocative historical novel of life and war on the frontier. Better than the movie, which was really good.
Red Sky at Morning, Richard Bradford. A coming-of-age, witty, delightful classic set in New Mexico. Richard was a friend, but I loved his book long before I met him. He never failed to make me laugh and think.
Laughing Boy: A Navajo Love Story, Oliver La Farge. A haunting, Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of love that authentically captured the gathering changes occurring on the Navajo Nation in the early 20th century.
Dance Hall of the Dead, Tony Hillerman. One of Hillerman’s finest outings. Although left off the list, it deserved to be included among the Best 100 Mysteries of the 20th Century. Tony also was a friend, but I knew him long before he started writing his bestselling mysteries. He could weave a good yarn on the page or over a pot of coffee.
Stepsons of Light, Eugene Manlove Rhodes. Simply the best and one of the most popular of the early Western writers, Gene Rhodes wrote about a world he knew firsthand and did it with a gleam in his eye, a smile on his lips, and panache.
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry. McMurtry took home the Pulitzer with his 1985 instant classic. No further elaboration is needed.
Mountain Time, Bernard DeVoto. An intense love story set just after the end of the Great War, traveling from New York to the Rocky Mountains. DeVoto’s Pulitzer was for history, not fiction, but it still counts.
Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner. McMurtry’s creative writing professor at Stanford, Stegner wrote this brilliant, meticulously researched historical novel centered around characters based on the famous 19th-century Western illustrator and novelist Mary H. Foot and her mining engineer husband. Stegner won a Pulitzer for his marvelous novel.
Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather. Two French priests arrive in Santa Fe and work to revive the Church, build a cathedral, and traverse the pitfalls of learning to live in a new and strange land. Cather writes with a descriptive force about a land she loves. Okay, so Cather won her Pulitzer for an earlier novel. Big deal.
That’s ten, but I’m compelled to sneak in one more, The Man Who Killed the Deer, by Frank Waters. A riveting book that takes you deep into the world of Pueblo Indians and their struggle to retain their identity and cultural heritage. Written with poetic force and nuanced insight.
Top ten western novels is Michael’s first novel for the Strand, he’s the author of upcoming The Last Ranch.