The post’s title is incredibly misleading.
Sorry. It’s not about West Side Story, which I love as much as anyone else. It’s about Westerns, the oft overlooked genre of fiction. I couldn’t call it “Best Westerns” without it feeling like a road trip hotel chain advertisement. If I called it “Fantastic Westerns You Haven’t Read” you might have been skipped right over the post, because, well, people think they don’t like westerns. So now that you’re here, you might as well give these wonderful novels a chance.
The Winter Family // Clifford Jackman. The Winter Family, a gang of mismatched men headed by the one and only Augustus Winters, spans from the civil war to 1900. It’s only natural that there are a lot of casualties. Kind of. Augustus Winters likes to be cruel. He’s cold (with a rather fitting name), tough, and calculating – and he enjoys that. From Georgia to Chicago to Canada to California, the novel follows this despicable band of mercenaries as they move from one disaster – they’ve caused – to the next. It’s quite possible that the bodies pile up faster than the pages in this one, but don’t let that put you off. It’s also a stellar, well-plotted tale of brutality and lawlessness during a time when the world was incredibly brutal and lawless. There are no heroes here, nor any anti-heroes, it’s just the story of ruthless men justifying their actions however they need to to make it through the day. If a historical western noir with more than a few bodies and bloody good writing sounds appealing, get this one immediately.
The Which Way Tree // Elizabeth Crook. Benjamin Shreve is just a little boy when he sees his sister maimed and his stepmother killed by a very large, very vicious panther.
Set in Texas during the Civil War, The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook is a Texas-sized tall tale of revenge and adventure through the wilderness in pursuit of El Demonio de Dos Dedos. It is at times a tad bit far-fetched, but what great story of vengeance isn’t? Aided by an honorable Mexican horse thief, a reverend, and an elderly panther sniffing dog, Benjamin and Samantha set out to hunt the demonic predator. Hindering their progress is one Clarence Hanlin, a confederate soldier guilty of murder.
Told almost entirely in an epistolary format, specifically Benjamin’s letters-as-testimony to a judge trying to convict Mr. Hanlin of his crimes, this novel is both earnest and deadpan, with a narrator both endearing and frustrating. Truly, The Which Way Tree is a treat, with a subtle hint of True Grit and a subtle-as-a-hammer nod to Moby Dick. This quest for vengeance, interspersed with real, true sibling love, will charm you.
West // Carys Davies. I don’t think I have a sentimental bone in my body (if I do, I think it’s probably my little toe), but this book touched my heart. Something about the story of Bess, who waits for her father to complete his quest, has stayed with me for a long time. It’s a slim little novel, with an impact as big as the mammoth bones Cy seeks. The cover is also flawless, for what it’s worth.
“When widowed mule breeder Cy Bellman reads in the newspaper that colossal ancient bones have been discovered in the salty Kentucky mud, he sets out from his small Pennsylvania farm to see for himself if the rumors are true: that the giant monsters are still alive and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River. Promising to write and to return in two years, he leaves behind his only daughter, Bess, to the tender mercies of his taciturn sister and heads west.
With only a barnyard full of miserable animals and her dead mother’s gold ring to call her own, Bess, unprotected and approaching womanhood, fills lonely days tracing her father’s route on maps at the subscription library and waiting for his letters to arrive. Bellman, meanwhile, wanders farther and farther from home, across harsh and alien landscapes, in reckless pursuit of the unknown.”
Wolves of Eden // Kevin McCarthy. “Dakota Territory, 1866. Following the murders of a frontier fort’s politically connected sutler and his wife in their illicit off-post brothel, Lieutenant Martin Molloy and his long-suffering orderly, Corporal Daniel Kohn, are ordered to track down the killers and return with “boots for the gallows” to appease powerful figures in Washington. The men journey west to the distant outpost in a beautiful valley, where the soldiers inside the fort prove to be violently opposed to their investigations.
Meanwhile, Irish immigrant brothers Michael and Thomas O’Driscoll have returned from the brutal front lines of the Civil War. Unable to adapt to life as migrant farm laborers in peacetime Ohio, they reenlist in the army and are shipped to Fort Phil Kearny in the heart of the Powder River Valley. Here they are thrown into merciless combat with Red Cloud’s coalition of Native tribes fighting American expansion into their hunting grounds. Amidst the daily carnage, Thomas finds a love that will lead to a moment of violence as brutal as any they have witnessed in battle―a moment that will change their lives forever.
Once you get into the dialogue of the novel, this engrossing, blood-soaked story sheds light on the Old West, during the era of Red Cloud’s War (this was not a topic covered in my long ago class on the civil war). The ties that bind us together in times of war, and the brutality that men inflict and survive, combined with the mystery of who murdered the sutler and his wife, create a compelling novel.
Black River // S. M. Hulse. A tense, modern Western with a gritty feel, Black River tells the story of a man marked by a prison riot as he returns to the town, and the convict, who shaped him. It’s hard to believe this novel is a debut, the prose and plot is nuanced and evocative. I saw it referred to as a “western of unusual depth” and that’s a good prescription. This is another novel that will stick with you for a long time.
Whiskey When We’re Dry // John Larison. “In the spring of 1885, seventeen-year-old Jessilyn Harney finds herself orphaned and alone on her family’s homestead. Desperate to fend off starvation and predatory neighbors, she cuts off her hair, binds her chest, saddles her beloved mare, and sets off across the mountains to find her outlaw brother Noah and bring him home. A talented sharpshooter herself, Jess’s quest lands her in the employ of the territory’s violent, capricious Governor, whose militia is also hunting Noah–dead or alive. “
This book is riveting and memorable in all the best ways. Jess is a fantastic, multidimensional character, and I’m pleased to see books like this breathing new life into the western genre.
The Ploughmen // Kim Zupan. When I originally read this, I wrote “This is a novel that I can’t help but feel will fly under the radar, but I hope it gets the attention it deserves. It’s not the story of anything in particular, instead it is the story of how life happens and how the lives of individuals intersect in such a way as to bind them together. It’s also the story of place, in this case it’s the desolate, lonely Montana countryside. It has the feel of a modern western with the gloom and grit of Daniel Woodrell and Cormac McCarthy. I’d highly, highly recommend this one for fans of literary fiction.” That still stands.
TL;DR. Whatever you’re reason for reading a western, there is one here for you.
- If you’re in it for the blood, read The Winter Family.
- If you’re in it for a quest and reckless pursuit of the unknown, read West.
- If you’re in it for humor, grit, and a dash of Moby Dick, read The Which Way Tree.
- If you’re in it for the history, read Wolves of Eden.
- If you’re in it for depth and modern perspective, read Black River.
- If you’re in it because you loved True Grit, read Whiskey When We’re Dry.
- If you’re in it for beautiful writing, read The Ploughmen.