What Do I Read Next? Home on the Range

Dear Ravenous Readers,

I’ve just arrived in Arizona for an extended stay, and I’m looking for books with a frontier setting to get me in the Wild West mood. I’d like books with real stories, not stereotypes, or cliché cowboys.  I was blown away by Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for the language, the vivid descriptions and the historical settings. Do you have any suggestions for great books that will help me understand the Western zeitgeist?


Tenderfoot from Tuckahoe

Dear Tenderfoot,

Welcome to Arizona!  Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West is McCarthy’s masterpiece, and is cited by many critics as one of the best American novels ever written. It has many characteristics of a classic Western -- the historical setting, a harsh desert landscape, the atmosphere of desolation, and it stands alone in terms of unforgettable characters, riveting descriptions, and the beauty of the language (although it IS easily one of  the most violent books, ever.)

Here are some titles, set in the West and steeped in Western lore that might put you in mind of the characteristics you like best in Cormac McCarthy:

Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, sets the bar for extraordinary characters, historic authenticity, and an action-packed plot. There are cowboys, Indians, gunfights, and cattle aplenty, but you won’t find any stereotypes here—it’s intelligent, thoughtful, thrilling storytelling, with McMurtry’s trademark snap-crackle-pop dialog. If you read only one Western, it should be this one--although, you might want to read the other great titles in the Lonesome Dove series, Streets of Laredo, Dead Man's Walk and Comanche Moon

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an epic Western saga from author Ron Hansen. His brilliantly detailed rendering of these two unforgettable characters, one a successful outlaw, the other the adolescent with a fatal obsession, will keep you turning pages—even though you know how the story ends. Hansen's most recent offering, The Kid, offers a fictionalized version of the short, fast life of Billy the Kid. It was selected as a Southwest Book of the Year for 2016.

For fabulous Western fiction set right in your Arizona backyard try Mary Doria Russell’s Epitaph, the sequel to her best-selling Doc, which follows Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday to Tombstone, and ultimately to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. A stickler for authenticity, Russell is a tireless researcher. When she was in Tombstone researching Epitaph, she went so far as to recreate Wyatt Earp’s Vendetta Ride, so she could see what he saw, and feel what he felt. The payoff--in addition to killer saddle sores--was a highly readable historical Western novel, authentic to its core.

In The Son, Phillip Meyer delivers a multi-generational saga extending over 100 years, beginning with the abduction of a 13-year-old boy in a brutal Comanche raid, his ultimate release, and his ruthless (but no less fascinating) climb to the top as a captain of Texas oil and ranching. It has all the elements of a great Western (history, landscape, Indians, gunfights) as well as some powerful family dynamics.

The Western Writers of America annually annually honor distinguished writing about the American West with the Spur Awards. Here's some Spur winners in our catalog, and check out their website for the complete lists of award-winners in fiction and nonfiction, that date back to 1953. And of course, our Southwest Books of the Year are a great place to browse noteworthy titles, too!

Happy reading, pardner!

HW for Raveous Readers

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Any other ideas for Tenderfoot? Let us know in the comments below!