Forget your cowboy movie blockbusters and your local barn-dance knees-up; if you want to get seriously down and dusty with the Wild West, grab yourself a paperback. The Western novel might be a genre currently out of favour, but it has a long and illustrious history.
In fact, Western fiction can be traced all the way back to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. This series of five novels featuring Natty Bumppo, the child of white parents who grew up with Native Americans, was launched in 1824 with publication of The Prairie. Set west of the Mississippi River, it tells of the trials and tribulations of frontier living. It might seem dated now, but it helped launch a genre responsible for a century of classics. To see for yourself, check out our ten magnificent must reads.
1. Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912)
Watch out, baddies,Lassiter’s in town! This popular classic has our gun-slinging hero save a lady rancher from an unwelcome marriage to a Mormon elder out in the Utah badlands. Grey’s back-catalogue includes, count ‘em, over forty Old West adventure stories, but here is a fine place to start.
2. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie (1935)
Okay, it’s not a cowboy story per se, but it’s still one of the most enduring frontier tales in American literature. Based on Ingall’s own life, Little House documents one family’s attempt to become bone-fide homesteaders, as they migrate in a covered wagon from the forests of Wisconsin to Indian Territory in Kansas. This is the real deal.
3. Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1940)
Set in 1885, Clark’s first published novel features two drifters recruited to a lynch mob looking to hunt down and hang the presumed killers of a local man. A searing and realistic portrait of frontier life and mob violence in the American West, it takes the Western genre and turns it into a universal story about good and evil, individual and community, justice and human nature. Three years later, it was adapted into an award-winning movie of the same name.
4. John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing (1960)
Time Out New York said of Williams’s classic: “One of the finest books about the elusive nature of the West ever written…It’s a graceful and brutal story of isolated men gone haywire.” The story of a Harvard dropout who seeks out the wonders of nature only to find himself in the backwater Kansas town of Butcher’s Crossing, eclipses in many ways the later Western works of Cormac McCarthy. For not only does it nail the rapacious greed of the buffalo hunters it describes, it reaches for more abstract and troubling themes that go to the very essence of man and his place in the world. A disturbing yet compelling read.
5. Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964)
Meet the incomparable Jack Crabbe. Raised by both white men and a Cheyenne chief, Jack’s a veteran of Little Bighorn and a familiar of Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp and General Custer – and he tells one hell of a tall tale. Berger’s novel (adapted for the screen by Arthur Penn in 1970) is a work of satirical genius.
6. Charles Portis’s True Grit
Originally published as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post, True Grit is a compelling story of revenge with a wilful fourteen-year-old girl, Mattie Ross, as the main protagonist. Hooking up with the colourful and subtly comic U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, Mattie heads into Indian Territory to seek retribution. True Grit is a vivid, swiftly moving, and engaging Western well worth the afternoon it takes to read this slim novel.
7. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (1985)
A love-story, an epic, a horse-rustling adventure; McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove follows a crew of cattle-herding Rangers all the way from Texas to Montana. Talk about your settlers and Indians, your whores and outlaws; this book – and its horde of sequels and adaptations – is about as Western as they come.
8. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985)
Blood in the title and blood on the page; this one ain’t for the squeamish. A teenage runaway joins a gang of itinerant scalp-hunters on the trail of North American tribesman along the US-Mexican border. Starring the terrifying Judge – a villain that makes your Hannibal Lectors need smelling salts – Blood Meridian is shockingly violent, but McCarthy’s prose gives it a startling and savage beauty.
9. Annie Proulx’s Close Range (1999)
Now, it’s not strictly a novel, but we’ll level our flintlocks at those who contest its place on our list. Included in this ferociously funny and bleak set of tales is Brokeback Mountain, a story that all you movie buffs will already know. With a savage ear for dialogue and a killer sense of humour, Proulx serves up ranchers and cowpokes and steers. Oh my! You’ll never look at Wyoming the same way again.
10. Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers (2011)
Shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, The Sisters Brothers stars Eli and Charlie Sister, hired killers on their way to San Francisco to nail their latest target. Set during the American Gold Rush in the Sierra Nevada, The Sisters Brothers is chock-full of assassinations, inventors and prospectors. Contemporary fiction doesn’t get much more Wild and Western than this.
Joel Willans is the founder of Ink Tank and author of the short story collection, SPELLBOUND: Stories of Women’s Magic over Men. His prize-winning fiction has been broadcast on BBC radio and published in dozens of magazines and anthologies worldwide. You can find him on Twitter and Ello