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Get Lost in the Wild West

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • June 05, 2019

More Than Just Spaghetti Westerns

Brooding cowboys. Long-suffering women. Black-hatted scoundrels. Campfire confessions. Sunset vistas. Rolling tumbleweeds. You may be thinking that these look like a passel of dusty tropes, yet somehow I never tire of them, especially when done well. But the Western genre goes far beyond your typical meat and potatoes cowboy yarn. Here are five categories of rollicking adventure tales and a couple of recommendations from each.

Homesteader Sagas

Ever since reading the Little House series when I was a girl, the pioneer story has turned my imagination wild. I adore the drama and tragedy of these hardscrabble tales about tenacious, hard-working folk who risk everything in the search for home. The winner for this category is a first-person account (based on journals from the author's own ancestors) of a feisty young woman as she forges a new life in the unforgiving Arizona Territories. Narrator Sarah Agnes Prine's voice is irresistibly authentic, the story an absolute page-turner!

Winner: These Is My Words by Nancy E. Turner

Runner Up: Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

Native Narratives

So many popular Western tales focus on the white settlers as they move into "unsettled" areas. Often the Native residents of these lands are portrayed as antagonists in this perspective. It's good to remind oneself that, ummm, they were already living there. So who are the real bad guys? I adore everything by the preeminent (and prolific!) Louise Erdrich who brings a rich complexity to her stories, many of which explore her own Native American heritage.

Winner: The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich

Runner Up: Winter in the Blood by James Welch

Short Stories and Tall Tales

"It was her voice that drew you in . . . she could make you smell the smoke from an unlit fire." This is a line from one of Annie Proulx's stories in this category's winner and it also serves as a perfect reflection of her evocative style. Many people may know her for her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Shipping News, but she has also published several volumes of Western-themed short stories. This collection includes Brokeback Mountain (which you may have heard about!).

Winner: Close Range by Annie Proulx

Runner Up: Cowboys and East Indians by Nina McConigley

Enviro-Vigilantes

Perhaps what I love most about Western stories is the West itself. Growing up in the Southwest, I spent a great deal of time traipsing along dusty trails and marveling at radiant, golden vistas. As many of these glorious wildlands are threatened by the spread of development, their protectors have become (for me) the modern-day version of the Western hero. Edward Abbey is an obvious front-runner in this movement. I am always moved by his eloquent cry to protect the wilderness from its greatest threat—humanity. And (just between you and me) Terry Tempest Williams is my idol!

Winner: Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Runner Up: An Unspoken Hunger by Terry Tempest Williams

And Cowboys, Of Course

Sure, I wanted to profile some alternate types of Westerns, but I couldn't leave out the classic cowboy chronicle. There's simply nothing quite as thrilling as a classic shoot-em-up horse opera. It is the ultimate adventure epic. And the master of the genre, for me anyway, is Larry McMurtry, who turned 83 this week. Happy birthday compadre!

Winner: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Runner Up: The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie

Happy Trails

Whether you're vacationing or enjoying the balmy evenings in your backyard hammock, summer is the perfect time for epic reading experiences. Hopefully some of these Western-themed titles sound appealing to you. Regardless, stay tuned during the next few weeks for our recommendations in several different kinds of adventures in literature!

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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