Every month, the librarians of Manhattan Public Library’s Adult Services Department read and discuss books from a different chosen fiction genre or subject area. We do this in order to keep informed about good books to recommend to our readers and also to challenge ourselves to read outside our usual preferences. This month we tackled Westerns, and for most of us it’s been a departure and a pleasant surprise.
Genre fiction is considered to be written according to a roughly recognizable formula. The most popular fiction genres are mysteries, science fiction, fantasies, romances, and Westerns. Traditionally, Westerns have been short adventure novels of the legendary Old West (not necessarily factually accurate Western history), taking place on the moving edge of the American frontier throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. They offer a simple writing style and straightforward plot featuring lots of action and strong and self-reliant heroes (or heroines) who are engaged in the timeless conflicts of good vs. evil, man against nature, culture vs. culture. Westerns have made the transition to film with great success and have been updated and re-interpreted into stories of superheroes and Star Wars’ space cowboys.
Just as mysteries have come a long way from Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple to Jeffry Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan, Westerns have come a long way from the early novels of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. Today’s Westerns offer a wider spectrum of settings, characters, and time frames, and also more depth and moral ambiguity in their plots. In spite of the concept of formula fiction, there are endless permutations to the formula and literary quality is often superb. Reading a good Western can be an engrossing, enjoyable, and satisfying experience.
If you’re not already a Western fan and want to give one a try, a great source for book suggestions is the list of nominees and winners of the Spur Award, annual prize of the Western Writers of America. In addition to such classics of print and film as “The Virginian” by Owen Wister, “The Ox-bow Incident” by Walter Clark, “Shane” by Jack Schaefer, and “True Grit” by Charles Portis, you’ll find recent winners and best-sellers like: “Last Train from Cuernavaca” by Lucia St. Clair Robson, winner of a 2011 Spur Award and a rare woman-authored, female-protagonist Western;
“Summer of Pearls” by Mike Blakely, featuring a riverboat community and the Great Caddo Lake Pearl Rush of 1874;
“Far Bright Star” by Robert Olmstead, described by the Dallas Morning News as a “thinking reader’s Western”;
“Bound for the Promise-Land” by Troy D. Smith, the saga of Alfred Mann, a freed slave, Civil War soldier, Buffalo Soldier, and Medal of Honor winner, and his quest to rise above ignorance and intolerance;
“Masterson” by Richard S. Wheeler, a “sprightly romp” (Publisher’s Weekly), featuring legendary gunfighter Bat Masterson as an aging, hard-drinking curmudgeon intent on revisiting the locales of his past adventures with his young common-law wife Emma;
“Valdez Is Coming” or “3:10 to Yuma” by Elmore Leonard and “The Undertaker’s Wife” or “The Branch and Scaffold” by Loren Estleman, both prolific writers of bestselling contemporary fiction as well.
Other titles to look for: “Stranger in Thunder Basin” or “Trouble at the Redstone” by John D. Nesbitt; “The Hanging Judge” by Lyle Brandt; “Vengeance Valley” by Richard S. Wheeler; “The Way of the Coyote” by Elmer Kelton; “The Trespassers” by Andrew J. Fenady; “A Cold Place in Hell” by William Blinn; “Dreams Beneath Your Feet” by Win Blevins; “Killstraight” or “Camp Ford” by Johnny D. Boggs; “The Sergeant’s Lady” by Miles Swarthout.
For readers wanting books with a woman’s perspective on the Western experience, try winners of the Willa Award, an annual prize given by the writers’ group “Women Writing the West,” named in honor of author Willa Cather (“O Pioneers,” “My Antonia”). Look for popular authors Sandra Dallas, Jane Kirkpatrick, Molly Gloss, Cindy Bonner, Jeanne Williams, Jo-Ann Mapson, Jana Richman, Bess Streeter Aldrich, Pamela Nowak, Loula Grace Erdman, Elizabeth Crook, Augusta Locke, Nancy E. Turner, Sandi Ault, and Kim Wiese, to name just a few.
Susan Withee is the adult services librarian at the Manhattan Public Library.