Author Erik Storey shares his ten favourite books featuring the American West including both historical Westerns, and contemporary ones set in the rugged and wild areas that we consider the West.
by Edward Abbey
One of my top five favorite books, this non-fiction doesn’t pull any punches. It's a straightforward tribute to the deserts and wild places of the Southwest. As a Ranger for Arches National Park, Abbey saw both the beauty of the place and the devastation that man can bring.
Because he saw both, the book is honest enough to be angry and sad and nostalgic, while at other times it's beautiful, heroic, happy and romantic. Anyone interested in the desert country of the West should read this book.
The Last Good Kiss
by James Crumley
This is a contemporary, hard-boiled, Private Eye caper set in the backwoods of Montana. It's one of the very few books I reread every year. It’s that good. While it seems on the surface to be a simple story about a PI looking for lost people, it's actually so much more.
It captures the true essence of so many people I’ve met in the West, especially the ones that moved there for the “space” and couldn’t—or shouldn’t—live around people anymore. The ones considered crazy anywhere else, but are accepted and belong in a land crazier than they are. Also, this book contains one of the best opening lines in literature.
by Larry McMurtry
This one is THE classic Western. It has everything: cowboys, cattle drives, Texas Rangers, bandits, Indians, prostitutes, riverboat gamblers, open prairies, cow towns, stampedes, hangings, horse thieves, and more. It paints a grand view of the mythic west, without showing it in too romantic of light.
Not as anti-western and post-modern as Blood Meridian, but as honest. The people that make up the book—and there are a lot—are realistic, flawed people that could exist in any time and place. A wonderful escape into a time I’m glad we no longer live in.
Legends of the Fall
by Jim Harrison
This is actually a collection of three novellas, but the self-titled feature is one of the best stories of a family in the West ever written. Harrison somehow uses an omniscient point of view to show lifetimes of trials and tragedy in a few pages that would fill volumes if elaborated.
But he uses just the right words and phrases to make you forever remember Tristan and his brothers and the women they love. Set in the gorgeous Montana backcountry, with a constant tension between civilisation and the wild, it's a tale I reread at least once a year.
Robert B Parker
This is the story of Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole, two gunmen in the American Old West. It's the classic tale of town-needs-cleaning and only Everett and Virgil are tough enough to do it. What makes this so much better than others written by lesser writers is that it is written by one of the best crime writers of all time.
He didn’t write nearly as many Westerns as he did of his famous Spencer series, but they are amazing. In short, perfect sentences Parker puts you smack dab in the Old West, inside saloons and on horseback. This book, the first in a series, also has some of the best-written dialogue out there.
Carry the Wind
by Terry C Johnston
The Western Fur-trade era was very short lived, but still resonates profoundly throughout the modern west. A time before European settlers had made much of an impact, when men wandered through the mountains living off the land and trapping beavers to sell annually, it evokes images and feeling of freedom from civilisation.
The book evokes those same images and deals with the same feelings. It also paints brilliant pictures of the West in its wildest state, before towns and parking lots and supermarkets covered the land. It's also a great buddy story, with a young inexperienced man being taught the ways of the wild by an old, grizzled mountain man.
by Louis L'Amour
I’m going to admit a bit of bias on this one, as L’Amour was one of the staples of my young reading diet. That said, I still consider Flint to be one of his best, and therefore one of the best Westerns ever written. It features a rags-to-riches young man who was orphaned, raised tough, then went on to make a fortune back East but later, when he has terminal cancer, returns to the West of his youth to die in peace.
Instead, he gets drawn into a range war and jumps in to help the underdog. That is what makes the story so fun. The fact that the main character always is willing to make a stand for what he thinks is right. If nothing else is learned from these types of books, hopefully, that lesson will resonate with readers. I would have added many more of my favorite L’Amours, but the list is only supposed to be a top ten.
by Doug Peacock
Another non-fiction book set in the Modern West, this memoir tells how a psychologically wounded Green Beret Army medic came back from the Vietnam War and found his best therapy in the wilderness of the West. For almost 20 years Doug has been tramping in the middle of nowhere, high in the mountains, surrounding himself with one of the most dangerous animals in the world.
It’s this fact that makes it such a compelling book. Doug contemplates man’s role in this world, and our relationship with the wild. That, plus tales of his experiences and his beautiful descriptions, make this a must read.
On the Wild Edge
by David Petersen
This book tells the true story of David and his wife giving up a cushy life in California and moving to a small cabin in the mountains of Colorado. This book is gorgeously written and shares my own views about the wonderful state of Colorado, and the wilderness in general.
It also pairs great with the book above, because David is always thinking about man’s place in this world, and how well one can get to know the land they live on.
by Cormac McCarthy
Style and punctuation aside, this beautifully brutal book captures a much-overlooked part of Western history, and the lesser-talked about repercussions of “independence”, and “freedom”.
It deals with what really happens when people are allowed to run wild on a frontier. This book rips the romance out of the American West Myth, and sometimes that is a good thing.
About my new book A Promise to Kill...
Clyde Barr is a drifter with lethal skills, wandering the highways of the American West in search of something to believe in. It's an edge-of-the-seat thriller, pushing its no-hold-barred hero to new levels of improvisation and bare-knuckled blunt force.
A Promise to Kill is published by Simon & Schuster on August 10 at £12.99
Enjoyed this story? Share it!
*This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.