Six books to guide you through the real American West

In the second half of the 19th century, the figure of the cowboy emerged as the defining characteristic of Western American literature. Publishers found success with dime westerns, novels mythologizing the lives of “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Kit Carson, Wyatt Earp and other dubious pioneers. Decades later, when cinema became a dominant form of mass entertainment, the moving image of this lonely, troubled white man on horseback came to personify the ethos of an entire region, a metaphor for an America young and white, heroically subduing the so-called arid landscape.

My first novel, Woman of Light, is also a western saga. It is powered by five generations of Chicana and Native women and is based on the oral tradition of my family in what is now known as Colorado. In response to the saturating myth of the white cowboy, my novel includes markers of the Western genre, such as snipers and Wild West spectacles, but it breaks with these rigid boundaries to offer a more naturalistic view of the Late 19th century American West through the Great Depression.

I have always admired writers who have worked to dispel myths about the West. I’m particularly drawn to novels that have enlightened a wide range of people who inhabit the area. Some of these books are now considered classics, but there are also newer titles that tell the truths of our communities. These six novels offer a more accurate rendering of Western stories and a broader view of the region that has captured the world’s imagination for centuries.

William Morrow

The god of rainby Arturo Islas

An exquisite multigenerational novel by Islas, a pioneering Chicano writer, The god of rain follows the Angel clan along the Texas-Mexico border, where the descendants of the stern and devout Mama Chona stand in an intricate family embrace. Born in El Paso in 1938, Islas became the first Chicano to publish a novel with a major New York press in 1990, but died a year later of AIDS-related complications at age 52. Widely considered a masterpiece, The god of rain is taught in many Chicano literature and studies classes across the country for its groundbreaking portrayal of the central family. The novel’s matriarch was a young woman in Mexico when her firstborn, a brilliant college student, was shot in San Miguel de Allende during the Mexican Revolution. The Angel family is pushed north into the desert. Readers receive an intimate insight into this network of children and grandchildren, friends and neighbors. In vividly realistic scenes, this masterpiece of American literature tackles themes of border consciousness, homosexuality, and the inescapable finality of death.

The cover of Geek Love

geek loveby Katherine Dunn

Born in Kansas in 1945, Dunn was the daughter of migrant farm workers and sharecroppers. His family of five siblings traveled throughout the American West before settling in Oregon, a childhood that Dunn considered “standard American West life.” His third novel, the grotesque carnival saga geek love, follows a traveling family of five children, the Binewskis of Carnival Fabulon. Aloysius and Crystal Lil Binewski run a traveling circus; when this wanes, they decide to genetically alter their own children into sideshow “monsters” through the use of radiation and toxic drugs. The result is one of the most unforgettable and unique families in American literature. Told in two parts, geek love is told by the now adult Oly, a radio host from Portland and a hunchbacked dwarf with albinism who is determined to keep her family’s story alive for her estranged daughter. The novel, brimming with creative genius, shows Dunn’s prodigious understanding of family dynamics, especially among the siblings of this marginalized troupe of performers.

The cover of Mon Ántonia
Penguin Classics

My Antoniaby Willa Cather

Frequently referred to as a classic, Cather’s fourth novel, My Antonia, is thrilled by the images of the prairies and the depictions of the shining star of the 1918 book, the resilient and exceptionally courageous Ántonia Shimerda. Told from the perspective of orphan Jim Burden, who is sent from Virginia to live with his grandparents in Nebraska, this moving story of human connection through time is a page-turner powered by a deeply emotionally intelligent voice. . Jim first meets Ántonia and her bohemian immigrant family while traveling by train to the Great Plains. Once settled in Nebraska, Jim forms a close friendship with Ántonia and witnesses her strength after her father dies by suicide. Scholars debate Cather’s homosexuality, but My Antonia is easily read as queer coded text, one in which Jim and Ántonia are not bound by the usual pitfalls of heteronormative romance. Instead, growing up, they embrace the human need to understand the weight of our beginnings and trace how our fundamental relationships shape our future.

The cover of Under the feet of Jesus
feather books

Under the feet of JesusHelena MarchIa Viramontes

Viramontes’ first novel, published in 1995 and dedicated in part to Cesar Chavez, is a sensory-saturated experience through the vineyards of California’s Central Valley. The book is thin, but each painfully realistic scene teems with life as its main character and his family of farmworkers deal with corruption and dangerous working conditions. In lush, authoritative prose, we get to know Estrella, who was abandoned by her father as a young girl. When Estrella is a teenager, her mother, Petra, discovers that she is unexpectedly pregnant with her new boyfriend, Perfecto, who misses his home and struggles with the decision to stay or leave for Mexico. With beautiful, sweeping sentences, clean dialogue, and a focus on the lives of working people, this haunting novel has been compared to the work of John Steinbeck and William Faulkner. Under the feet of Jesus is a true marvel that allows the reader to better understand the American West and the people who are vital to our food supply.

The cover of Where the Dead Sit Talking
Soho Press

Where the dead speak sittingby Brandon Hobson

A compulsively honest narrator is fascinating, and the voice behind Hobson’s 2018 novel, Where the dead speak sitting, is absolutely heartbreaking. In this bizarre yet heartwarming story, a Cherokee named Sequoyah reflects on his time in the foster care system as a teenager. Like his ancestors before him, Sequoyah and his mother are expelled from Cherokee County. Her mother, who winds her way through a maze of poverty and drug addiction, is soon imprisoned for driving under the influence and possession of drug paraphernalia. Sequoyah is eventually placed in rural Oklahoma with the Troutt family, who have two other adopted children, George and Rosemary. From the first page, we learn that Rosemary, a 17-year-old Aboriginal girl, is going to die in front of Sequoyah. This drive toward hard truths endears Sequoyah to the reader in a rare and vital way, bringing to light Indigenous experiences that have been so violently ignored by mainstream Western literature. “People live and die. Death is quick,” says Sequoyah at the end of the novel, teaching us and himself the realities of our often painful human existence, so marked by loss.

The cover of The Four Treasures of Heaven

Four Treasures of Heavenby Jenny Tinghui Zhang

Four Treasures of Heaven, an adventurous and ambitious debut novel, follows Daiyu, a 13-year-old girl kidnapped from a fish market in China in 1882. Daiyu’s grandmother disguises her as a boy to protect her, and she is then sent to work in a a calligraphy school, but despite her cover-up, she is eventually sent to a brutal brothel in San Francisco. In this new and strange country, Daiyu survives by constantly adapting to his environment. The novel was inspired by a historical marker describing a little-known 1885 vigilante murder in Idaho, where five Chinese men were hanged. Zhang’s powerful beginnings remind us of some of the most hideous parts of America’s past while illuminating the lingering, contemporary poison of white supremacy. Meticulously researched and historically illuminating, Four Treasures of Heaven offers a close examination of the character and devastating effects of anti-China sentiment across the West.

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