Top Ten Western Non-Fiction

(in my opinion)

empire summer moon1o. Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynn

Pivoting on the incredible story of the half-breed chief Quanah Parker whose mother, Cynthia Ann, was captured by the Comanche at age nine only to be forced back into white society as a woman, Gwynn relates the full story of these masters of the southern plains in epic fashion.

Blood Of Heroes james donovan9. The Blood of Heroes, by James Donovan

By far one of the most extensive, most readable accounts of the infamous 13-day siege of the Alamo. Particularly memorable are Donovan’s intricate portrait’s of the story’s key players, including Davy Crocket, Santa Anna, and James Bowie.

Month of the Freezing moon8. Month of the Freezing Moon, by Duane Schultz

A fast yet thorough read, Moon is an entertaining, informative, harrowing recount of this permanent stain on American military history, the Sand Creek Massacre. From Cheyenne prophecies and the formation of Denver, to Black Kettle and John Chivington, Schultz puts all 200 pages to use.

Hillerman Best of the west7. Best of the West, edited by Tony Hillerman

This anthology barely sneaks into the category of non-fiction (especially considering its short section of fictional stories). Nonetheless, Hillerman’s sweeping medley of nature writing, letters, court documents, essays, tall tales, and, yes, fiction, is too good to overlook.

Son of the morning star custer6. Son of the Morning Star, by Evan S. Connell

Probably the most popular of all that’s been written of the doomed egoist of the Little Big Horn, and for good reason. Connell’s book reads like a novel with what were once erudite facts on military and Indian history quickly turning to page-flipping plot-drivers.

So far from god mexican war5. So Far From God, by John S.D. Eisenhower

To truly know the history of the west, one must understand the U.S. war with Mexico. An oft-forgotten yet crucial skirmish in the evolution of the modern U.S., the Mexican-American War is explored in deep, narrative detail in Eisenhower’s book with equal attention given to both sides.

under the banner of heaven4. Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer

Centering on a few notoriously disturbing criminal cases, Krakauer digs deep in this thorough expose of the Mormon faith. Sometimes biased and a little sensational – like any affecting journalism – this is the history of a religion founded in and connate with the American west.

bury my heart wounded knee3. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown

A landmark book for its haunting, heartbreaking story of the settling of the west from the POV of its original inhabitants. Written in the 1970s at a time of a resurgence in Indian activism, Knee lays out the many ethnological injustices committed by a people blind with destiny.

Abbey desert solitaire2. Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

Poetic, scientific, sarcastic, vitriolic, and beautiful. Pick just about any random sentence out of this book and chances are you’d guess its author. Solitaire begins with Abbey’s admirable yet futile fight against the development of what would become Arches National Park and ends with a rafting trip down a length of river now hundreds of feet below                                     Lake Powell. A milestone in nature writing by conservation’s most spirited writer.

Blood and Thunder - Hampton Sides1. Blood and Thunder, by Hampton Sides

A tremendous narrative of a life almost too incredible to believe. To learn of Kit Carson’s adventures is nearly as astonishing as discovering the crucial roles he played in so many frontier-shaping events. Perhaps most impressive of all is Sides’ ability to paint Carson as neither hero nor villain but a resilient man riding the surf of history.

Top Ten Western Novels

(in my opinion)

Haunted Mesa1o. Haunted Mesa, by Louis L’Amour

One of Louis L’Amour’s longest and clearly most researched novels, Mesa  is equal parts contemporary mystery and historical thriller. While a detective working to solve a murder makes up the plot, the marrow of this novel is the mesmerizing history of the Anasazi that L’Amour weaves in so seamlessly.

The Man Who Killed the Deer9. The Man Who Killed the Deer, by Frank Waters

Frank Waters was a historian who was a poet who was a novelist. The story explores both the physical world and the metaphysical as Martiniano, a Pueblo Indian, struggles to find balance between the old, traditional ways of his family, and the new, inevitably commonplace ways of the white man.

jesse james hansen8. The Assassination of Jesse James, by Ron Hansen

With a few tiny tweaks of the narrative style, this could easily be a non-fiction book, and a great one at that. Even better though is Hansen’s ability to blend real history into a novel about idolization, despondency, and fame. This is as close as we will ever come to knowing Jesse James and his killer.

little big man berger7. Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger

A modern classic about a man who finds a place in both the frontier army and the Cheyenne Indians they’re pursuing. Told by a narrator who may or may not be reliable, Little Big Man is about an inconsequential man caught up in a lot of consequential events. Kind’ve like Forrest Gump set in the Old West

michener centennial western6. Centennial, by James Michener

Epic and informed – the signature style of its author – Centennial tells the story of eastern Colorado. The whole story. From the formation of the prairies and streams, to the dinosaurs, the horses, the Indians, the mountain men, the ranchers, all the way to the modern day country singer.

sea of grass richter5. Sea of Grass, by Conrad Richter

Slim yet expansive, poetic and powerful, Grass makes every word count. This is the kind of book you ingest slowly, purposefully, like a quality wine. The effect is a deep, somber understanding of what the west was, and why it changed.

ox-bow incident western4. The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Written when the Third Reich was at its peak, Ox-Bow is a harrowing story about mob-mentality and man’s thirst for vengeance even in the face of reason. When most western authors were writing pulp, Tilburg Clark was writing literature.

Lonesome Dove greatest western3. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

One review on the back cover says, “If you only read one western novel in your life, read Lonesome Dove.” Sound advice. For me, the soul of this immortal adventure/romance/historical novel is summed up when Augustus says, “I can’t think of nothing better than riding a fine horse into a new country. It’s exactly what I was meant for.”

all the pretty horses western2. All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy

Set in the middle of the last century, the characters’ ability to simply mount their horses and begin (but not continue) simpler lives in northern Mexico is a solemn reminder of how far and how fast civilization has progressed. The romance behind John Grady’s escape is only pronounced by the tragedy of his return.

call of the wild western1. The Call of the Wild, by Jack London

Set in what is perhaps the only remaining American frontier, Call of the Wild is the best of the western novel’s three main pillars: adventure, adaptation, and wilderness. Most of all, it is the story of the primitive, alive and wild self lying dormant but not dead within us.