(in my opinion)
1o. 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.
9. 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.
8. 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.
7. 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
6. 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.
5. 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.
4. 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.
3. 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.”
2. 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.
1. 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.