“Only a generation of readers will span a generation of writers,” said Steven Spielberg, the man who first revealed his instinct for a good story with 1971’s Duel.
So who better to tell our readers the best reads ever than writers who have made their own transition from that “generation of readers” into the storytelling realm? We asked eight Western writers, all of whom tell various types of Western stories through the modes of fiction, nonfiction and screenplays. Western writers certainly love the West, but they don’t get inspired just by reading Westerns, so these lists include some surprises.
Elmer Kelton introduces the best reads with his reflective article on the books he has treasured in his life. This year sees the release of his memoir, Sandhill Boys, which traces the trail of the country boy into a journalist and writer. Kelton is a seven-time Spur winner and four-time Western Heritage winner, and the author of 46 novels, published over 50 years. His book, The Good Old Boys, was adapted into a TNT movie starring Tommy Lee Jones in 1995. His latest project, a Texas Ranger novel, Tough Trail to Follow, is due out in early 2008.
Looking back, I believe the first book that left a lasting imprint on my life and career was Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. When I was around age eight, it opened my eyes to the possibilities of books in carrying me off to grand adventures in other times, other lands, lifting me from the oblivion of a West Texas ranch where I was living and transporting me to anywhere my imagination could run free.
I read all the childhood classics, such as Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates; The Wizard of Oz; Tom Sawyer;Huckleberry Finn, but I think Treasure Island was the one that moved me the most at the time. Our teacher began reading a bit each day, and I got so caught up in the suspense that I badgered my mother into buying a copy for me so I could read ahead. That was the first book I owned. I still have it.
A second highly influential book for me was Smoky the Cowhorse, by Will James. It reflected the cowboy life I saw around me, without the violence or the romance I was finding in other books of a Western nature. It helped me to decide that I wanted to write books myself and describe the kind of ranch life I knew. It led me to all the other Will James books I could lay my hands on.
A cousin introduced me to Zane Grey. I can’t single out one specific book, though I think the first I read was The Lost Wagon Train, or it might have been The U.P. Trail. At any rate, Zane Grey epitomized to me the mythical West that should have been. I devoured his books. I think the standout among them is Riders of the Purple Sage, with that magnificent rock-rolling scene at the end.
A book that chilled me as a youngster was The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I’ll never forget the hair-raising line, “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound.” That tome reinforced for me the notion that books can have a profound emotional effect.
I discovered J. Frank Dobie in my high school library, starting with The Longhorns. I was caught up in the mystique of that breed of cattle, which had such a strong historical and financial impact on Texas. My teachers had always downgraded most books of a Western nature. Dobie showed me that the history and folklore of one’s own area and one’s own people can be of as much value as books about New York, Paris or London. He stressed that all life has importance. Books like Dobie’s Coronado’s Children, about lost treasures real or imagined, deeply stirred my imagination and sense of wonder.
Because of the environment in which I grew up, I always enjoyed books about cowboys. One that I read over several times and dearly loved was Cowboy, by Ross Santee, the story of a kid cowboy and his experiences on the range. At the University of Texas, I discovered We Pointed Them North, by E.C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott, which I still consider the best cowboy auto-biography, even above A Texas Cowboy, by Charlie Siringo. One which came along much later but ranks with those two is Dakota Cowboy, by Ike Blasingame. In visiting with the famous JA Ranch cowboy, the late Tom Blasingame, I found out Ike was his uncle.
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, stirred me in my high school years with its story of displaced farm folks in the drought and depression of the mid-1930s, a period I was old enough to remember. That book was part of the inspiration for my own The Time It Never Rained, about the drought of the 1950s.
Because Dobie lauded his work, I read several books by Eugene Manlove Rhodes, who wrote about New Mexico. I was haunted by the beauty and sentiment of his Paso Por Aqui, the story of a reluctant cowboy bank robber and his sacrifice for a poor Mexican family. It eventually became one of my favorite Western films, Four Faces West, with Joel McCrea at his very best.
In school, I naturally read Shakespeare, Hemingway and the many other classic writers my teachers urged upon me, but those never influenced me as much as the ones which reflected my own environment and my own people. As a budding Western writer, I studied the works of then-contemporary figures such as Ernest Haycox, Luke Short and S. Omar Barker, learning as much as I could from them about the art and craft of the Western story. For whatever successes I have had in my own writing career, I owe a great debt to all those writers under whom I studied and who I never met, except on the pages of their books.
FREDERICK NOLAN is known for The Lincoln County War and The West of Billy the Kid. For theatre, he has written, Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway. For Hollywood, Brass Target, and he is currently working on a screenplay about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War. He is also working on a novel, Kindly Direct Me to Hell, and a new pergola to support his wife Heidi’s Alexandra rose tree.
A Farewell to Arms
When I was 17, Frederic Henry’s philosophy of “drink deep and go a-whoring, love truly if you can, but never forget the world will get you in the end,” was enormously appealing. But when I grew up to be 21 and older, I came to recognize that the 1929 story of his doomed romance with the nurse Catherine Barclay was in fact a moving, deeply felt experience of war unlike any other I would ever read. It had and still has—for I go back to it often—a profound effect upon me and its ending is unforgettable. This is Hemingway at his utter peak—an Everest away from all the fake and sham that came later.
The Young Lions
Of all the fine novels written about WWII—among my favorites are Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22—this 1949 tome is perhaps the finest, stirring, honest, authentic and memorable, the only one, I think, which tries convincingly to see the story from the German side as well as the American. I am not ashamed to say I went back to it for inspiration when I began to write fiction; it exerted a great influence on me as a model of how to tell a complex story truly, simply and sympathetically.
What Makes Sammy Run?
A bit dated but, in its time (1941) and to a great extent still, a searing, scary, funny, authentic Hollywood novel about movie biz monster Sammy Glick, who leaves a trail of wrecked careers in his wake as he claws his way to the top in Tinseltown, observed with part awe and part disbelief by one of those beaten-up, worn-down narrators you only find in film noir. Glick’s tale, defined as “a blueprint of a way of life that was paying dividends in America in the first half of the 20th century,” makes this one of the most influential novels ever written about the movie world—yet it’s never been made into a film.
Farewell, My Lovely
To my mind, this 1940 novel is the best of the Philip Marlowe oeuvre, and that alone is a considerable accolade. Like his hero, “neither tarnished nor afraid,” Chandler followed the trail down the mean streets blazed by Dashiell Hammett and went on to take the whole Private Eye genre out of the pulp magazines, remaking it as literature with a pithy, witty, elegant style that hasn’t been bettered to the present day. Anyone who describes a blonde as having “the kind of figure that would make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window” is my kind of writer.
The Saga of Billy the Kid
Walter Noble Burns
When I came upon this book in 1952 and thought it new, I was completely enchanted by the picture it painted of a young, brave, daring lad catapulted into a series of events that would have taxed an Achilles. It was so real, so immediate, the interviews with people who had known the Kid so convincing, that I swallowed it hook, line and sinker. The 1926 work was a myth, of course, but it was and remains a powerful influence; it’s been one of my favorite books about the West for more than half a century.
The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Of all the stories of the Jazz Age, this is the finest; and the picture it paints of a man desperately wanting to be someone he can never be, and who is prepared to go to any lengths to get what he wants, is elegant, romantic in an old-fashioned way and quite unforgettable. Gatsby, the patron saint of all the men who ever fell in love with the wrong woman, and Fitzgerald, the patron saint of boozed-out writers, are an unbeatable combination. As if that were not enough, the 1925 novel ends with what I think is the finest last sentence ever written by any novelist, anywhere.
Until I read Blood Meridian, Paul Horgan’s A Distant Trumpet was my favorite novel of the Old West. Good as it is, however, it doesn’t even get near this 1985 novel. The sheer savagery of the storyline, the unsparing clarity of the writing and the awesome strength of the narrative paint a chillingly believable picture of what it might have been like to live outside the law on the dangerous edges of the Western frontier. Any understanding I have of men such as Billy the Kid has been colored by it; how fine that the author’s surname should be the same as Billy’s mother’s surname!
One of my great loves is the history of American popular song and musical theatre from Stephen Foster to Stephen Sondheim, and this is the book which first awakened my interest. The 1959 book tells the ultimate rags-to-riches story of a poor kid from the Bronx who became one of the most remarkable, most glittering, most successful of all Broadway writers and producers. Moss Hart, a master storyteller, takes the reader on a witty, unforgettable journey from tank-town drama to the elegant beauty of My Fair Lady. What a tragedy he never lived to write Act Two.
Gold is Where You Hide it
W. Stanley Moss
This obscure, little 1956 book, found in a secondhand bookstore, played perhaps the most significant part in my life of any that I ever read. It tells the story of the disappearance—theft—of the Reichsbank reserves, buried in the mountains of southern Germany in 1945, which The Guinness Book of Records later listed as the biggest robbery of all time. I knew there was a great “what if?” thriller in there somewhere, and I was right. Published in 1976, The Mittenwald Syndicate became a huge bestseller and enabled me to buy the lovely old house I have lived in since that year. Thank you, Stanley.
This 1969 novel contains a tour de force of characterization with brilliantly orchestrated scenes of violence and murder, this huge, masterfully managed family saga achieved its remarkable success not only by ignoring the sordid actualities of half a century of mafia mobdom, but also by humanizing the participants to such an extent that ruthless mercenary killers seemed, well, family. Was there a better scene ever written than the one where the movie mogul finds a horse’s head in his bed, or a better line written than “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse?”
SHERRY MONAHAN has just released Tombstone’s Treasures: Silver Mines & Golden Saloons from the University of New Mexico Press. Her other books include The Wicked West: Boozers, Cruisers, Gamblers and More; Taste of Tombstone, which won two Glyph Awards; and Pikes Peak: Adventurers, Communities & Lifestyles.
Michelle tells a great suspense story linked to a natural spring held sacred for centuries because of its healing powers. Its focus on the Victorian era in the Old West is right up my alley!
A History of the Civil War
Benson J. Lossing
It’s the best book ever written about the Civil War, plus, it was passed down through by family. My Great, Great, Great Grandfather William Osgood, a Civil War veteran, bought this book for my Great Uncle Ken. Uncle Ken said his Grandfather told him it was the most accurate account of the war.
John H. Young
This book, first published in 1881, is filled with Victorian etiquette, dress styles and manners.
When I read this 1978 book, following the history of a family that settled on the bay from the 17th-20th centuries, we had a house on the back bay in the Delmarva Peninsula. The history of the area and what it must have been like was captured so well in the book.
Murder on the Orient Express
The early 20th-century mystery, murder and mayhem in this 1934 book are awesome, as is that famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot! (I actually like all the books by Christie in which Poirot is the detective making use of his little grey cells.)
Voice of the Eagle
Linda Lay Shuler
Set in the Southwest 200 years before Columbus, this book about an Anasazi spiritual leader made me feel as if I was living among the tribes and helped me gain a deeper appreciation for Indian traditions.
The Private Journal of George Whitwell Parsons
Edited by Carl Chafin
This true diary captures everyday life in Tombstone, from 1882-87, which was and still is invaluable to me.
Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal
This 1931 tome is a classic read about Wyatt Earp—what else can I say?
Breakfast, Luncheon & Tea
This 1877 cookbook is filled with old-fashioned recipes, cooking tips and dining pointers during the Victorian era.
These is My Words
It’s a great historical fiction based on her great grandmother’s diary—I felt like I was living with Sarah Agnes Prine.
MICHAEL WALLIS is best known for Route 66: The Mother Road. That book directly led him to becoming a consultant and voice talent (the 1949 Mercury Sheriff car) in Pixar Studio’s Cars. He is spending much of 2007 touring for two new books, Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride (see May 2007) and The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Times Square to the Golden Gate, both from W.W. Norton. In addition, the University of Oklahoma Press has released a special centennial edition of Way Down Yonder in the Indian Nation.
The Grapes of Wrath
This classic American novel, published in 1939, had a profound impact on me when I first read it as a boy. I am still stirred and inspired when I reread it—as I often do—as a man. This book was banned and burned in Oklahoma when it appeared. I have made it my mission to build a solid case for this important work with my fellow Oklahomans. It speaks to the resiliency and fortitude of the good Oklahoma stock. “Okie” is a badge of courage and not one of shame. No more admirable character exists in American literature than Ma Joad, and the words of Tom Joad when he bids his mother farewell should be memorized by every school child in America. Bravo, Mr. Steinbeck, Bravo!
To Kill a Mockingbird
If this Southern Gothic novel, published in 1960, would not have won the Pulitzer Prize the following year, I would have left the country. A coming-of-age story of courage in the face of blatant racial prejudice set against a backdrop of life in the Deep South, this book is as relevant and compelling today as it was back then. Ms. Lee’s only published novel is this single tome, but it is surely enough.
I once heard Larry McMurtry say he will never write a book as good as Lonesome Dove. I have to agree. If, like Harper Lee, he would have written just one book and it was Lonesome Dove, then his place in American letters would have been safe. Some of the most memorable characters in Western fiction not only come alive in this novel and leap off the page, but also chase the reader around the room. If you can read this book and not be moved by the relationship between Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, then you must be brain dead. By the way, in my opinion, the miniseries that followed was one of the finest Westerns ever made, with the exception of Blue Duck, who was not half as ominous as he was in McMurty’s book.
A Confederacy of Dunces
John Kennedy Toole
This novel was published in 1980, eleven years after the author took his own life. In 1981, Toole posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I still get angry when I think of how Toole gypped all of us who love his work by committing suicide in 1969 at the young age of 32. Thankfully his doting mother persisted and fought to have the book published, with help from writer Walker Percy. The novel is set in New Orleans in the early 1960s and features central character, Ignatius J. Reilly, and all the other colorful French Quarter denizens who will haunt readers the rest of their lives. Toole’s mastery of dialect and dialogue are pure genius.
When published in 1968, this was Edward Abbey’s fourth book and his first book-length work of nonfiction. It brought him a ton of critical acclaim and boosted his popularity as an author with a passion for the land and nature, especially in the American Southwest. To this day, many critics compare this work to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. They get no argument from me. Abbey gave us a book warning of the excesses of land development and tourism that is as important today as it was when he wrote it.
The Old Man and the Sea
I could have put anything by Ernest Hemingway on this list, but this novella he penned in Cuba in 1951 is pretty much my favorite. Like many young, white, male Americans struggling to become a writer in the 1960s, I turned to Papa Hemingway. He was my companion until I developed my own voice, but he still remains a pal. I don’t give a damn about the many critics who say this is a disappointing and weak minor work. It works for me—always has and always will.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
It would be difficult for a boy, native to Missouri, not to list Huck Finn on his all-time favorite reading list. This story of a youth on a journey of a lifetime made a bigger impression on me than Hamlet. I agree with what my literary mentor Hemingway had to say: “All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Amen.
A Christmas Carol
Much like Hemingway, I could cite several works by Charles Dickens on my list. Great Expectations, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities will always be with me. Yet if a six-gun was pressed to my temple, I’d more than likely pick Dickens’ “little Christmas book”—a potboiler first published in 1843, a full 102 years before I squalled into the world. The simple but enduring story told in A Christmas Carol gives me hope every time I read it.
In Cold Blood
Capote’s chilling book detailing the brutal 1959 slayings of a Kansas farm family and the consequences that followed had a lasting effect on journalism and the craft of writing. The book also had a lasting effect on me. Often referred to as a “nonfiction novel,” the book totally changed crime reporting and influenced the way I approach any subject I write about.
First published in Paris in 1955 and eventually in America in 1958, this controversial novel almost immediately attained classic status. It influenced many authors with its innovative style and gave us a word to describe a seductive young girl that will be in our collective vocabulary forever. Deliciously written by a masterful author, this book should be required reading for anyone who contemplates the life of a novelist.
MATT BRAUN is best known for The Kincaids, which won the 1976 Spur Award and depicts the settlement of Oklahoma, the ruthless treatment of the Five Civilized Tribes and the birth of the oil industry. All 54 of his novels are still in print, including one adapted for a CBS miniseries and another for a TNT movie. He is currently researching a novel set in Texas during the 1880s.
This is the best novel ever written on the American West. I have read the book once a year since it was published in 1985. Like vintage wine, it just grows better with age.
I enjoy any of his historical novels on the military, as he is the finest storyteller of the generation. I have read many of his books three or four times. He always tells a helluva story with a unique style.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
The finest book ever written about the plight of Indians. If this book doesn’t make you weep, then you need to have a sawbones check your tear ducts. Dee captured tragedy on the printed page.
The Big Sky
This is a masterpiece about Mountain Men and the land. A.B. Guthrie granted permission for me to quote passages from The Big Sky in my book How to Write Western Novels. Writers learn best from reading the masters.
This is a heart-rending story depicting the courage and beliefs of a people. I wish I’d had the good fortune to meet Mari Sandoz; she knew the Cheyenne like no other writer.
Schaefer tells the story of a cowboy who faces the passing of the Old West. The movie was only half as good as the book. And this book is 10 times better than Shane.
LeMay’s story is one of family and love, and one man’s quest on the frontier. Everybody mainly remembers the movie with John Wayne. The Duke did a great job, but the book is better.
The Sea of Grass
Cattlemen and settlers struggle for control of the open range in Richter’s novel. The plot has been used in God knows how many Western novels, yet Richter told the story in a way that nobody has yet equaled.
The Ox-Bow Incident
Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Civilized men abandon humanity in this tale of the travesty of justice. Here again, the book was better than the movie, as the brutality of men against other men rings better in words.
The Good Old Boys
Kelton admirably tells the story of hardscrabble, salt-of-the-earth Texans who never quit. He also allowed me to quote from his novel for How to Write Western Novels. Tommy Lee Jones did a fine job in the movie, but Hewey Calloway, the main character, comes alive in print.
CHRIS ENSS is the author of Hearts West: True Stories of Mail Order Brides on the Frontier; How the West Was Worn: Bustles and Buckskins on the Wild Frontier; and Buffalo Gals: Women of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Her books, The Cowboy and the Senorita, Happy Trails and The Young Duke, were co-authored with film producer Howard Kazanjian. Her next book due out for publication is Tales Behind the Tombstones: The Deaths and Burials of the Old West’s Most Nefarious Outlaws.
My favorite of all of Brown’s writings, this book is perfect for anyone who wants to know about the lives of a variety of Westward women from the pioneers to the legends.
Geoffrey Ward & Ken Burns
This marvelous pictorial about America’s favorite pastime walks you through the origins of the game and describes how the sport evolved into what it is today.
The Ox-Bow Incident
Walter Van Tilburg Clark
This Old West tale of a vigilante mob that acted rashly is poignant and stirring.
The Red Tent
Told from the perspective of a Biblical character named Dinah, this novel reveals the life of ancient womanhood. It’s a brilliant, original story that I couldn’t put down.
Strength of Stone: The Pioneer Journal of Electa Bryan Plumer
The hardships and struggles of a woman traveling West through the wild frontier to Montana is wonderfully told throughout the 1862-64 diary of a young schoolteacher.
Story of An American Tragedy: Survivors’ Accounts of the Sinking of the Steamship Central America
Edited by Judy Conrad
America’s worst peacetime sea disaster occurred in 1857. The survivors’ incredible accounts of the ship’s sinking are astonishing and inspiring reads.
The Ballad of Frankie Silver
McCrumb weaves a contemporary fictionalized crime into the fabric of a true murder that took place more than 150 years ago. The quest to uncover the motive and culprit in both tales makes for an exciting read.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The 1962 classic starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford was based on a story by Dorothy Johnson. Johnson’s style is frank and bold, enabling the reader to feel every emotion leading up to the inevitable demise of the West’s ultimate bad guy.
Maude Adams: An Intimate Portrait
A memoir of one of America’s best loved actresses, for whom Sir James Barrie wrote the immortal Peter Pan, is an intriguing story encompassing Adams’ life from her state debut at nine months to her work as a teacher at Stephens College in Missouri.
The Christmas Cross
A unique, engaging and interactive story about a journalist who travels to a small town in Texas and finds the true meaning of the season.
ALLEN BARRA is the author of Inventing Wyatt Earp, which has been in print for nine years, and The Last Coach: A Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant, a national bestseller. He is a feature writer for The Wall Street JournalAmerican Heritage (now only available as an online publication). He is currently working on a biography of Yogi Berra.
Alexander the Great
Robin Lane Fox
This may be the best historical biography ever written, and it is certainly the best example of how to present different points of view of historical events.
The Return of Little Big Man
In this scandalously underappreciated follow-up to the greatest Western novel of all, Jack Crabb witnesses the street fight at the O.K. Corral (from underneath a wagon) and the massacre at Wounded Knee.
Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Time of America’s Blue Yodeler
The great 1979 biography has just been reissued; it’s the best book ever written on the origins of Country music.
Long Time Leaving: Dispatches From Up South
Roy Blount, Jr.
In this collection of Roy Blount’s best and funniest pieces on the South, my favorite is “Slick Willie and the Marble Model,” in which Bill Clinton is squared off against Robert E. Lee.
Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride
Of the many books written on Billy, this one does the best job of telling us exactly why he was the only one to come out of the Lincoln County War as a legend.
The Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War
McPherson, our greatest living Civil War historian, torches several popular neo-confederate myths, such as the cause of the Civil War being states’ rights and not slavery.
The Log of a Cowboy
This 1903 book is still a great read after all these years. Every time I read it, I feel like I have to go wash the trail dust off my clothes.
The Conviction of Richard Nixon
James Reston, Jr.
Just in time for the 35th anniversary of Watergate, this book reminds us that Nixon was one of the best and worst presidents in American history.
The real inspiration for HBO’s Deadwood, this book is set half a century after Deadwood’s golden age and written more than 75 years before the TV series.
Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford
Scott is a good friend, but I swear I would have called this the best book on Ford even if I didn’t know him. Wonderful chapters on the making of all the great Westerns from Stagecoach to The Searchers to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
JEB ROSEBROOK is best known for his screenplay, Junior Bonner. He has taught screenwriting at Arizona State University and Scottsdale Community College. His completed works include a screenplay about author Willa Cather in Arizona and his novel, Saturday.
Henry David Thoreau
I read this first at an impressionable high school age. It is an intelligent, thoughtful, insightful look into a man and the world of his time—a great re-read, as applicable today as it was to me then.
The Grapes of Wrath
Powerful and unforgettable, this is a novel that I can pick up and savor the characters, moments and narrative. It grabs me and never lets go.
In the sixth grade, while lying in my bunk at the Quarter Circle V Bar Ranch School, Will James awoke the cowboy in me.
From Here to Eternity
This novel of the Regular Army on the eve of Pearl Harbor is riveting in its narrative and characters, particularly that of Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt.
The Maltese Falcon
My ultimate Private Investigator novel, so evocative of San Francisco, with a pay-attention plot line and unforgettable characters, especially Sam Spade, the first of his kind and the top of the line.
The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Many believe this to be the greatest American novel ever—maybe, maybe not, but I consider it worthy, for the love of Daisy and Gatsby, and for the time and period of a brilliant young author.
Not enough can be said about the narrative, the characters and the authenticity of this great Western novel.
The Long Valley
Steinbeck’s stories of the Salinas Valley are wonderfully wrought and filled with characters and moments that are timeless.
Give Your Heart to the Hawks
This story shares the perspective of a movie reviewer for the Los Angeles-Herald Examiner who moves to the mountains of the West and writes a lively, passionate history of America’s Mountain Men.
The Seven Storey Mountain
The autobiography of a journey, from the secular to the spiritual, as Merton chooses the life of a Trappist monk.