If 2020 taught us anything as readers of Western history and fiction, it was that we depend on our storytellers to help us endure hard times. Whether in person, curbside or from a bookseller’s website, we consumed Western history and fiction last year, not only because we love it but to help us through the isolation and remind ourselves of the strength and determination of those who came before us, all of whom overcame much greater odds and conditions than we endured in 2020. And after these challenging times of COVID-19, one of the hardest pandemics to hit the U.S. and the world since the Spanish influenza of 1919-1920, we will be stronger, more resilient and inspired to reconcile our differences and rediscover the commonalities of our shared humanity.
I invite our readers, if they have not yet had the pleasure to read our two top books of 2020—Robert M. Utley’s The Last Sovereigns: Sitting Bull and the Resistance of the Free Lakotas and Max Evans’s The King of Taos: A Novel—to discover strength and hope in the human condition. Both volumes are slimmer than the typical Utley history or Evans novel, but their breadth does not diminish their depth. Utley reminds us of Sitting Bull’s desperate dream in the Lakota leader’s own words: “The life my people want is a life of freedom.”
We should not be surprised that our authors will soon be sharing their Western short stories, plays, poetry, novels, songs, biographies and histories that were inspired by the pits of the pandemic of 2020-21. We will find inspiration in the prose of our great storytellers, the inspired chroniclers of our community and country. So, in the meantime, we encourage you to keep reading, stay strong and remain resilient. We will endure—and surely have many more stories of the American West to inspire the next generation.
Best Author and Historical Nonfiction Book of the Year
Robert Utley, The Last Sovereigns: Sitting Bull and the Resistance of the Free Lakotas (University of Nebraska Press) NebraskaPress.UNL.edu
Readers’ Choice: John Boessenecker, Ride the Devil’s Herd: Wyatt Earp’s Epic Battle Against the West’s Biggest Outlaw Gang (Hanover Square Press)
Our True West Western Book of the Year and Author of the Year award goes to The Last Sovereigns: Sitting Bull and the Resistance of the Free Lakotas by Robert M. Utley, published by the University of Nebraska Press. His 23rd book in 58 years of publishing award-winning history of the American West, Utley’s story of Sitting Bull and the last free Lakota Sioux exiled in Canada is a capstone on his publishing history on the great Sioux leader.
Utley’s Preface to The Last Sovereigns reveals the Old Bison’s personal respect for his subject and his desire to fully tell Sitting Bull’s story to his satisfaction and level of excellence, a bar he has set high for himself throughout his seven-decade career as a historian of the American West:
Sitting Bull treasured his freedom and his adherence to the old way of life. If he went back, he feared that the Americans would punish him for killing Custer and his soldiers. He was a wanted man, and he knew that they would confine him to a reservation where he would lose his freedom.
The drama of his resistance was existential and very real. His people were hungry and in time would face starvation. The buffalo herds on which they depended for sustenance were dwindling. To add to this threat, the indigenous Canadian tribes also depended on the scarce buffalo, and they regarded the Lakotas as interlopers preying on their food source. Hostility dogged Sitting Bull from these tribes throughout the Canadian years.
Although simply stated, all of the elements of Sitting Bull’s Canadian life involved complex decision-making that troubled him constantly. He was the great Lakota chief responsible for thousands of resistors under grave threat constantly. A tale of drama, tragedy, success, failure, poignancy, friendship, hostility, controversy, dispute, and a host of highs and lows defined the story of the last free Lakotas and their effort to create a new life in a new home.
This book began several years ago as a simple “story of a friendship” between Sitting Bull and Major Walsh. As I worked on it, however, a larger story took shape. The friendship still played its part, but it was overshadowed by Sitting Bull’s struggle to remain free, to resist coercion into the white man’s ways, and to continue to live in safety the way Lakotas had always lived. This story of resistance and struggle became the dominant story. The story of the last free Lakotas gives us a new appreciation of Native resistance in the waning years of Indigenous free life. The drama of these four years is at times heroic and thrilling, at other times heartbreaking and brutal. As the fortunes of these last free Lakotas change, we follow Sitting Bull to the climax of both his life and the free life of the Lakotas.
If 2020 proved anything in Western novel publishing, it was that fans of the Western genre will continue to buy their favorite authors—new, used, digital or audio. What was most challenging for publishers was not delivering their books in the publishing pipeline or backlists, but publishing new books amid COVID-19 lockdowns. Fan favorite Five Star of Waterville, Maine, had to push back publishing its Western and Frontier lists by six months because of staff shutdowns. Wolfpack Publishing of Las Vegas, Nevada, and Pinnacle/Kensington of New York, New York, kept the brick-and-mortar and online stores busy selling their Westerns. University publishers, including Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and TCU, have returned to Western fiction, while many other presses across the country continue to mine the popular 20th-century and contemporary Western mystery genre.
Best Historical Western Novelist and Novel
Max Evans, The King of Taos: A Novel (University of New Mexico Press)
On August 26, 2020, Max Evans’s life ended after an extended stay in the local veterans’ hospital hospice unit in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Max, who was just three days shy of his 96th birthday, had his final novel, The King of Taos, published by the University of New Mexico Press in May. His final, semi-autobiographical statement about his vivid, rambunctious literary life in New Mexico’s Hi-Lo country is a beautiful allegory for his love of the men and women of Taos who greatly inspired his passion for writing, art and creativity. Never shy, Evans was a storyteller extraordinaire, and it is fitting that he had one last novel before he took his last ride to meet the great mystery of life.
Here is a sample of Evans’s beautiful prose, describing one of his favorite places, Taos, New Mexico, after the sun had set:
The moon had always been impartial. So it was this night, this little special time in history, in Taos, New Mexico. A dog barked just to let the world know he was there. The great sagebrush deserts surrounded the village softened like vast undulations of blue-green cotton, and coyotes voiced one another as far as hearing allowed. Taos, this special little place blessed by many moons, was for a few hours at peace.
Readers’ Choice: Johnny D. Boggs, A Thousand Texas Longhorns, Pinnacle/Kenstington
Best Western Fiction Press
Wolfpack Publishing, Las Vegas, NV
Less than 10 years old, Wolfpack Publishing, founded by veteran author Larry Martin and marketing expert Mike Bray, has rocketed into the forefront of Western fiction publishing with a hybrid combination of new authors, fan-favorite writers and backlists, all published in a hybrid model of e-books and trade paperbacks. Westerns account for more than 60 percent of their catalog. Bray, along with his publishing team of Rachel Del Grosso and Lauren Bridges, strongly believes that “much of their growth this year is due to working with serious authors with a proven track record. They write quickly and hit their due dates.” His top-selling authors in the past year, including Peter Brandvold, B.N. Rundell, Robert Vaughan, Lane R. Warenski, L.J Martin, Brent Towns and Ken Pratt, have both solid backlists and produce new Westerns.
Readers’ Choice: Pinnacle/Kensington Books, New York, NY
WESTERN HISTORY PUBLISHING
What is the future of Western history publishing, especially for 19th-century history and biography? The future of the genres are equally in the hands of the publishers and the consumers, especially with the non-university commercial imprints. In 2021, we are all beneficiaries of the university presses still publishing 19th-century Western American history titles, and I heartily encourage our readers to support them across the board. On the flip side, commercial publishers of Western history, from the smallest to the largest, are the true future of the genre, and I equally counsel True West’s readers to subscribe to their catalogs and regularly support them, especially the small imprints across the West. I encourage our readers to seek out their local publishers of Western history at WesternWriters.org and PublishersArchive.com.
Best Western History Book Publisher and University Press
University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK
For decades, the University of Oklahoma Press has been the standard-bearer for publishing the history of the 19th-century American West, and in 2020 they continued to excel in the genre well beyond their competitors in university publishing. Two smaller publishers of Western history that Old West fans should continue to pay attention to are the University of North Texas Press and Two Dot, an imprint of Rowman/Littlefield.
Readers’ Choice: TIE: University of North Texas Press, Denton, TX / TwoDot, New York, NY
For many of us, our favorite local bookstore has been long-closed, but in many towns and cities, the independent used and new booksellers that have survived continue to be the cornerstone of the book-buying and collecting community. We, as book consumers, still have an opportunity to support our local bookstores and the independent dealers who are dedicated to their craft and vocation. Many of the successful stores now have a strong internet presence, from their own websites to “storefronts” on ABE.com, Alibris.com and Amazon.com. At the same time, the most successful traditional Western book publishers, including the University of Oklahoma Press, Wolfpack Publishing, Pinnacle/Kensington and Rowman & Littlefield, have doubled-down on the e-book business. For brick-and-mortar bookstore owners, this means customer service, staff knowledge, depth of stock, genre specialization and author events all contribute to the store’s viability. So, my challenge to our readers in 2021 is to not overlook local booksellers. They are surviving on your patronage and largesse, and they may just be able to deliver curbside or by mail as fast as any major online company.
Best Western History Bookstore
Collected Works Bookstore, Santa Fe, NM
For over four decades, Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has been the place to find favorite Western titles in fiction and nonfiction. Under the ownership of Dorothy Massey, Collected Works has survived all the ups and downs of the book trade business (including COVID-19 pandemic conditions) and is the city’s oldest independent bookstore, a favorite of the internationally acclaimed literary and arts community. Stop in and browse, ask the expert staff for advice on current books and authors and enjoy a gourmet coffee at the in-store cafe, Iconik Coffee Roasters. CollectedWorksBookstore.com
Readers’ Choice: Cactus Book Shop, San Angelo, TX
Leon Metz, 1930-2020
By Bob Boze Bell
Leon Metz was a friend of the magazine with a flair for superb storytelling, and he was a formidable force in many arenas (he had his own TV show!). I am honored to have known him, and I believe he still owns the best and certainly the zaniest quote in the Billy the Kid field regarding Wayne Brazel being acquitted for shooting Pat Garrett while the latter was seeing a man about a horse:
“The only time in history a man has been assassinated while urinating that the defendant claimed self-defense.”