If you’re about to embark on a reading rodeo of the All-American Western genre (which you should before you see the movies), you’ll have your pick of the draw. From the historical and classic to the courageous and romantic, lasso up some whiskey and give these books a read.
By Charles Portis
Mattie Ross, is only 14 years old when her father is shot by Tom Chaney, robbing him of his life, his horse and $150 in cash money. Ready to avenge her father’s death, Mattie leaves Fort Smith, Arkansas and enlists the help of one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, the meanest U.S. Marshal. Venturing into Indian Territory, the story follows Mattie’s journey as an eccentric, fearless and unflinching character, giving life to this American classic through and through. True Grit is Portis’ most famous novel. First published in 1968, it served as the basis for the movie of the same name starring John Wayne (and later another remake in 2010).
By Laura Ingalls Wilder
We all read this one in elementary school. Reading Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, has been a childhood staple for generations. This fictional novel, set in the late 1800s, is based in part on the author’s own experience. It’s the story of the Ingalls family and their life on the Kansas prairie, which details the hardships and pleasures of a family in the untamed West as well as a unique glimpse into America’s frontier history.
By Zane Grey
This old-school Western by Zane Grey, is credited for kick-starting the Western as a genre. Jane Withersteen is a Utah rancher whose livelihood is threatened by a proposed marriage she does not want, until a lone cowboy named Lassiter comes to town.
The novel highlights Withersteen’s battle to overcome persecution by members of her polygamous Mormon fundamentalist church all while defending her right to befriend a non-Mormon. Originally published in 1912, Riders of the Purple Sage is considered the most popular western novel of all time.
By Ron Hansen
No one epitomizes the contrasting image of the sympathetic villain like outlaw Jesse James, a preacher’s son who became a famous bank robber and murderer. Then there’s Robert Ford, who coveted James’ legend.
As far as historical fiction goes, no one tells this story quite like author Ron Hansen in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This book tells the tale of James and Ford’s interweaving paths—and destinies—that would end in blood and betrayal. It’s the gritty and rough yet glorious America that this genre is known for.
By Cormac McCarthy
The incredibly grim Blood Meridian is an epic Western novel by Cormac McCarthy, which takes readers “to a world of gun and arrow shooting, scalping and breaking bottles over the heads of bartenders.” The more violent the better.
The story follows a teenager referred to as “the kid,” and his experiences with the Glanton gang, a historical group of scalp hunters who massacred Native Americans and others in the United States–Mexico borderlands from 1849-50. Since its release in 1985, Blood Meridian has become recognized as McCarthy’s masterpiece, as well as one of the greatest American novels of all time.
Other Westerns to give a read: The Way West, Lonesome Dove, The Big Sky, Deadwood, Desperadoes, The Good Old Boys and The Virginian.