The best novels by women writers in the west

Russell Rowland Author Of In Open Spaces
By Russell Rowland

Who am I?

I have published seven books, all set in the West, including an anthology, West of 98: Living and Writing the New American West, that features writers from every state west of the Mississippi. For four years now, I have been doing a podcast called Breakfast in Montana, where my partner Aaron Parrett and I discuss Montana books. I also published a book in 2016 called 56 Counties, where I traveled to every county in Montana and interviewed people about what it means to live in this state. So I have a good feel for the people of this region and for the books they love. 


I wrote...

In Open Spaces

By Russell Rowland,

Book cover of In Open Spaces

What is my book about?

In Open Spaces is the story of the Arbuckle Ranch in Southeastern Montana. Loosely based on the author’s family history, the story starts with the drowning of the oldest Arbuckle brother, George, meaning that the narrator, Blake, is forced to leave school in Belle Fourche South Dakota to work on the ranch. In a story that covers three decades, Blake and his two surviving brothers, Jack and Bob, jockey for position as to who will take over the ranch. While Jack is the oldest, he has a tendency to disappear for years at a time, even after he marries a young woman from back east. Meanwhile, youngest brother Bob ends up marrying a woman who will stop at nothing to try and bring the ranch into the hands of her husband.

The books I picked & why

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My Ántonia

By Willa Cather,

Book cover of My Ántonia

Why this book?

Every discussion about the evolution of writing in ‘the West’ has to start with Willa Cather, who was the first writer from the west to be awarded a major literary award when she won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, which isn’t even one of her five best novels. Cather wrote openly about alcoholism, domestic violence, and other painful topics, transforming western writing from cardboard cutout characters to real people. My Ántonia has become an American classic, not just in western literature but in all literature. My Ántonia is told from the point of view of a young farm boy who falls in love with the enchanting Ántonia, and it’s beautifully written, taking us into the emotional heart of youth and idealism in the West.


The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

By Louise Erdrich,

Book cover of The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

Why this book?

Erdrich also won a Pulitzer for her 2020 novel, The Night Watchman, but my favorite of her novels is this 2009 publication, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. The story centers around a nun who assumes the identity of a priest whose body she discovers on her way to a monastery where he’s been given the assignment of serving the Ojibwe Tribe on the Little No Horse Reservation. Louise contributed to an anthology I edited about the same time this novel came out, and I was so blown away by the writing that I sent her an email asking whether she was levitating while she wrote it. If I’m honest, my list of ten favorite books by women from the West would probably consist of at last five by Erdrich, but I decided to confine myself to one by each author.


Housekeeping

By Marilynne Robinson,

Book cover of Housekeeping

Why this book?

Housekeeping is actually not my favorite Marilynne Robinson novel, but because most of her later work, including Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize and is my favorite, all take place in Iowa, where Robinson eventually settled down, I chose Housekeeping, because it takes place where she grew up, in Idaho, but also because I could actually choose any of her novels, which are all outstanding. Robinson has become one of the more distinguished writers in America, and she is a master of language and development of rich and complicated characters. Her books also have a delightful touch of humor, which was especially evident in Housekeeping, which was made into a wonderful film starring Christine Lahti as the single mother of two teenage daughters. 


Winter Wheat

By Mildred Walker,

Book cover of Winter Wheat

Why this book?

Winter Wheat, published in 1944, tells the story of Ellen Webb, a young woman coming of age on a farm in Montana. Walker moved from back east to Great Falls, Montana in 1933, and she is one of many writers who adopted Montana as their home state and wrote very eloquently about the unique challenges of growing up in such isolation, living a life so focused on hard work and basic survival. Walker published several excellent novels, but Winter Wheat was her tour de force. 


Perma Red

By Debra Magpie Earling,

Book cover of Perma Red

Why this book?

And another Montana writer, Debra Magpie Earling grew up in Spokane, and is a member of the Salish tribe. Her 2002 debut novel, Perma Red, became an immediate classic. It’s the story of Louise White Elk, a young woman living on the reservation in the 1940s who is determined to avoid the trap of becoming the possession of a man. A challenge for any woman during that time period, but especially for a native woman living in a place with few options. Earling’s prose is elegant but tough, and that would be a pretty apt description of her main character as well as Louise makes a valiant effort to fight off the powerful men trying to take control of her life. 


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