The best novels by women writers in the west

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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of My Ántonia

Russell Rowland Why did I love 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.

By Willa Cather,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked My Ántonia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set in rural Nebraska, Willa Cather's My Antonia is both the intricate story of a powerful friendship and a brilliant portrayal of the lives of rural pioneers in the late-nineteenth century.

Part of the Macmillan Collector's Library, a series of stunning, clothbound, pocket-sized classics with gold-foiled edges and ribbon markers. These beautiful books make perfect gifts or a treat for any book lover. This edition has an afterword by Bridget Bennett and original illustrations by W. T. Benda.

Antonia and her family are from Bohemia and they must endure real hardship and loss to establish a new home in America.…


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

Russell Rowland Why did I love 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.

By Louise Erdrich,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A powerfully involving novel from one of America's finest writers, and winner of America's prestigious National Book Award for Fiction 2012

Sister Cecilia lives for music, for those hours when she can play her beloved Chopin on the piano. It isn't that she neglects her other duties, rather it is the playing itself - distilled of longing - that disturbs her sisters. The very air of the convent thickens with the passion of her music, and the young girl is asked to leave. And so it is that Sister Cecilia appears before Berndt Vogel on his farm, destitute, looking for…


Book cover of Housekeeping

Russell Rowland Why did I love 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. 

By Marilynne Robinson,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Housekeeping as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Pen/Hemingway Award

A modern classic, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, the eccentric and remote sister of their dead mother.

The family house is in the small town of Fingerbone on a glacial lake in the Far West, the same lake where their grandfather died in a spectacular train wreck and their mother drove off a cliff to her death. It is a town "chastened by an outsized…


Book cover of Winter Wheat

Russell Rowland Why did I love 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. 

By Mildred Walker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Winter Wheat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For this Bison Books edition, James Welch, the acclaimed author of Winter in the Blood (1986) and other novels, introduces Mildred Walker's vivid heroine, Ellen Webb, who lives in the dryland wheat country of central Montana during the early 1940s. He writes, "It is a story about growing up, becoming a woman, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, within the space of a year and a half. But what a year and a half it is!" Welch offers a brief biography of Walker, who wrote nine of her thirteen novels while living in Montana.


Book cover of Perma Red

Russell Rowland Why did I love 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. 

By Debra Magpie Earling,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Perma Red as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bold, passionate, and more urgent than ever, Debra Magpie Earling's powerful classic novel is reborn in this new edition.

On the Flathead Indian Reservation, summer is ending, and Louise White Elk is determined to forge her own path. Raised by her Grandmother Magpie after the death of her mother, Louise and her younger sister have grown up into the harsh social and physical landscape of western Montana in the 1940s, where Native people endure boarding schools and life far from home. As she approaches adulthood, Louise hopes to create an independent life for herself and an improved future for her…


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The Blighted Mission

By E. Chris Ambrose,

Book cover of The Blighted Mission

E. Chris Ambrose Author Of The Mongol's Coffin

New book alert!

Who am I?

As an art school drop-out who'd been majoring in sculpture, I'm fascinated by material culture—artifacts created by early peoples that reveal their cultural values. Often, the relics and sites that engage both archaeologists and readers suggest unexpected depths of knowledge that show human ingenuity through the ages. I strive to incorporate the details of an artifact or monument's creation into the clues and descriptions in my work, hopefully illuminating a little-known historical realm, if only by torchlight as the adventure unfolds. The fact that I get to explore so many exotic locations, in research if not in person, is a definite plus!

E. Chris' book list on weaving adventure and history

What is my book about?

Disgraced British anthropologist Nigel Rowe hopes his YouTube adventure channel will be just the treat to redeem him, but vengeful treasure hunters have other plans! Seeking a legendary Jesuit mission in Baja, Nigel saves his producer’s life when the man takes a bullet meant for him. 

When an ex-Marine strolls up for a bodyguard interview, and dresses him down for his lax security, she might be precisely what he needs, or the last face he'll ever see. They plunge into the desert in search of fame, fortune and viral footage. Will he survive long enough to work out who's after him or meet a sticky end in the mountains of Mexico? All he can hope is that his new partner's doesn’t pull the trigger herself.

The Blighted Mission

By E. Chris Ambrose,

What is this book about?

A disgraced British anthropologist hopes his YouTube adventure channel will redeem him, but vengeful treasure hunters have other plans.

From the author of the internationally best-selling Bone Guard archaeological adventures!

On the trail of a legendary Jesuit mission in Baja—and the treasure it may contain—Nigel Rowe leaps into action to save the life of his producer when the man takes a bullet meant for Nigel. Alas, the list of those who might wish him dead spans the globe and ranges from American treasure hunters to Russian mobsters to his own dear brother, with their mother's consent if not her explicit…


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