The best books that capture a 19th century American voice

Who am I?

Growing up, I dreamed of being Margaret Mead. When I realized that Margaret already had that job, I turned my anthropologist’s eye for the defining details of language, dress, and customs to fiction. I love to tell the untold tales--especially about women--who are thrust into difficult, sometimes impossible, circumstances and triumph with the help of humor, friends, perseverance, and their own inspiring ingenuity. I have been able to do this well enough that, in 2021, was honored with the Paul Re Peace Award for Cultural Advocacy for promoting empathy through my work. I’m a bestselling novelist and essayist living in Austin, Texas with my husband, son, and terminally cute Corgi.

I wrote...

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

By Sarah Bird,

Book cover of Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

What is my book about?

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is an epic page-turner inspired by Cathay/Cathy Williams, the only woman known to have served with the legendary Buffalo Soldiers and the first to enlist in the peacetime U.S. military. Born into slavery, freed by the Civil War, Cathy refused the cruel future that awaited all women-- especially an unmarried, uneducated, black woman like herself--in the defeated South. Instead, she made the majestic decision to disguise herself as a man and ride west toward grand adventure and true freedom with the Buffalo Soldiers.

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The books I picked & why

True Grit

By Charles Portis,

Book cover of True Grit

Why did I love this book?

I chose all the books on this list because they helped me create a voice for Cathy alive with the intelligence, strength, humor, and resilience that allowed her both to make her heroic decision and to survive the harshest duty the Army could dish out. That voice also had to feel 19th Century and be far more Western than Southern.

There was no better place to start than, True Grit by the writer’s writer, Charles Portis. Renowned as an exemplar of voice, True Grit gives us two indelible characters, fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, who is hunting the hired hand who murdered her father and “Rooster” Cogburn, the drunken U.S. Marshal Mattie hires to track the murderer into Indian Territory.

I love every word Portis has ever written. And so, apparently, does Hollywood as not one, but two, adaptations of True Grit have made it to the screen with more dialogue borrowed directly from the source than any other book to film translation I can think of.

Like the lucky screenwriters who had the good sense not to rewrite perfection, I was utterly taken with and found my own inspiration in Mattie’s distinctively deadpan, forthright voice with its solemnly funny, frontier stoicism.

By Charles Portis,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked True Grit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There is no knowing what lies in a man's heart. On a trip to buy ponies, Frank Ross is killed by one of his own workers. Tom Chaney shoots him down in the street for a horse, $150 cash, and two Californian gold pieces. Ross's unusually mature and single-minded fourteen-year-old daughter Mattie travels to claim his body, and finds that the authorities are doing nothing to find Chaney. Then she hears of Rooster - a man, she's told, who has grit - and convinces him to join her in a quest into dark, dangerous Indian territory to hunt Chaney down…

Little Big Man

By Thomas Berger,

Book cover of Little Big Man

Why did I love this book?

If I were allowed a tie in my rankings, I’d put Little Big Man and True Grit side-by-side if, for no other reason than, IMHO, Thomas Berger is underappreciated. He starts his larger-than-life saga with his protagonist, the 111-year-old Jack Crabbe, stating, “I am a white man and never forget it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of ten.”

Berger saturated himself in diaries, memoirs, and letters of the 19th Century American West and it shows in the authenticity of Crabbe’s first-person narration as he details his purportedly true adventures that range from cheating Wild Bill Hickok at cards to being the lone white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn.

I admit that I cribbed from Crabbe, borrowing juicy sayings of the time that Berger had borrowed before me, like “had the sulks,” “blew out his spark,” and “ain’t got all his buttons.” The captivating language adds immeasurably to a novel that is a delight to read and whips along “twenty mile at the trot.”

By Thomas Berger,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Little Big Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'I am a white man and never forget it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of ten.' So starts the story of Jack Crabb, the 111-year old narrator of Thomas Berger's masterpiece of American fiction. As a "human being", as the Cheyenne called their own, he won the name Little Big Man. He dressed in skins, feasted on dog, loved four wives and saw his people butchered by the horse soldiers of General Custer, the man he had sworn to kill.

As a white man, Crabb hunted buffalo, tangled with Wyatt Earp, cheated Wild…

Book cover of Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay: The Enlisted Soldier Fighting the Indian Wars

Why did I love this book?

I was delighted to discover this compilation of personal accounts by enlisted men who’d served in the U.S. Army during the settling of the American West. Though the educated class of officers left extensive documentation of their lives on the frontier, the illiterate rank and file was unable to chronicle their experiences. Rickey filled this void in the early sixties by interviewing over three hundred troopers, both black and white, still alive at that time.

The wealth of detail about the daily life of a grunt I found in Forty Miles was invaluable to me in creating both Cathy’s voice and the world she passed in as a man.

By Don Rickey,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The enlisted men in the United States Army during the Indian Wars (1866-91) need no longer be mere shadows behind their historically well-documented commanding officers.

As member of the regular army, these men formed an important segment of our usually slighted national military continuum and, through their labors, combats, and endurance, created the framework of law and order within which settlement and development become possible. We should know more about the common soldier in our military past, and here he is.

The rank and file regular, then as now, was psychologically as well as physically isolated from most of his…

Book cover of Cryin' for Daylight: A Ranching Culture in the Texas Coastal Bend (Texas Coastal Bend Series, No. 1)

Why did I love this book?

Louise S. O'Connor, a fifth-generation descendant of an early settler of Texas has always loved the stories of the "old timers,” the cowboys and hands who worked the ranch where she grew up. O’Connor spent seventeen years collecting oral histories about ranch life on the Coastal Bend and compiled those stories into Cryin' for Daylight. Though published in 1989, the language of O’Connor’s isolated, rural, mostly elderly subjects rings with 19th Century authenticity.

I treasure O’Connor’s labor of love for its emphasis on the tragically neglected black cowboys. One such cowboy supplied the title by swearing, “We loved to work cattle so much, we’d just be sittin’ around cryin’ for daylight to come.”

By Louise S. O'Connor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cryin' for Daylight as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cryin for Daylight contains the memories of people deeply involved in a ranching culture transformed by technology, urbanization, mechanization, and other economic and political interventions of modern life. These are real people speaking: men and women, bosses and workers, black and white, Catholic and Protestant, cooks and helicopter pilots... diverse individuals tied together by the land and their labor on it.

Book cover of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Why did I love this book?

Did you think I’d end an examination of the 19th Century American voice without a mention of Twain? Well, think again. Twain was the first to capture colloquial speech in the U.S. and nowhere does he do it better than in Huckleberry Finn.

Though a truly authentic 19th Century voice with its “warn’ts” and “haints” and people who “clumb” trees would be too distracting for a modern reader, Twain was my infallible guide to the spirit that animated the speech of the day. There is nothing I can say to add to Twain’s luster except that, to this day, he remains unsurpassed.

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