The best books about the American West with female central characters

Chris Hannan Author Of Missy
By Chris Hannan

Who am I?

I was born in a little shipbuilding town in Scotland but, like everyone else in the world back then, I grew up in the American West. These were the stories we all grew up with – burned into our imaginations along with stories from the Bible or the Greek myths. Nowadays, the West is still important to me – but today it is the personal accounts of the West that interest me most – the personal diaries and eye-witness accounts of the brides, the doctors, teachers, mothers, children, who experienced the West first-hand.


I wrote...

Missy

By Chris Hannan,

Book cover of Missy

What is my book about?

Described by Entertainment Weekly as “an adventure so hair-raising it makes Deadwood look positively staid by comparison” and reviewed by The Times as “funny and exhilarating. Moll Flanders on drugs”, Missy is the story of Dol McQueen, a prostitute who stumbles on some stolen loot and takes off with it – and all hell in pursuit. Her alcoholic mother is an added burden on the journey. Can Dol save herself, her mother, and their poisonous relationship?

“Deliciously uplifting…  Narrated by one of the more luminous characters in recent fiction.” - The Guardian

The books I picked & why

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O Pioneers!

By Willa Sibert Cather,

Book cover of O Pioneers!

Why this book?

How can you resist a title with an exclamation mark! This feminist eco-classic has Alexandra Bergson as its central character – a frontier farmer who wears a man’s long coat and carries it off “like a young soldier” – and who seems to have a more intense relationship with the land than with other human beings. She is not the flashiest of heroines but she burrowed her way into my imagination: tireless, patient, persevering, and mysterious.

O Pioneers!

By Willa Sibert Cather,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked O Pioneers! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the turn of the twentieth century. When their father dies young, exhausted by the failure of his attempts at agriculture, it is left to the visionary Alexandra to guide the family to prosperity and safeguard the fortune of her brothers. Strong-willed and fiercely independent, she succeeds against all odds, but only at the cost of her own fulfilment as a woman. Central to the novel's action is the Nebraskan landscape it describes, by turns unyielding and fruitful, bitter and ecstatic.O Pioneers! joins Cather's My Antonia in Everyman's Library.


Little House on the Prairie

By Laura Ingalls Wilder, Garth Williams (illustrator),

Book cover of Little House on the Prairie

Why this book?

Another eco-classic. The night the little house is surrounded by wolves! And yet this story for children is an explosive cocktail. It is as fresh as homemade lemonade but it is also shot through with shocking white imperialism. Pa tells the little girl: “When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on.  The government is going to move these Indians farther west any time now. That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?” This is the story of the theft of the west from its original owners told through the eyes of a little white girl. This book should be on college reading lists.

Little House on the Prairie

By Laura Ingalls Wilder, Garth Williams (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Little House on the Prairie as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Classic tales by Laura Ingalls Wilder about life on the frontier and America's best-loved pioneer family.

The sun-kissed prairie stretches out around the Ingalls family, smiling its welcome after their long, hard journey across America. But looks can be deceiving and they soon find that they must share the land with wild bears and Indians. Will there be enough land for all of them?

The timeless stories that inspired a TV series can now be read by a new generation of children. Readers who loved Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and Heidi will be swept up by this timeless…


Close Range: Wyoming Stories

By Annie Proulx,

Book cover of Close Range: Wyoming Stories

Why this book?

In her short story collection Close Range, Proulx famously channels all sorts of male protagonists, including the gay cowboys of Brokeback Mountain. But "A Lonely Coast" is about a quartet of truck-driving, gun-carrying Wyoming gals whose Friday night out is about margaritas and buffalo wings at the Gold Buckle “while they read through the personal ads in the paper.” This is life and relationships at their most disposable and a story that’s forever.  

Close Range: Wyoming Stories

By Annie Proulx,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Close Range as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Pulitzer Prize–winning and bestselling author of The Shipping News and Accordion Crimes comes one of the most celebrated short story collections of our time.

Annie Proulx's masterful language and fierce love of Wyoming are evident in this collection of stories about loneliness, quick violence, and wrong kinds of love. In "The Mud Below," a rodeo rider's obsession marks the deepening fissures between his family life and self-imposed isolation. In "The Half-Skinned Steer," an elderly fool drives west to the ranch he grew up on for his brother's funeral, and dies a mile from home. In "Brokeback Mountain," the…


Mollie: The Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford in Nebraska and Colorado Territories, 1857-1866

By Mollie Dorsey Sanford,

Book cover of Mollie: The Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford in Nebraska and Colorado Territories, 1857-1866

Why this book?

We have seen so many movies about the American West we sometimes forget it happened to ordinary people exactly like ourselves. Church-going pioneers on the great wagon trail west would wake up to find Native Americans in camp, singing a morning prayer to their god. As a young bride, Mollie Sanford experiences the rattlesnakes, chaos, and lawlessness of wild west gold camps, with nothing to protect her but her hymn-singing upbringing in the Mid-West. Her character and beliefs are tested to the limit.

Mollie: The Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford in Nebraska and Colorado Territories, 1857-1866

By Mollie Dorsey Sanford,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Mollie is a vivid, high-spirited, and intensely feminine account of city people homesteading in the raw, new land west of the Missouri. More particularly, it is the story of Mollie herself - just turned eighteen when the Dorseys left Indianapolis for Nebraska Territory - of her reaction to the transplantation and to her new life which included rattlesnakes, blizzards, Indians, and the hardships of pioneer life. Mollie describes her nearly three-year engagement to Byron Sanford, during which time she worked as a seamstress, teacher, and cook. Following her wedding Mollie's life took a new turn. Catching "Pike's Peak Fever," the…


Searching for Calamity: The Life and Times of Calamity Jane

By Linda Jucovy,

Book cover of Searching for Calamity: The Life and Times of Calamity Jane

Why this book?

The hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, cross-dressing heroine of the American West continues to keep a python grip on the imagination. “I’m a howling coyote from Bitter Creek, the further up you go the worse it gets and I’m from the headwaters,” she used to rap. Calamity fascinates because she is a self-made myth and Linda Jucovy’s biography is an informed and insightful exploration of that myth.   

Searching for Calamity: The Life and Times of Calamity Jane

By Linda Jucovy,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“Who in the world would think that Calamity Jane would get to be such a famous person?” one of the pallbearers at her funeral asked an interviewer many years later. It seemed like a reasonable question. Who else has accomplished so little by conventional standards and yet achieved such enduring fame?

But conventional standards do not apply. Calamity was poor, uneducated, and an alcoholic. For decades, she wandered through the small towns and empty spaces of the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana. But she also had a natural talent for self-invention. She created a story about herself and promoted it tirelessly…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in pioneers, the American West, and Nebraska?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about pioneers, the American West, and Nebraska.

Pioneers Explore 81 books about pioneers
The American West Explore 102 books about the American West
Nebraska Explore 22 books about Nebraska

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Hidden Figures, News of the World, and In the Distance if you like this list.