The best books about the American West with female central characters

Chris Hannan Author Of Missy
By Chris Hannan

The Books I Picked & Why

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.


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Little House on the Prairie

By Laura Ingalls Wilder, Garth Williams

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.


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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.  


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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.


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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.   


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