The best books about the West that twist the myth

Alyson Hagy Author Of Boleto
By Alyson Hagy

Who am I?

I’m a writer fascinated by landscape and history—and the American West is my magnet. I’ve set three books in the West. I can’t get enough of the place. An entire national myth is enshrined “where the deer and the antelope play.” Independence. Freedom from the past. Land we can supposedly call our own. The West is so beautiful and also so scarred. I love to read books that deepen my experience of the deserts, mountains, and rivers. I also love to learn about the people who were here before me, those who have hung on, and those who hope to heal the scars. These books are great stories about a bewitching place.

I wrote...


By Alyson Hagy,

Book cover of Boleto

What is my book about?

I’ve lived in the West a long time. I swore I wouldn’t write about cowboys. And then I did, with some twists. I wanted to see if I could make the old story new—and different. Will Testerman’s a gifted horse trainer trying to make his way. Money’s tight. His mother’s sick. He sees his chance with a beautiful filly who might make his reputation on the cutthroat polo fields of California. And then come the hard choices.

The West has always been complex. Beautiful but harsh. Greedy yet healing. Boleto is about a good, if flawed, young man trying to care for a special horse in a world of privilege and indifference. It’s my homage to the complexities of the modern frontier.

The books I picked & why

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In the Distance

By Hernan Diaz,

Book cover of In the Distance

Why this book?

Hernán Díaz’s first novel, In the Distance, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The book is gorgeously written and meticulously researched. The West’s huge, startling landscapes loom on every page. But the real genius here is the novel’s “reverse epic” structure—how Díaz takes a young Swedish immigrant who gets off his ship at the wrong port (San Francisco) and sends him traveling east, against the migrant tides, in search of his brother. The journey doesn’t go as planned. Håkan makes friends and stymies enemies. Stereotypes warp and tumble as Håkan (and the reader) are forever transformed. The descriptions of California gold fields, science expeditions, questing Mormons, and other frontier communities delight and confound. You’ll never cross a Western desert the same way again.

Woman of Light

By Kali Fajardo-Anstine,

Book cover of Woman of Light

Why this book?

Fajardo-Anstine does many remarkable things in Woman of Light, but three of those things just blew me away. First, she anchors the novel in a city (Denver, 1930s). Cities are the forgotten truth of the American West, and they shouldn’t be. Second, she brings to life the “Lost Territories,” the Hispanic/Indigenous lands of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, long-cherished homes overrun by white settlement in the 19th century. Third, she builds the entire compelling narrative around a suite of Chicana/Indigenous women—and they are the strongest, liveliest characters you’ll ever meet. They work, they love, they breathe loyalty, they seek justice. This novel is a stylish eye-opener from start to finish. And it’ll forever change what you think you know about the region.

Four Treasures of the Sky

By Jenny Tinghui Zhang,

Book cover of Four Treasures of the Sky

Why this book?

Historical records of the Chinese immigrant experience in the West are sparse or non-existent. Much has been erased. Yet powerful stories are there for the telling. Zhang begins this gripping novel in a politically troubled China where a young girl is kidnapped and trafficked to San Francisco for the brothels there. She escapes, but her American journey has only just begun. Wending its way from China to California to the rough-and-tumble mining towns of Idaho, where the Chinese are viewed with swelling suspicion, this novel is dramatic, beautifully imagined, and heart-rending. Its portrait of Lin Daiyu, who seeks only safety and independence, is beyond compelling. The book also features a remarkable (and remarkably fierce) ghost. And who doesn’t love a ghost?

Close Range: Wyoming Stories

By Annie Proulx,

Book cover of Close Range: Wyoming Stories

Why this book?

Annie Proulx is a genius with character, and she’s obsessed with how hard humans work to uphold their myths of identity and achievement even when the odds are stacked against them. Close Range is the best of her three very good story collections about the West. It’s famous, and rightly so, for the trail-blazing tale of cowboy queerness "Brokeback Mountain". But each story is taut with observation and image. “The Mud Below,” “The Half-Skinned Steer”—there’s more than one American classic in this book. Some Westerners aren’t fans of Proulx, but I am. She doesn’t pull her punches about what it’s really like to ranch, rodeo, fantasize about retirement, or care for family in a place with no safety net, extreme weather, and no neighbors around the corner.

News of the World

By Paulette Jiles,

Book cover of News of the World

Why this book?

Tom Hanks stars in the film version of News of the World. The book is even better than the movie. Jiles is a historian. The novel is chock full of fascinating information about post-Civil War Texas. That real history upends a lot of John Wayne cliches. But the book’s true strength lies in the fallibility of its hero, Captain Kidd, and its rendering of a white child who’s been “kipnapped” then “returned” by the Kiowa, a people she doesn’t want to leave. Jiles isn’t interested in classic good guys or bad guys. She writes about conflicted people of all races, classes, and behaviors—how they soldier on despite their deep sorrows and misgivings. Plus, there’s a kickass shoot-out scene just in case you’re missing John Wayne.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Wyoming, Colorado, and China?

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