The best thought-provoking classic western novels that are worth a second (or third) reading

John D. Nesbitt Author Of Dark Prairie
By John D. Nesbitt

The Books I Picked & Why

The Big Sky

By A.B. Guthrie, Jr.

Book cover of The Big Sky

Why this book?

The Big Sky is a masterpiece of historical fiction and an often-cited classic novel of the American West. It earns this distinction because of its original characterization, its use of historical and geographical accuracy, its thematic depth, and its symbolism. It is set in the mountain man or fur trade era, and it shows the consequences of White men going into the wilderness. This book introduces the idea, in cultural and environmental terms, that in the occupation of the American West, people ruin the thing they love. This book not only makes it to the top of the lists by western writers, but it also is well appreciated by scholars and students in Western American Literature. 


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Riders of Judgment

By Frederick Manfred

Book cover of Riders of Judgment

Why this book?

Riders of Judgment is part of a series of high-geared western novels by Frederick Manfred, whose best-known work is Lord Grizzly. I choose this novel because of its fictional and figurative treatment of the Johnson County War, a famous event in Wyoming history. In his fictional treatment, Manfred gives symbolic and mythic dimensions to his characters, and he tells a compelling story with original, not standard, characters. Several years ago, when Manfred came to our college in Wyoming to participate in a literary conference, he told us about how, in the mid-1950s, he researched the area and interviewed family members of some of the original participants. 


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Welcome to Hard Times

By E.L. Doctorow

Book cover of Welcome to Hard Times

Why this book?

Welcome to Hard Times is a shorter novel. It is of the length of the classic western that was popular at the time that this novel came out (1960). This novel is sometimes described as an anti-western or an ironic western, as it takes a non-heroic view of people dealing with evil in a frontier town. It was made into a movie by the same title, but the movie is not well known. The novel is similar in tone to the movie McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which some people do not like because of its non-heroic or skeptical tone. Readers who like their westerns upbeat and unequivocal may not appreciate Doctorow’s novel, but readers who are willing to consider less-than-pristine views may find an interesting treatment here.


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Honor Thy Father

By Robert A. Roripaugh

Book cover of Honor Thy Father

Why this book?

This is a classic story about a young man confronted by land conflicts and family loyalty. It also depicts non-White characters in a positive, realistic way. This book has an interesting storyline, good prose style, and original use of figurative language. The novel won the Western Heritage Award in 1963, and it is regarded by many as one of the best westerns written. It is not as widely known as many novels, but it is appreciated by anyone who reads it. Roripaugh is also a major poet in the literary history of Wyoming, and he published some very good short stories as well. 


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The Sea Of Grass

By Conrad Richter

Book cover of The Sea Of Grass

Why this book?

The Sea of Grass is a short novel, standard in length for the time in which it was published (1936), close in time to other short classics such as The Grapes of Wrath and The Postman Always Rings Twice. It is written in first person, and in some respects, it suggests the influence of The Great Gatsby, another short masterpiece some ten years earlier, with an observer narrator, an elegiac tone, an evocative prose style, and interesting figurative language. This novel, like many, draws upon the range war (nesters versus the cattle empire) for its premise, but it becomes a very interesting exploration of human nature and the inevitable passing of time. 


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