The best Western novels that don’t thrive off of gunfights and false mythologies of the American cowboy

Why am I passionate about this?

Because I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, my supply of heroes was liberally doled out by the 130+ Western series that dominated nighttime television in those decades. My parents allowed me one program per week. It was a Western. I was soon interested in history, to know what really did happen in the American West, and so I came to understand the great discrepancies between fact and TV. The truth, for me, is so much more interesting than the myth. As a Western historian, I've done my share of historical research, but I still gravitate toward fiction as a writer. I love the freedom to engage my characters’ thoughts and emotions.


I wrote...

Indigo Heaven

By Mark Warren,

Book cover of Indigo Heaven

What is my book about?

This is a story of one man’s journey for redemption from the atrocities he committed in the name of the Confederacy. Starting a new life in the Wyoming Territory, he finds his self-esteem nurtured by the land itself and by the code of ethics he sets for himself. As foreman at a successful cattle ranch, he earns his place among a varied cast of men who are willing to bet their lives on his judgment. But life presents more tests of character when Pinkerton detectives accuse him of conspiring to assassinate the President of the United States.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of All the Pretty Horses

Mark Warren Why did I love this book?

The dialogue and immersion into Southwestern culture is so immediate and authentic, one might as well have signed up for a secret journey into the heart of the borderlands.

Every paragraph reads like a masterpiece of literature, and taken together they comprise the kind of story that the reader wants never to end. McCarthy has the rare ability to entertain and edify at the same time. 

By Cormac McCarthy,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked All the Pretty Horses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

John Grady Cole is the last bewildered survivor of long generations of Texas ranchers. Finding himself cut off from the only life he has ever wanted, he sets out for Mexico with his friend Lacey Rawlins. Befriending a third boy on the way, they find a country beyond their imagining: barren and beautiful, rugged yet cruelly civilized; a place where dreams are paid for in blood.

The first volume in McCarthy's legendary Border Trilogy, All The Pretty Horses is an acknowledged masterpiece and a grand love story: a novel about the passing of childhood, of innocence and a vanished American…


Book cover of Journey of the Dead

Mark Warren Why did I love this book?

Estleman has taken a well-known story—the chase, capture, and assassination of Billy the Kid—and given it new life by exploring the occult and its effect on Sheriff Pat Garrett as he stumbles toward his destiny as the killer of the Kid.

This novel is a perfect example of how fiction can sometimes offer a richer probe into history by exposing the inner workings of the characters. 

By Loren D. Estleman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In Loren D. Estleman's Journey of the Dead, when Pat Garrett killed his poker buddy, Billy the Kid, he had no idea what a terrible emotional price he would pay. Haunted by memories of Billy, Garrett wanders the New Mexico desert in a fruitless pursuit of peace.

Deep in the same desert, an ancient Spanish alchemist searches for the fabled philosopher's stone. Resolutely alone in his quest he devotes his long life to hunting the secrets of the old gods.

As these two men seek answers to questions that have confounded mankind for centuries, their stories encompass the panorama of…


Book cover of Shane

Mark Warren Why did I love this book?

Since I was a young boy without the influence of a loving father, I’ve always appreciated a “hero” in a story.

Someone I can look up to and perhaps want to emulate. Shane is the ultimate role model inside the category of “gunfighters.”

What he does not say or do defines him as well as what he does say and do.

By Jack Schaefer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shane as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

'If you read only one western in your life, this is the one' Roland Smith, author of Peak

He rode into our valley in the summer of 1889, a slim man, dressed in black. 'Call me Shane,' he said. He never told us more. There was a deadly calm in the valley that summer, a slow, climbing tension that seemed to focus on Shane.

Seen through the eyes of a young boy, Bob Starrett, SHANE is the classic story of a lone stranger. At first sight, the boy realises there is something unusual about the approaching man, but as Bob…


Book cover of The Virginian

Mark Warren Why did I love this book?

This is where the “Western novel” began.

By reading this book, people of the early 20th century were introduced to a prototype protagonist who would be duplicated (with variations) for generations to come. Authors who followed this lead were Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, Jack Schaefer, Charles Portis, Elmer Kelton, and I.

As a boy I found my heroes in the format of the lone common man who faced up to adversities that cut against his moral code.  These protagonists played a large part in shaping my values. Even though the characters were fictitious, the lessons were real. The inspiration hit home.

Wister’s influence on later writers remains intact for good reason. His work was the historical beginning of the “Western,” which, to many folks, serves as the quintessential American story.

By Owen Wister,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Still as exciting and meaningful as when it was written in 1902, Owen Wister's epic tale of one man's journey into the untamed territory of Wyoming, where he is caught between his love for a woman and his quest for justice, has exemplified one of the most significant and enduring themes in all of American culture.

With remarkable character depth and vivid descriptive passages, The Virginian stands not only as the first great novel of American Western literature, but as a testament to the eternal struggle between good and evil in humanity and a revealing study of the forces that…


Book cover of When the Legends Die

Mark Warren Why did I love this book?

When a poet picks up a pen to write a novel, the end result can be most rewarding.

Here the protagonist is a Ute rodeo star who has lost his way in a world to which he does not truly belong. As the underdog (an Indian in a white world), he seeks his personal redemption by finding the strengths that were long ago buried in his own psyche.

This story of one man’s salvation stays with the reader for a lifetime.

By Hal Borland,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked When the Legends Die as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

A young Native American raised in the forest is suddenly thrust into the modern world, in this novel by the author of The Dog Who Came to Stay.
  Thomas Black Bull’s parents forsook the life of a modern reservation and took to ancient paths in the woods, teaching their young son the stories and customs of his ancestors. But Tom’s life changes forever when he loses his father in a tragic accident and his mother dies shortly afterward. When Tom is discovered alone in the forest with only a bear cub as a companion, life becomes difficult. Soon, well-meaning teachers…


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The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

Book cover of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

Kathryn Betts Adams

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The Pianist's Only Daughter is a frank, humorous, and heartbreaking exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her mother, an English scholar and poet, and her father, a pianist and music professor. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' newly single father flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their daughter watches in disbelief as they reconcile and decide to live together again. She steps in to become her parents' eldercare manager when her mother’s condition worsens, facing old family dynamics and disappointing limitations to available services. Throughout, she attempts to help her parents maintain their humanity in their final years.

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

What is this book about?

Grounded in insights about mental health, health and aging, The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A Memoir presents a frank and loving exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her English scholar and poet mother and her pianist father. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' father finds himself single and flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with…


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