The best Westerns that will transport you to the American frontier

The Books I Picked & Why

Lonesome Dove

By Larry McMurtry

Book cover of Lonesome Dove

Why this book?

“What a boring, obvious choice” you might be saying to yourself. “This guy wants to tell me about great Western novels and he starts with the most popular Western of the last 50 years?” To which I say: You bet! There’s a good reason Lonesome Dove is so beloved. It’s fantastic — simple as that. Larry McMurtry takes what might seem like a thin and tired premise — aging cowboys have to make one last cattle drive together — and turns it into an enthralling historical epic. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry (I did!), you’ll develop saddle sores from sitting on the edge of your seat.

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Monte Walsh

By Jack Schaefer

Book cover of Monte Walsh

Why this book?

Jack Schaefer is mostly remembered for one of his other (very fine) novels: Shane, the basis for the iconic film. But it’s the lesser-known Monte Walsh that really captures what life was like in the waning days of the “Wild West,” especially for cowboys. The episodic novel follows the titular wrangler over the entirety of his life as he wanders the West looking for work and getting into and out of trouble. Like Lonesome Dove, it gives readers a look at cowboy life so up-close-and-personal you can practically smell the smoke from the campfire.

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Little Big Man

By Thomas Berger

Book cover of Little Big Man

Why this book?

You won’t find many cowboys here, but almost every other character-type of the Western genre — gunfighters, snake oil salesmen, cavalry officers, preachers, prostitutes, schoolmarms, and merchants — are on display (and held up for ridicule). Written in 1964, the novel also represented a significant step forward for the genre with its well-researched and well-rounded portrayals of Native Americans. The story — about the lifelong identity crisis of a white orphan adopted by the Cheyenne — would be unbearably sad if Berger’s writing weren’t so very, very funny.

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The Hanging Tree and Other Stories

By Dorothy M. Johnson

Book cover of The Hanging Tree and Other Stories

Why this book?

Once upon a time, writers could make a good living selling short stories to American magazines. Those days are almost as long gone now as the Wild West. But the stories live on…provided you find the right used book store. First published in 1957, The Hanging Tree and Other Stories collects some of the best work by a prolific specialist in short fiction about the frontier: Dorothy M. Johnson. Years before Little Big Man, she was writing sympathetically and convincingly about Native Americans. Her stories could also be funny, thrilling, and surprising. It’s no wonder Hollywood turned to her for inspiration so often: The classic Westerns The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and A Man Called Horse are based on Johnson stories.

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My Ántonia

By Willa Cather

Book cover of My Ántonia

Why this book?

Does a “Western” have to have good guys, bad guys, and shoot-outs? If you think so, My Ántonia is not the book for you. Rather than a high-stakes tale of white hats vs. black hats, it offers a nearly plotless portrait of the challenges of late 19th-century farming. Focusing on the friendship between an orphan sent to Nebraska to live with his grandparents and a girl on one of the neighboring farms, My Ántonia isn’t exactly action-packed. It’s filled instead with quiet emotion and authenticity. It might not be a “Western” to some, but it’s one of the great depictions of everyday life in the American West.

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