8 Raw Westerns to Read This Summer

There is more to a well-executed Western novel than its geographical setting. In A Literary History of the American West, the heart of the genre is summarized as a "pull between two contrary sets of values, represented on the one side by civilization and on the other by wilderness."

There has been some talk of a Western revival of sorts, and a number of interesting titles have found their way to presses this year. With the oncoming heat of summer, it’s the perfect time to catch up on some gunslinging between the hours of waiting in beach traffic and nights spent sleepless thanks to the humidity. You can’t hunt down your enemies for a battle at high noon, but you can live vicariously through fictional characters in front of an air conditioner.

1. Crow Fair  by Thomas McGuane

In this collection of short stories, McGuane explores the heart of Big Sky Country and its people. These are stories of modern Montana, but McGuane’s work is deeply entrenched in the unsettled, open spaces that remained after the days of the Old West faded.


2. The Winter Family  by Clifford Jackman

A “family” of lawless murderers and bandits preys on the new American West with a man named Augustus Winter at their helm. Billed as a “hyperkinetic Western noir,” The Winter Family is a less than sanitary look behind the veil of history at the decades of violence that trailed in the wake of the Civil War.


3. The Dead Lands  by Benjamin Percy

Deviating from the historical or realist Westerns on this list, The Dead Lands is a post-apocalyptic reimagining of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The story follows a group of survivors in former St. Louis as they attempt to escape the tyranny of a totalitarian government by heading westward towards hope for a better life.


4. Vermilion  by Molly Tanzer 

I’ll allow Vermilion’s summary to speak for itself: “Gunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp, Elouise ‘Lou’ Merriwether might not be a normal 19-year-old, but she’s too busy keeping San Francisco safe from ghosts, shades, and geung si to care much about that.”

How could you not be intrigued?


5. American Meteor  by Norman Lock

An adventure tale that practically bleeds Americana, American Meteor’s protagonist Stephen Moran rubs elbows with Walt Whitman, General Custer, Abe Lincoln’s body, Crazy Horse, and other fabled figures. For fans of Little Big Man, this might be the book you didn’t know you were waiting for.


6. Paradise Sky  by Joe R. Lansdale

Paradise Sky is the story of how former slave Willie Jackson came to be known Nat Love, Buffalo Soldier, and later as the master marksman Deadeye Dick. Dramatic, entertaining, and genuine, Lansdale offers a solid contribution to the new Western while creating some highly memorable characters.


7. The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War  by William T. Vollmann

The Dying Grass is Vollmann’s latest installment in an ambitious series of novels cataloging a detailed history of Native American and European interactions. As the full title indicates, The Dying Grass focuses on the Nez Perce tribe and their conflicts with the U.S. Army, as well as the individual conflicts of character that propel both sides to action. The Dying Grass will hit shelves on Jul. 28.


8. The Revelator  by Robert Kloss

Bearing some similarity to recent Bookshots topic Haints Stay, The Revelator won’t be released until September, but it fits in quite neatly with the other titles on this list. Kloss illustrates an alternate founding of the Mormon Church in bursts of dark poetry set against a brutal Western backdrop.

To keep things current, the titles from this list are all from the past year or upcoming in 2015. What are some of your favorite classic Westerns to get you through the dog days of summer? Let us know in the comments!

Leah Dearborn

Column by Leah Dearborn

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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