American West, 1870-1890, what was goin' on?
November 14, 2010 7:15 PM   Subscribe

[bookfilter] Recommend me a good book or two about the American West circa 1870 - 1890. History or historical fiction, for fun reading, not research.

The Civil War was over, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, the telegraph was in wide use, but the telephone and automobiles were still in the future. What was going on in the US, west of the Mississippi River? I am not writing a paper or taking a class, I'm just a general reader looking for a good book or two, hopefully well-written and delightful to read.
posted by exphysicist345 to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Lady of No Man's Land by Jeanne Williams. It's the story of a young European immigrant woman who sets herself up as a travelling seamstress near Dodge City in the 1880's. I read it as a Reader's Digest selection years ago and enjoyed it. It's kind of a 'girl power' book with a little mild romantic angst, so it might not be your cup of tea.
posted by TooFewShoes at 7:25 PM on November 14, 2010

Lonesome Dove fits the bill and is definitely fun to read.
posted by emd3737 at 7:28 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Slightly outside of your timeframe, but I think what you are looking for: Big Trouble From the amazon review: "The story begins with the 1905 assassination of Frank Steunenberg, an ex- governor of Idaho. His murder was rumored to be the work of vengeful labor bosses"
posted by shothotbot at 7:30 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

In Ox Team Days on the Oregon Trail, Ezra Meeker bounces around quite a bit in the latter-half of the 19th century. The book is entertaining enough that even if it's not exactly constricted to the dates you mentioned, I wanted to recommend it. (Plus hey you can read it online for free)

There's a sort of post-pioneer nostalgia thing that was already starting to happen, and it's really fun to read about it. Meeker did a reverse pioneer trek and it caused lots of hubbub.
posted by circular at 7:32 PM on November 14, 2010

I don't for sure if this book hits your 20 year window, but I think it does (alas, the Amazon reviews didn't pinpoint the time frame either). So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger. I'm ambivalent about Westerns, but I like interesting characters and good writing. This has both. Plus, it's on sale for super-cheap right now!

For a more historically focused book, there's Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. I'm in the middle of it, and it's pretty engaging. A handful of reviews at Amazon question some of Gwynne's facts, however.
posted by smirkette at 7:33 PM on November 14, 2010

slightly prior to your your time frame:
The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie

For kids, but still pretty good if you're never read it:
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

A little after your time frame:
My Antonía by Willa Cather
posted by emd3737 at 7:38 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Predates your time frame a little, but Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey (ed. Lillian Schlissel) is fascinating.

And I emphatically, furiously second the Laura Ingalls Wilder suggestion. The Little House books are packed with vivid detail. (Please do not confuse them with the crap TV 1970s show.)
posted by scratch at 7:47 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might also enjoy Frank Norris's McTeague, which is set in late 19th-century San Francisco and, as befits a naturalist classic, is also full of slice-of-life detail.
posted by scratch at 7:50 PM on November 14, 2010

I've just finished Rebirth of a Nation, which is a broader cultural history of the United States in the Gilded Age, but it goes into a lot of detail about the way Americans at the time thought about "expansion" in the West in terms of their own ideas about personal renewal and revival. It's cracking.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:52 PM on November 14, 2010

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger and True Grit by Charles Portis were two I really enjoyed, both were made into good movies, too.
posted by rfs at 7:56 PM on November 14, 2010

I really enjoyed Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage. It was written by a woman whose husband, a week after their marriage in 1877, was offered a job by the Union Pacific Railroad Company to explore and publicize the West. He didn't accept the job until they agreed to let her come along, and together they eventually covered "nearly every highway of the country between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean and from the British lands to Mexico." It's a good read.
posted by Balonious Assault at 8:06 PM on November 14, 2010

Seconding Lonesome Dove. It's a great read.
posted by Mavri at 8:12 PM on November 14, 2010

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the 2nd Opening of the American West, by Wallace Stegner. It is a scholarly but readable book that chronicles both Powell's trip down the Colorado, but also his subsequent role as an architect of US land use policy of the western states.
posted by TDIpod at 8:18 PM on November 14, 2010

Mark Twain's Roughing It. I'm reading it right now and it is awesome and hilarious.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 8:18 PM on November 14, 2010

Little House on the Prairie: Yes! I first read it as an adult and loved it. The series made it clear how different life was in those times in the West. That's what I'm aiming for, a view of life then and there.
posted by exphysicist345 at 8:20 PM on November 14, 2010

Oh, also from those decades, and more readable for pure pleasure, is Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, by Clarence King (1872). A rival of Powell's, you can read the whole book here. An excerpt from his ascent of Mt. Merced:

About seven feet across the open head of a cul-de-sac (a mere recess in the west face) was a vertical crack riven into the granite not more than three feet wide, but as much as eight feet deep; in it were wedged a few loose bowlders; below, it opened out into space. At the head of this crack a rough crevice led up to the summit.

Summoning nerve, I knew I could make the leap, but the life and death question was whether the débris would give way under my weight, and leave me struggling in the smooth recess, sure to fall and be dashed to atoms.

Two years we had longed to climb that peak, and now, within a few yards of the summit, no weak-heartedness could stop us. I thought, should the débris give way, by a very quick turn and powerful spring I could regain our rock in safety.

There was no discussion, but, planting my foot on the brink, I sprang, my side brushing the rough, projecting crag. While in the air I looked down, and a picture stamped itself on my brain never to be forgotten. The débris crumbled and moved. I clutched both sides of the cleft, relieving all possible weight from my feet. The rocks wedged themselves again, and I was safe.

posted by TDIpod at 8:28 PM on November 14, 2010

I just finished Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne and it was excellent. It gave me a whole new perspective on native americans in the west during that period.

I'm currently reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Tough read but incredibly rewarding. I recommend reading it after Empire of the Summer Moon - even more rewarding when you know the historical backdrop and can recognize the research that went into writing the novel.
posted by smokingmonkey at 8:39 PM on November 14, 2010

It's not exactly what you've requested, but I really loved The Meadow by James Galvin. I read it and then went to the places described, but it would have been a delightful read even without the extratextual experience.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 8:47 PM on November 14, 2010

My partner and dad both had a lot of fun with this book, The Trail Drivers of Texas, and it sounds like it might be the kind of thing you are looking for.
posted by Ginkgo at 8:59 PM on November 14, 2010

Holy SHIT you have to read Lonesome Dove.

A couple months ago I was on a camping trip on Mt. Ranier and I fell into a ravine and broke my femur in ~four places. It was a bad break, I could barely even drag it behind me to crawl. The doctor would later describe it as looking like a candy cane that had the top twisted off while it was still in the package, just a bag of splinters. It was dark, around 11pm. My friends had to hike back to get help in the middle of the night, about six miles before phones started working again. I ended up having to lie on my belly in the dark, in a dry riverbed, on Mt. Ranier, blowing spiders away from my mouth and listening to god knows what rumbling around in the woods with a totally destructed left leg for about six or seven hours before rangers got there with an ATV and started dragging me out as the sun came up.

BUT, I was about halfway through the copy of Lonesome Dove on my Kindle and it was so engrossing I didn't even think too much about my leg. I'm lying there, my friend is about to leave to get help and he's like "do you need anything? a hat or something? Keep yourself comfortable?" So I said "Uhhh...can you grab my Kindle? Its on the floor in my tent. I really have to find out what's up with Gus and the boys." I was convinced it was just a little broken and that after a cast and a few weeks on crutches I'd be fine (four surgeries and as many months later I'm still on a cane.).

I finished it when I was still bedridden. Now, maybe it was partly just coming off my heavy opiate regimen, but at some point, I got a little foggy in the eyes reading this book, something that hasn't happened to me since I read freaking Bridge to Terabithia when I was 9.

Anyway, yeah, Lonesome Dove. It's good.
posted by jeb at 10:04 PM on November 14, 2010 [10 favorites]

Heather Cox Richardson's West of Appomattox is nonfiction, but is biography-driven, so you may find it fun.
posted by liketitanic at 10:51 PM on November 14, 2010

Wider in focus than you might be interested in, but very good: A Shovel of Stars by Ted Morgan
posted by KingEdRa at 1:03 AM on November 15, 2010

I literally (literally!) just finished You Can't Win by Jack Black. He gives you an entirely fresh perspective on the wild west. Plenty of lawlessness, no cowboys.
posted by klarck at 1:34 AM on November 15, 2010

Owen Wister's book, The Virginian, takes place in the 1890s and is often referred to as the first cowboy novel. Even as someone who is not a big fan of the Western, I found it unexpectedly charming and a great deal of fun to read.
posted by sciencegeek at 4:22 AM on November 15, 2010

Many of the recommendations in this thread might fit your needs for fiction. Beyond those recommendations, which have been uniformly good, there's also Butcher's Crossing and Warlock, around which I framed the question.

Warlock, in particular, was so enjoyable, it's become one of those books that I buy whenever I come across a cheap used copy, so that I may press it into the hands of the deserving.
posted by .kobayashi. at 5:07 AM on November 15, 2010

If you want to read what might just be the most disturbing account of the violence in the West you should check out Blood Meridian: Or, the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy. It's thrilling stuff. I thought I was immune to violence, but this book made me realize that wasn't the case.
posted by ghostpony at 7:16 AM on November 15, 2010

Thanks to everyone for all the suggestions. jeb, yours is the most impassioned book recommendation ever!
posted by exphysicist345 at 12:15 PM on November 15, 2010

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