Novels for the American Southwest
August 9, 2013 11:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm doing environmental work in Utah for the next three months. I'll have my kindle. Tell me your favorite novels about the American Southwest.

I want to read tales of everything from frontiers, uncouth horsemen, covered wagons and outlaws to modern tales of suburban ennui, road trips, and rebellious teens.

Bonus points for novels about the Native American experience that aren't Sherman Alexie. He's already loaded up.

I'm especially interested in novels that have a desert setting. Desert novels set outside of the American Southwest are alright too.
posted by Rinku to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
My favorite Barbara Kingsolver novel is Animal Dreams, which I see is available for kindle for $1.99!
posted by janey47 at 11:28 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh goodness, I forgot to include The God of War, by Marissa Silver, which is a remarkable and wonderful coming of age story set at the Salton Sea, which you may know is in the middle of the Southern California desert.
posted by janey47 at 11:31 AM on August 9, 2013

I enjoy the novels of Dan Jenkins. He's a good ole boy, so if you offend easily, you're not going to like him. But a lot of nacent feminists like Baja Oklahoma an awful lot. And Limo (not available on Kindle, sadly) was down right prescient in it's identification of Reality Television, considering it was published in 1976.

These books are also great because they are of their time. I always thought he captured the feeling of living in the Southwest in the late seventies/early eighties.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:32 AM on August 9, 2013

Child of a Rainless Year, Bless Me, Ultima.
posted by tilde at 11:32 AM on August 9, 2013

Tony Hillerman writes detective stories that take place on a reservation.
posted by CathyG at 11:33 AM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Not a novel, but a beautiful piece of ruminative nonfiction writing: Mary Austin, The Land of Little Rain. Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop is another must.
posted by yoink at 11:33 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am in the middle of Lonesome Dove right now and it is pretty terrific. It's the opposite of things I normally enjoy, too. Just excellent.

Angle of Repose also blew my mind when I finally got around to it earlier this year. One of my favorite books ever.
posted by something something at 11:33 AM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy is pretty much the definitive modern novel about the Southwest. Can't believe I'm the first to recommend it.

Warlock by Oakley Hall is a classic, literary western.

Not a novel, but "Son of the Morning Star", the biography of Custer comes very, very highly recommended.
posted by caek at 11:34 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, The Monkey Wrench Gang, of course, and The Milagro Bean Field War.
posted by Sybil Stockwell Oop at 11:34 AM on August 9, 2013 [7 favorites]

Seconding Animal Dreams. Not my personal favorite by Kingsolver, but very, very good.
posted by hungrybruno at 11:37 AM on August 9, 2013

If you're doing environmental work in Utah, you might have already read it, but if not, Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire is wonderful (albeit narrative nonfiction).
posted by stellaluna at 11:38 AM on August 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony.
posted by rtha at 11:41 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

You are definitely looking for Edward Abbey. His non-fiction/essays are great, but his classic The Monkey Wrench Gang woul be perfect for what you are looking for.

Not novels, but Terry Tempest Williams writes beautifully about the Southwest, particularly Utah. Refuge is my favorite of hers.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:45 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you'd like something more modern, try The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall.

(Udall's second novel, The Lonely Polygamist, would work too. Heck, read them both!)
posted by elsietheeel at 12:15 PM on August 9, 2013

Others have beat me to it, so n'thing Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire.
posted by dbmcd at 12:17 PM on August 9, 2013

Tony Hillerman is a classic southwest mystery writer. Several of his books focus on Navajo culture. The Thief of Time is great, even if you're not usually into mystery novels.

Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy which starts off with All The Pretty Horses.

Seconding Edward Abbey's work including Desert Solitaire and the Monkey Wrench Gang.
posted by forkisbetter at 12:23 PM on August 9, 2013

Lonesome Dove, Lonesome Dove, Lonesome Dove! I read it earlier this year and it made me cry. "Frontiers, uncouth horsemen, covered wagons and outlaws"? You better believe it buddy.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:23 PM on August 9, 2013

Came for the Abbey, stayed for the Hillerman. "Desert Solitude" is wonderful in a throwback sort of way.
posted by notsnot at 12:25 PM on August 9, 2013

Another vote for Desert Solitaire.
posted by desjardins at 1:05 PM on August 9, 2013

(Yeah, I wrote "solitude" where I meant "solitaire". I was listening to a radio-station wake. Distracted. Damn.)
posted by notsnot at 1:16 PM on August 9, 2013

Seconding Death Comes for the Archbishop.
posted by expialidocious at 1:26 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thirding Death Comes for the Archbishop and n'thing the Hillerman recommendations.
posted by msamye at 1:31 PM on August 9, 2013

First thing that popped into my mind was also Angle of Repose--so a strong second on that recommendation. Also by Wallace Stegner: Big Rock Candy Mountain as well as (non-fiction) The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail and Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West.

Quicksand and Cactus is a fascinating autobiography by a woman who grew up in Bunkerville, Nevada.

Basin & Range by John McPhee is an amazing book for people who live in that area or know it well. It covers both the geology of the region and the fascinating people who study it. The book was later collected as part of McPhee's Annals of a Former World.

Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty is a southwest classic.

You might also enjoy John Fitzgerald's The Great Brain series which is set in a small southern Utah town as well as Papa Married a Mormon - both have a lot of autobiographical elements.

Levi Peterson's The Backslider is one of my personal favorites, and definitely a very Utah-located book.

Also, I know my recommendations have gone a bit far afield of just novels, but The Roadside Geology of Utah or something similar (maybe one of these) is a very helpful adjunct to any road trips you may take in the area. One of the treats of traveling in the Southwest is you have layer after layer of geology just laid out there right in front of you as you're driving (or hiking, floating, etc). But you need some kind of a comprehensive guide to help you put it all together so that it makes sense.
posted by flug at 2:01 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thou shalt read Under the Banner of Heaven, by John Krakauer: on the surface it's a nonfiction about a murder in Utah, but it's really about the history of fundamentalist Mormonism, and really really about religion in general. I cannot overstate the depth of my appreciation of this book.
posted by Dashy at 2:08 PM on August 9, 2013

A few more you might consider--these all have a particular Utah slant:
posted by flug at 2:19 PM on August 9, 2013

If you're okay with dystopian science fiction, A Canticle For Leibowitz puts the Southwestern desert in a whole new perspective.
posted by Mchelly at 2:56 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

And . . . I see that basically none of my suggestions are available for Kindle. So here are some that are: Mountain Meadows Massacre & Emma Lee by Juanita Brooks (both nonfiction), The 19th Wife, On Deadly Ground, On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess, The Slickrock Paradox, and A Study in Scarlet by A. Conan Doyle--which has a long section set in 1847 Utah Territory.
posted by flug at 2:57 PM on August 9, 2013

It's not a novel but it reads like one (and it's FINALLY available as an ebook!): Hard Road West.

In 1848 news of the discovery of gold in California triggered an enormous wave of emigration toward the Pacific. Lured by the promise of riches, thousands of settlers left behind the forests, rain, and fertile soil of the eastern United States in favor of the rough-hewn lands of the American West. The dramatic terrain they struggled to cross is so familiar to us now that it is hard to imagine how frightening—even godforsaken—its sheer rock faces and barren deserts seemed to our forebears.

Hard Road West brings their perspective vividly to life, weaving together the epic overland journey of the covered wagon trains and the compelling story of the landscape they encountered. Taking readers along the 2,000-mile California Trail, Keith Meldahl uses the diaries and letters of the settlers themselves—as well as the countless hours he has spent following the trail—to reveal how the geology and geography of the West directly affected our nation’s westward expansion. He guides us through a corrugated landscape of sawtooth mountains, following the meager streams that served as lifelines through an arid land, all the way to California itself, where colliding tectonic plates created breathtaking scenery and planted the gold that lured travelers west in the first place.

It's hands-down one of my favorite books of the last decade. It's doesn't all take place in the Southwest, but the most dramatic parts definitely do.
posted by rtha at 3:50 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Riders of the Purple Sage, by legend Zane Grey: "Arguably Zane Grey's most popular novel and a forerunner of the western genre, Riders of the Purple Sage tells the story of a Mormon woman caught between the persecution of religious zealots and several Gentile gunmen seeking to lend her a helping hand. Set in Utah during the nineteenth century, this novel offers an early critique on the practice of polygamy and plural marriage in the Old West."

The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer: "Arguably the greatest book from America's most heroically ambitious writer, The Executioner's Song, follows the short, blighted life of Gary Gilmore who became famous after he robbed two men in 1976 and killed them in cold blood...Mailer tells not only Gilmore's story, but those of the men and women caught in the web of his life and drawn into his procession toward the firing squad. All with implacable authority, steely compassion, and a restraint that evokes the parched landscape and stern theology of Gilmore's Utah."
posted by beanie at 5:33 PM on August 9, 2013

Is the vegetation of Utah very much like that of the Arizona desert? A book I really like is Reg Manning's What Kind of Cactus Izzat? A very approachable book showing, well, the kind of cactus it iz.
posted by CathyG at 6:34 PM on August 9, 2013

As mentioned above, the Tony Hillerman books. I've read all of them, and they're great.
posted by azpenguin at 8:53 PM on August 9, 2013

Justin Cronin's excellent apocalyptic epic, The Passage, spends about half of its time in the Southwest (the sequel does as well).

Actually, come to think of it, so does Stephen King's The Stand, another great apocalyptic epic.
posted by lunasol at 10:56 PM on August 9, 2013

CathyG, as a young kid Reg Manning's books were some of my favorites. I learned so much about Arizona from them. I'm off to eBay to see if I can buy some.

I would recommend Roughing It... one of the great "heading west" travel stories ever written, and absolutely hilarious to boot.
posted by Old Man McKay at 11:02 PM on August 9, 2013

nthing Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop and would add her less-lauded The Professor's House, the second section of which deals with the Mesa Verde cave-dwellings and is sometimes treated as a standalone short story, 'Tom Outland's Story'.
posted by davemack at 3:01 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony.

Have not read it myself but a friend liked Hard Country by Michael McGarrity
posted by gudrun at 10:01 AM on August 10, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks guys! Seven hours in to my twenty hour drive to Utah. My kindle's loaded up with some awesome stuff. Great suggestions.
posted by Rinku at 12:41 PM on August 11, 2013

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