What are the best novels about the American West in the late 1800s?
June 24, 2016 12:48 PM   Subscribe

My knowledge of books is sadly lacking on this question. I'm currently reading Twain's Roughing It and want more, preferably written in the last fifty years. Books about Oregon in full or in part are even better.

posted by angrycat to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I did not personally care for One Thousand White Women, but it was highly recommended to me by someone whose taste I generally respect, so YMMV.
posted by milk white peacock at 12:59 PM on June 24, 2016

Nothing beats Angle of Repose. Except maybe Lonesome Dove.

I don't even like Westerns, as a general rule, and both of those books had me spellbound and recommending them to everyone I know.
posted by something something at 1:12 PM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

"The Big Sky" by A.B. Guthrie, Jr. (written in 1947). He wrote a series of six novels about the Oregon Trail and the development of Montana, but this is generally considered the best of the series, although I'm also very fond of "The Way West."

I'd also give a thumbs down to "One Thousand White Women."

If you're looking for history rather than novels, "Astoria" by Peter Stark in fabulous. I read a lot of non-fiction, and would rarely use that word, but I started reading this and almost immediately began reading large chunks of it out loud to Mr. K because, well ... it's fabulous.

One of the go-to authors for Western history is Francis Parkman, Jr. His "The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life" is a genuine classic. He died in 1893, though, so doesn't fit your preferred time frame. Still, it's a classic.

What a good time you have ahead of you!
posted by kestralwing at 1:14 PM on June 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Willa Cather
The Little House series
Little Big Man
True Grit
Lonesome Dove
Blood Meridian
The Sisters Brothers
posted by Ideefixe at 1:32 PM on June 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

--The "classic" book you might be looking for is Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, which covers the late 1800s all over the west.
--A.B. Guthrie's wonderful western series, although it starts out in the 1830s, goes through the late 1880s. The first one is The Big Sky. My favorite is These Thousand Hills.
--The Sea of Grass, by Conrad Richter, is on the surface a book about the so called "Western Myth" but is actually about the end of the myth.
--Ivan Doig has an entire series that starts out in Montana in the late 1800s and ends in present day Montana which is just terrific. The first one is Dancing at the Rascal Fair. He also writes about the Pacific NW in the 1800s in his book The Sea Runners.
--Mari Sandoz has a great bibliography covering the time you mention, her best being Old Jules but all of her books are good.
--WILLA CATHER. WILLA CATHER. WILLA CATHER. O Pioneers is her most famous but they're all BEAUTIFUL.
--If you haven't read Laura Ingalls Wilder, now's the time. Remember the definition of "the west" flexed over time, and I would say her novels definitely cover the late 1800s in the west as that definition was in flux (almost from the midwest being the west to not any more). If you had to pick just one, The Long Winter - about the horrible winter of 1880 - would be the best for capturing what you're looking for (and that would be only 4 years after the Sioux defeated Custer in Montana). (I'm from "the west" and tales from that winter are still passed down in my family's history).
--Helen Hunt Jackson wrote a few things around that time, including Ramona, a novel, and a Century of Dishonor about gov't treatment of Native Americans.

These are not novels, but they're wonderful and read like novels:

A Lady's Experiences in the Wild West, 1883, by Rose Pender
Black Elk Speaks (the experiences of Black Elk, a Lakota, from 1863-1950)
The Arid Lands, by John Wesley Powell, about water in the west, and its companion book by Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian
The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hamalainen

These 2 aren't novels and aren't in the timeframe, but they do a wonderful job of setting it up historically: War of a Thousand Deserts (background and setting for the US-Mexican war, involving the Comanche) and West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776.

(on preview: gosh darnit kestralwing, well, seconding then)
posted by barchan at 1:36 PM on June 24, 2016 [7 favorites]

Butcher's Crossing by John Williams is a little outside your time frame (written in 1960) but so so so good, and even better if you don't read the blurb at Amazon or on the back cover that for some reason give the whole plot away.
posted by jabes at 1:40 PM on June 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Nthing the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, of course. If you want to delve more into Dakota juiciness and the Homestead Act of 1862, try Rose Wilder Lane's Free Land * and the classic Land of the Burnt Thigh by Edith Eudora Kohl.

* I love this book, but like "Roughing It" it may be a bit dense for people's taste, especially if you're not a LIW lover.
posted by Melismata at 2:15 PM on June 24, 2016

Nthing Willa Cather and Wallace Stegner. I also love The Living by Annie Dillard. It's set in the Pacific Northwest, but in Washington, not Oregon.
posted by Redstart at 2:29 PM on June 24, 2016


It is regarded as a good pastiche of Colorado history.
posted by nickggully at 2:37 PM on June 24, 2016

It's set during WWI, but I really liked The Hearts of Horses and it takes place in Oregon.
posted by TwoStride at 4:39 PM on June 24, 2016

I think you want Honey in the Horn. Won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935, depitcs the frontier era in Oregon. Technically I think it's set in 1902, but in every other respect it covers all your bases --- sheriffs, wagon trains, railroads, Native Americans. Fascinating, unusual perspective on the types of personalities drawn to the West. Give me a PM if you read it --- not too many people do these days, and it's one I found myself mulling over for some time after I'd finished.
posted by Diablevert at 5:32 PM on June 24, 2016

"The Big Sky" by A.B. Guthrie, Jr. (written in 1947). He wrote a series of six novels about the Oregon Trail and the development of Montana, but this is generally considered the best of the series, although I'm also very fond of "The Way West."

I would strongly second this suggestion.

I just reread Lonesome Dove, and while it is a fun book, I think it is more about the characters than it is the time, if that makes sense. Still, it's worth reading if you haven't already.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:28 PM on June 24, 2016

We had to read Trask in school. Is it great? Not to a 13 year old girl. Is it set in Oregon? Boy howdy is it. There's stuff named after the dude, apparently.
posted by fiercekitten at 7:30 PM on June 24, 2016

Mr K, a huge fan of Western history, and asks me to add Bernard DeVoto, especially "1846 Year of Decision." The absolute gold standard of historical accuracy and interesting writing.

I bow to no one in my love of the Little House books, but they never got any further west than the Dakotas. I reread them recently and kept saying to myself, "Stop suffering, Pa! Just keep going a little further and you'll get to Oregon. And then Ma and the girls won't have to work so durn hard all the time!"

Also, "Black Elk Speaks" is an interesting book, but has been proved a fraud, written by a white man with little direct knowledge of Native Americans. But if you call it a novel instead it's just fine.
Which is also almost true of Annie Dillard's "The Living." I live where she set that book, and she is so wrong so often, but again -- if you're not looking for accuracy.... Lots of people love her writing.

BTW, I love questions that have answers full of the names of books I haven't read. Thanks!
posted by kestralwing at 10:19 PM on June 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Molly Gloss! Specifically Jump-Off Creek, which is set in Oregon in the 1890s. If you don't mind some elements of fantasy in your literary fiction, Wild Life is outstanding as well.
posted by yarntheory at 7:01 PM on June 25, 2016

posted by angrycat at 9:31 AM on June 27, 2016

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