A couple weeks back I decided I was going on a “Westerns” binge — reading everything I could find from my shelves and a trip to the library that fits a very loose definition of the Western. Cowboys, unscrupulous ranch owners, and the images of settler women on a vast plain on one side of the aisle, and Native American consciousness, folklore, and generational drama on the other. I decided that Civil War stories should be included, too.

The Last Kind Words Saloon

Larry McMurtry

“Comically subversive,” the words Joyce Carol Oates used in a review of The Last Kind Words Saloon, has it right. This was enjoyable and made me laugh out loud several times. The friendship between Wyatt and Doc is rich and lovely, and more space is given to the women’s voices than in your typical Western. McMurtry says in the beginning of the book that the “characters are afloat in time; their legends and their lives in history rarely match,” and that he has chosen to go with legend instead of truth. This holds true through most of the book; McMurtry plays with the tropes and ideas of the West even while acknowledging that the West is coming to the end of its time. And yet, on the other hand, the stories are more real (and at times more anticlimactic or anti-dramatic) than a legend would be. It’s like he sat down with a big collage of well-known stories and said “okay, what if these were real people instead of story people?” and then infused them with what he could imagine would be their unique foibles. It’s like he’s taken two steps from real history to story to his own reality. It’s not about accuracy to history, it’s about creating a world where the reader can see herself jumping right on into the scene.


The Good Lord Bird

James McBride

We don’t really read picaresque novels anymore. Most of us suffer through Huck Finn and that’s it (although you could argue that the first half of To Kill a Mockingbird fits the bill, too). Picaresque is a term of structure: a novel consisting of several small incidents strung together, usually run by a troublemaker or maverick character who has adventures and travels around. It also implies a certain style, a “folk” consciousness, and a comic informality. No heavy consequences seem to be levied, even though some of the episodes may end in death and destruction. It’s not a very contemporary form.

So I guess it’s not surprising that I kept waiting for this story to “go somewhere” — the weakness of the picaresque form is that the story keeps moving on to the next mini-narrative instead of really gaining momentum and making a big show. I’m not used to it at all. I think I probably could have put up with it for 250 pages, but not for over 400. Just got tired of reading and stopped.

The story is about John Brown’s militia going on raids in the late 1850s in Kansas and Missouri. As a fictional look at John Brown, it’s very interesting how his character is drawn. The strength of the book is in the main character, Onion / Henrietta / Henry, who is a young black boy disguised as a girl (because John Brown thinks he’s a girl). Onion has to navigate the restrictions of gender and the dangers of his race, all while getting swept up in a cause that he’s rather ambivalent about. He’s not one for social revolution; in Onion’s view, slavery was a lot easier to deal with and he never got hungry. Maybe I’ll consider finishing the second half of the book after I’ve gotten to dig in to a few more.

News of the World

Paulette Jiles

I’m just starting this one, and I’m in love so far. Captain Kidd is two things at once: the grizzled thrice-over veteran who lives on the outskirts of society, who wanders without a home, AND a highly educated, superflously literate man whose vocabulary and way of thinking drift over into Jiles’s writing style. It’s a quest story, like many adventure tales, this time with the task of returning a young girl who had been captured by the Kiowa tribe to her aunt and uncle in San Antonio. I’m so entranced by the hazy beauty of memory that surrounds Kidd as he looks back on his long life and on to his next adventure. I can’t wait to keep reading.


What are your favorite Westerns? Got any recommendations for me?


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