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?


Adventure and Resilience

“I was to have one last night in the hills: another starry one, as you will hear, but with a moist hush to the air that was like something at full draw– a breath, an arrow.” –Peace Like a River, Leif Enger

I’ve always been drawn to stories of adventure– big weather, big stories. Voyages by ship or horseback are grand. So are gunfights and swordfights and fights against fear and loneliness. I decided to start my year off by reading about what the tough do when the going gets tough.

Current Reading

Winter’s Bone
Daniel Woodrell 

This book was handed to me on Christmas Eve with the directive, “drop everything and read this.” I didn’t, but the stack of books on my nightstand suddenly seemed less entrancing, so I did pick it up the next day. What a stunning book. Ree, a 16-year-old member of a clannish and lawless Ozark family, must find her fugitive father in order to keep the house he has put up as his bond. She’s tough and sensitive at the same time– loving, determined to be on the side of righteousness, yet unafraid of the darkness that surrounds her.

Peace Like a River
Leif Enger

I first read this book over Christmas vacation of my senior year of college. It was a hard time for me. I had mono, I was struggling to finish up my fall semester papers to hand in late, I was heartsick. That year was about to get far more difficult for me. I credit this book with my return to reading for joy and love. I had been reading only for work– I needed to return to true literary elation. This book did that.

The story is one that will hook you immediately– Reuben, an 11 year old asthmatic daydreamer of a narrative, witnesses his brother commit a double murder out of a sense of nobility. Then brother Davy goes on the lam, and the loyal family (including the prodigious sister Swede, a writer of epic cowboy ballad poetry) follows him off into the West in an Airstream trailer, apparently following the will of God and the miraculous leading of their father, a school janitor who wrestles angels. It is a journey towards hope and a complicated understanding of good and evil, and towards a fateful reckoning.

Past Favorites:

The Bones of Paradise, by Jonis Agee ~ A sprawling family saga set in the sand hills of Nebraska in the years after Wounded Knee. Beautifully written, hauntingly vengeful.

The North Water, by Ian McGuire ~ Takes naturalism to a dark conclusion in a world of whaling ships and ice and murder.

To The Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey ~ Explorers in Alaska encounter danger and a world of Native myths and power. Split perspective between explorer husband and homesteading wife.

Next on My List in Adventure and Historical Fiction: 

News of the World, by Paulette Jiles
Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier
So Brave, Young, and Handsome, by Leif Enger (Separate from Peace Like a River and quite different. I think I would read anything Enger ever writes.)
The Plover, by Brian Doyle (sequel to the stunning Mink River, but this one’s about a boat.)

What are your favorite adventurous books? What do you think I should read next?