The Western Canon, or Books Erin Thinks that Everyone Should Read

An old friend emailed recently, asking for possible book suggestions for his daughter. I’m generally hesitant to recommend children’s or young-adult books for several reasons, chief among them being that we don’t have children except for Smelly and Bee and they cannot read, and secondly, I was not a normal child reader. Teachers were forever confiscating books, and it was a rare day that any of those jailed tomes was appropriate for my reading age. The resulting email between us, however, got me to thinking about books that I would recommend.

See, if I could have a different life for a day, it would be to teach a class entitled “Literature of the American West.” True, its subtitle would be “Books and Essays and Short Stories and Histories That Erin Wholeheartedly Loved,” but as I’m the professor in this particular daydream, I get to teach what I want. So here you are, a hot list of novels, a biography, a collection of essays, and a whole lot of short-story collections that I’ve loved over the years.

  • Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. And while you’re reading Stegner, pick up Crossing to Safety and Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West are excellent as well.
  • This House of Sky by Ivan Doig. He also has a lovely Montana trilogy that starts with Dancing at the Rascal Fair. That and English Creek are excellent, although the third loses some steam. The Sea Runners is quite good though as well.
  • Plainsong by Kent Haruf. I like this book because it makes me think of my grandfather, but also because of its sparse, clean writing.
  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Where would we be without Larry McMurtry. Everyone in my book club loved this. His early work–Leaving Cheyenne and Last Picture Show are well worth the read, too.
  • Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories and and Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories. I’m high annoyed that she had the temerity to name a story “Tit’s Up in a Ditch” and I never got there first. The first book contains “Brokeback Mountain,” and I still think she got love right in a way that few writers ever do. Be forewarned that most people I’ve tried giving Close Range to as their Christmas or birthday gift have found it depressing. I never have.
  • Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces. If only my thoughts ran this deep and lyrical.
  • Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg
  • Claire Vaye Watkins has a collection of short stories called Battleborn–good stuff.
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson–This was her first book, and it was so amazing that she was put on staff at the University of Iowa. I don’t know if I can technically call is Western literature, but I’m hijacking it because this story takes place in Montana. She then went on to write Gilead, which is one of my favorite books ever. She is a masterful writer. I cannot say enough amazing things about her.
  • Cormac McCarthy–You probably know him from All the Pretty Horses, but just read everything he writes. Period. Yes, some is dark and bloody and his border trilogy is long, but all of it is so good that you’ll keep coming back for more.

I read Malcolm Brooks’s novel Painted Horses over the weekend, and it’s new fiction, but quite good. And now I want to go hiking down in Wyoming. So yes there are books that I’ve missed, and I’ll have to come back periodically to update this list. It’s also heavy on stuff that I like, not necessarily what anyone else would. But if it gives you some inkling to read what you have not yet tried and to expand the stacks at your public library, then I’m happy. In the meantime, I’m off to try and foist depressing short stories on some unsuspectingly cheerful soul.

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