Great American Hope as the tool of devastation. This pocket-sized book (my copy) is dusty and dirty, a very sad American story from page one, wherein Loyal Blood kills his girlfriend, buries her in a cave and heads west. Poor girlfriend. Loyal runs from her death the rest of his life (and the novel), as Proulx earns her place here on the top of this list. She knows wild places, both inside and outside the human soul. She is the Queen of the American West, in my humble opinion, and this is my very favorite book of hers, her first novel, so there’s that too. Proulx’s wild, precise, lovingly brutal prose holds this reader by the scruff, blows her mind, captivates and inspires (especially when she happens to be writing a debut novel, and a western t’boot).
John Larison$17.00 $15.64
This book sort of revived the old-fashioned Western for me, though it also includes some very contemporary twists. Westerns—Larison knows—are supposed to be exciting and gritty as characters rise above their problems (that are often huge). Check, check, check to all that here. This book, like others on this list, has a wonderful young orphaned female protagonist. Jess Harney sets out west to find her brother, now a famous outlaw. Larison’s story is rich in elegant language, suspense, brutality, danger and love, brotherly and romantic. Good guys (gals) sometimes do very bad things and bad guys (at least a few) are complex. All in all, this is just a great story. Made me slow down reading when I saw the pages running out.
C. Pam Zhang$16.00 $14.72
Two pre-teen sisters, Lucy and Sam, are orphaned and wandering the Gold Rush west, trying to survive alone together. There’s an As I Lay Dying thing going on here. The girls have to bury their Ba who dies in the first line of the book and the language is also Faulknerian—gorgeous, inventive and strange in the best way. As the girls make their way across the vast landscape, the book examines big picture concerns of America of then and now that have been left out of most westerns until very recently— racism, sexism, capitalism just getting a footing in company stores of western mining towns as well as massive systematic environmental and cultural destruction.
Leslie Marmon Silko$18.00 $16.56
If you don’t know this classic, you should. And though the main character, Tayo, is male—a WWII vet who returns to his New Mexico Pueblo ruined by modern existence and war, conventional and nuclear— I’m sticking by my pick. Silko is the supreme daredevil here, writing of Tayo’s psychic wilderness with hypnotic precision, going wherever she damn well pleases (myths, poems, witches, uranium dumps), asking the biggest possible questions fiction can ask: why is the world so messed up? How did Eden die? Can one live at all once one can see it? Silko cranks the form open to enormous scale. This is one of those scary important books that makes you think, What if I never read this?
Andrew Krivak$16.99 $15.63
I love this book for its mythic scale and fairy tale vibe. Magical and powerful, a girl (orphaned again) must use all she’s learned from her father to survive after her father’s death. A kindly bear helps out—always good to have one as a friend. I thought of The Bear as a mythic, feminist version of McCarthy’s The Road—a last man standing story, but the last man standing is a girl.
Charles Portis$16.00 $14.72
Well, this book is just one of my very, very favorites. It’s a life and death story, of course, but is also very funny, a combination I was very interested in for my own book. A father murdered, a young girl strikes out to bring his killer to justice in a world where justice is quite faulty and the reader knows it but the girl does not. I’m interested in that too. The men around Mattie Ross must rise to the occasion of her high-minded beliefs. Or not. It is a book about believing in the unbelievable and making it a little bit more real in process.
Cheryl Strayed$18.00 $16.56
A woman “lost” in her personal life (she actually changes her last name to “Strayed”) walks 1100 miles on the famous/infamous Pacific Crest Trail, from California to Oregon, mostly alone, through terrestrial as well as metaphorical wilderness. There, amid the dirt, sweat, hunger, thirst and utter exhaustion, she becomes herself: Cheryl Strayed. This book explores the natural world (and walking alone) as a healing force for the human psyche. I love Cheryl’s backpack here and her obsession with every item in it. I took note. Of course, Wild made me want to break-in new hiking boots.
Olga Tokarczuk$17.00 $15.64
This book is a murder mystery and more proof that one can write a funny book (very quirky characters here) about the most serious concerns; in this case concerns for the lives of non-human animals and the ongoing destruction of Nature. Tokarczuk’s main character enters a wilderness of her own beliefs, and acts. The book ask how can we protect (recognize, be fair to) non-human beings and entities in a world that places very little value on them— except as useful object for ourselves. A brave and surprising book.
Nathaniel Hawthorne$8.00 $7.36
Come to think of it, maybe there’d be no Ginny in Pity the Beast without Hester Prynne with that A on her breast embroidered in gold. I first read it so many years back, no telling where it resides in my mind. But the story of a women shunned for her sexual “crimes” seemed to need a revisitation. Also, I used to live in Hawthorne’s old stomping grounds in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The forest there is dark and thick and I got lost from time to time along those old stone walls. I could feel why the Puritans (Americans?) thought as they did about punishment and Hell, were so hostile toward The Woods, Wilderness and Forest Dwellers. All that too needed an update.
Claire Vaye Watkins$16.00 $14.72
One of my heroes, Nevada-centric Claire Vaye Watkins shows off her wild and environmentally-concerned mind in long form. In this mid-apocalypse novel, the American West is dried up and the Hollywood culture of fame and money has gone feral after inevitable environmental destruction. Young Luz, another kind of orphan, starts at a LA starlet’s palatial but abandoned home and ends in the driest of parched-earth deserts. Her journey takes her from helpless to (near) responsible, from baby to mother, from blind-to-all-but-self to self-knowing. The book is a dazzling thought experiment about motherhood and Motherhood toward the Earth.
Cormac McCarthy$16.95 $15.59
To me, the wolf in this book (be careful, you will be devastated) is one of the most important female characters in any American Western I’ve ever read.
Carys Davies$15.00 $13.80
Slim in profile but very big in crashing ideas, in Davies’ West extinction of ancient species juxtaposes contemporary dislocation and genocide of Indigenous people. It articulates the cost to families back home (often women) of men riding off to answer the American West’s romantic call. It explores a kind of craziness that is not recognized as such: exploring “unexplored” lands with lots of people already living there; searching for one’s identity in the West’s unfathomable wide open spaces and getting lost there in the story, the wilderness of one’s own ideas.
Robin McLean$25.95 $23.87