100 Must-Read Books of the American West

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Annika Barranti Klein

Staff Writer

Annika Barranti Klein likes books, obviously.   Twitter: @noirbettie

I’m not gonna lie. I considered taking a photograph of my bookshelf and posting that for my entry into this series. But it turns out that while I probably have around 100 western-themed books, that’s not the assignment and anyway most of my books are part of one series or another. So instead I have compiled a list of my favorites, supplemented with some crowd-sourcing from other Rioters, Goodreads, and my husband. I have attempted to include a diverse selection, in as many ways as I could think of.

100 Must-Read Books

Because it would take approximately forever to write a blurb for every book, I’ve arranged them by type in the hopes of being as helpful as possible. I’ve attempted to avoid repeats by author, but some books were too important to omit. On the flipside, I’m sure I’ve left out books that some readers would consider vital, often because I’d already included a book by that author or with a similar theme. If you’re looking for in-depth recommendations, may I suggest 8 Western Novels For Every Occasion?

A note about nonfiction–much of the nonfiction written about the west is fictionalized to a degree, and I’ve made little attempt to distinguish between creative and straight nonfiction, because frankly, it’s not always possible in this genre.

And finally, please note that much western fiction is simultaneously essential to the genre and, well, dreadful. It’s a genre that is possible because of racism, slavery, genocide, and sexism. I have tried to avoid the worst of the bunch here, but can’t say if I’ve fully succeeded.

Western Novels

  1. True Grit by Charles Portis
  2. Little Big Man by Thomas Berger
  3. Lonesome Dove (series) by Larry McMurtry
  4. Centennial by James Michener
  5. Scrib by David Ives
  6. Little House in the Big Woods (series) by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  7. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  8. Shane by Jack Schaefer
  9. Anything for Billy by Larry McMurtry
  10. My Antonia by Willa Cather
  11. Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
  12. Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
  13. The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
  14. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
  15. Petticoat Detective (series) by Margaret Brownley
  16. The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout
  17. The Lone Star Ranger by Zane Grey
  18. The Searchers by Alan LeMay
  19. Destry Rides Again by Max Brand
  20. Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter
  21. Cimarron by Edna Ferber
  22. Hidden Fires by Sandra Brown
  23. Destiny’s Embrace by Beverly Jenkins
  24. Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi
  25. Journal of the Gun Years by Richard Matheson
  26. Backwards to Oregon by Jae
  27. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
  28. The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie, Jr
  29. Hopalong Cassidy (series) by Clarence E. Mulford
  30. Follow The Free Wind by Leigh Brackett
  31. Sweet Carolina (The Heroines of the Golden West series) by Stephen Bly
  32. A Mule For The Marquesa (aka The Professionals) by Frank O’Rourke
  33. The Outlaw Josey Wales by Forrest Carter
  34. The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

Nonfiction Books About the West

  1. The West That Was by John Eggen
  2. Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lessy
  3. How The West Was Worn: Bustles and Buckskins on the Wild Frontiers by Chris Enss
  4. How The West Was Worn: a History of Western Wear by Holly George-Warren & Michelle Freedman
  5. The Look of the Old West by William Foster-Harris
  6. The Wild West on 5 Bits a Day by Joan Tapper
  7. The Cowboy at Work by Fay E. Ward
  8. Italians of the Gold Country by Carolyn Fregulia
  9. Westering Women and the Frontier Experience 1800-1915 by Sandra L. Myres
  10. Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier by Joanna L. Stratton
  11. Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel
  12. The Old West Time-Life series
  13. Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder, ed. Pamela Smith Hill
  14. An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (The Lamar Series in Western History) by Benjamin Madley
  15. Age of the Gunfighter by Joseph G. Rosa
  16. On Gold Mountain by Lisa See
  17. Give Your Heart to the Hawks: A Tribute to the Mountain Men by Winfred Blevins
  18. The Mississippi Chinese: Between black and white by James W. Loewen
  19. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
  20. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
  21. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen
  22. The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick” by Nat Love
  23. The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder ed. William Anderson
  24. Around Tombstone: Ghost Towns and Gunfights by Jane Eppinga
  25. On The Way Home by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane
  26. The Personal Narrative of James O. Pattie
  27. Geronimo: The True Story of America’s Most Ferocious Warrior by Geronimo, as taken down and edited by S.M. Barrett
  28. The American Frontier: Pioneers, Settlers & Cowboys by William C. Davis
  29. The American Frontier: Pioneers, Settlers & Cowboys ed. Colin Taylor, consultant William C. Sturtevant
  30. Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred
  31. Some Went West by Dorothy M. Johnson

Nonfiction Books About Western Movies

  1. Brokeback Mountain from Story to Screenplay by Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry, and Diana Ossana
  2. Once Upon A Time In Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone by Christopher Frayling
  3. 10,000 Ways To Die: A Director’s Take on the Spaghetti Western by Alex Cox
  4. Wanted Dead or Alive: The American West in Popular Culture by Richard Aquila

Comics and Graphic Novels

  1. Preacher by Garth Ennis
  2. Priest by Hyung Min-Woo
  3. Red Ryder: The Crackajack Funnies

Children’s Westerns (fiction and nonfiction)

  1. Cowboy Small by Lois Lenski
  2. Calico the Wonder Horse, or The Saga of Stewy Stinker by Virginia Lee Burton
  3. Off Like The Wind: the First Ride of the Pony Express
  4. Cindy Ellen: A Wild Western Cinderella by Susan Lowell
  5. Sing Down The Moon by Scott O’Dell
  6. Calavera Abecedario by Jeanette Winter
  7. Mustang, Wild Spirit Of The West by Marguerite Henry
  8. How I Became A Ghost by Tim Tingle
  9. Buffalo Bird Girl by S.D. Nelson
  10. The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
  11. Cowboy & Octopus by Jon Scieszca