Yippie kayak, other buckets! What is it about Westerns that we love? Is it the idea of wide open spaces, the allure of outlaws, the lawlessness? There are many antiheroes from the time of the Wild West, like Billy the Kid and Jesse James. People love to romanticize these times, despite the reality of the violent, harsh living. There is a lot of excitement in the unknown, in heading off into the wilderness with only the stars to guide you. That’s what makes the stories you’ll find on this list of 28 of the best Western books so exciting!
Some of these books are classics, some are contemporary, and some are a combination of genres. But all are full of adventure and action. Whether you like old-fashioned stories of sheriffs, cowboys, and cattle rustlers, or you like your Westerns a little weirder, there’s something here for everyone. (And if you like your Westerns really weird, I recommend one of my favorite books: Motherfucking Sharks by Brian Allen Carr.)
A note that like most genres, Westerns are still lacking in diversity, usually because they whitewash history. There are several great articles about this, including How Hollywood Whitewashed the Old West, Forgotten Heroes: Black Cowboys, and Why It’s Time To Retire The Whitewashed Western. Westerns have historically been disproportionately written by white authors partly because they are often racist towards people of color, especially Indigenous people. So it should be mentioned that a lot of these books, because they portray actual U.S. history, contain racism as well as negative portrayals and harm to Indigenous people, people of color, and women.
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
This is one of the best modern Western novels. It’s about two young men in the West looking to escape violence after each fighting in a war. They are also hoping to find a place to live in solitude, where they can exist as lovers without judgement. (There is a follow-up to this one, called A Thousand Moons.)
Little Big Man by Thomas Berger
The narrator of this novel is 111-year-old Jack Crabb, so you know he has seen a lot of history. Orphaned at a young age, Jack is raised by the Cheyenne people. As an adult conflicted about his identity, he encounters such historical figures such as General Custer, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok.
Dustborn by Erin Bowman
This is a post-apocalyptic/Western crossover, about a young girl named Delta of Dead River. Delta’s unusual tattoo is supposedly a map that will lead people to a paradise, which means that many dangerous people are searching the dusty lands for Delta.
The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook
Set in Texas at the end of the Civil War, The Which Way Tree follows a teen boy and his young sister on their journey of revenge. Abandoned by their father after a panther kills their mother, Benjamin’s wounded sister Samantha vows to kill the animal and leaves their home. She is so determined, all Benjamin can do is follow and hope to keep her safe.
West by Carys Davies
A young woman must run the family farm after her father abandons her to chase a rumor of giants. But being a young woman alone in the West is not a safe place to be, and Bess will have to defend her land and her life.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
Here’s an excellent Western about hired killers! Eli and Charlie Sisters have been hired to kill Hermann Kermit Warm. But their mark proves more elusive and time consuming than they expected, and one of the brothers will come to question their purpose in life.
In the Distance by Hernan Diaz
This novel was a Pulitzer Prize finalist! It’s about a young Swedish boy who travels on foot from California towards the East Coast, after he is separated from his brother. Walking across the country is difficult to do today, so you can only imagine all he will encounter in the 19th century.
The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
And this was another Pulitzer Prize finalist! It follows the historical injustices done to Native people and the unsolved murder of a family. The book has three generations of narrators who remember — or seek to learn — the stories of the past.
Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey
Who doesn’t want a book about a gang of rogue librarians? When Esther runs away to escape an arranged marriage, she winds up in the company of the Librarians, a group of outlaws who wander the American Southwest, resisting the laws of the land.
The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie
This is a classic of the American West about three men traveling from St. Louis to the Rockies, in search of their fortunes. But the harsh climate and realities of the lands will test their strength, and irreparably change them.
Most everyone is familiar with this movie starring Brad Pitt. But it started out as a great novel based in truth. Jesse James was a famous outlaw and Robert Ford was a young delinquent looking to make a name for himself. You can guess from the title what happened.
Ten Low by Stark Holborn
This is a novel that takes place in space on a desert planet, yet as someone who has read dozens of Westerns, it had such a Western feel to me. So I am including it, because it’s a great book! It has a stoic loner, a former soldier who is sought by bounty hunters and ends up embroiled in another mess when she rescues a young girl. And there are lots of gunfights and double-dealings!
Warlock by Oakley Hall
This is one of the best Western books I’ve ever read. It involves the legends and people of Tombstone, Arizona, such as the Earps. But it gives it its own spin, and now it’s the story of a gunfighter named Blaisdell who is stubborn and fearless enough (or maybe he’s not scared enough) to take on a gang terrorizing a small town.
Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins
This is a romance set in the Old West by one of the best in the romance business! Rhine Fontaine has been successfully passing as white for years. But when he rescues a young Black woman named Eddy, he begins to imagine giving it all up to be with her. If you enjoy this, there are two more in this series.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd spends his retired days traveling around Texas, reading the news to large audiences. But when he is paid to return a young girl to her relatives, he becomes involved in a journey that is both dangerous and life-changing.
The Hunger by Alma Katsu
One of the most notorious stories of the Old West is the tale of the Donner Party, a group who set out across the country for California. But when they fell on hard times and impossible conditions, they supposedly resorted to cannibalism. This horror Western retells their tale, but imagines that there’s something more sinister doing the eating…
Three-Ten to Yuma and Other Stories by Elmore Leonard
Leonard was a master of crime stories, whether they’re about cowboys, jewel thieves, or gangsters. This is a collection of action-packed Western stories, including “Three-Ten to Yuma,” which was made into a movie with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe.
Heresy by Melissa Lenhardt
In this exciting Western, a gang led by women take advantage of the sexism of society to carry out robberies. People don’t expect much from women, and they certainly don’t expect them to be outlaws, so the newspapers continue to attribute their crimes to gangs of men.
The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin
This is a Western of revenge with a supernatural bent. Ming Tsu, a Chinese American, was raised by a robber baron to be an assassin. But when Ming’s wife is kidnapped, he sets out across the country to get her back. Along the way, he joins up with a group of magical circus performers who help him in his quest.
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
This is a contemporary Western, in that it’s set in present day. But the main character is Darren Mathews, a Black Texas Ranger. The Rangers have been around since the 19th century, and Darren is a loner, a modern cowboy, who sometimes does what he thinks is right instead of what the law says he should do.
Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
This is one of the most brutal Westerns ever written. It makes McCarthy’s The Road look like a kid’s birthday party. It’s loosely based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-1800s. It’s about a teenager who falls in with a gang that includes The Judge, one of the most violent and unsettling characters in literature.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
This is an epic classic and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. It’s about two lifelong friends who embark from Texas on a cattle drive that will change their lives. This is probably the best Western book series there is, but note that while this is chronologically listed as the third in the Lonesome Dove series, it was the first book written.
Outlawed by Anna North
In this dystopian Western, women are required to marry and give birth to children as soon as they are old enough. If they cannot get pregnant, they are hung as witches. When 17 year old Ada fails to give her husband a child, she flees her town before she is sentenced to death, and falls in with a gang of other outlaws who are looking to pull off their biggest job yet.
True Grit by Charles Portis
This is widely considered to be one of the best Western books of all time, if not THE best one. It’s the story of a teenage girl who sets off with a no-good former Texas Ranger in search of the man who killed her father. It’s as funny as it is serious, as beautiful as it is gritty.
Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx
Proulx is a Pulitzer-winning novelist, and these are her superb stories of cowboys, rodeo riders, and more in the brutal, beautiful Wyoming West. This collection includes Brokeback Mountain, which was made into the Academy Award-winning movie of the same name.
Doc by Mary Doria Russell
This is a historical retelling of the story of Doc Holliday (famously portrayed by Val Kilmer in Tombstone), who became a notorious gambler and close confidant (and huckleberry) of the more famous lawman Wyatt Earp.
Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
Will Andrews is a young man caught up in the passion and language describing the American wilderness of the 1870s. So he drops out of Harvard and heads out west, where he winds up involved with a group of buffalo killers with no regards for the law or life.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang
And last, but not least, this amazing novel came out a few years ago, and received roughly 11 zillion accolades. It’s about two orphaned children of immigrants who set out into the danger wilds of the land to find a good place to bury their father.