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Three thousand books lined the walls of my childhood home; among them the entire works of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, along with a myriad other titles by authors the likes of Alexander Dumas, Karl May, Theodore Roosevelt, and Shakespeare. Lever-action rifles stood in corners, holstered Peacemakers hung from pegs, and not a TV was to be found. My leisure time was spent either gallivanting a’horseback through the Rocky Mountains surrounding my home, or buried in a book. My favorites were mostly westerns, and a few of those stood above the rest. Below is a list, in no particular order.
But first, an author’s note:
Louis L’Amour was arguably the finest western novelist ever. He walked the walk and talked the talk, from dusty cattle plains to high-up mountains to seaside wharves to mining for ore to fighting in the ring. He had an extraordinary way with words, spun yarns that call to the wildness in us all, and had impeccable taste for accuracy in location, firearms, and details described within his narratives. You’ll find several of his titles in this list.
Zane Grey stands a close second on the list of best-ever western authors. He pre-dates L.L. by a small margin, writing most of his novels during the early 1900s. He also walked the walk, spending much of his time in the incredibly rough country along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona, hunting bear and lion with his favorite lever-action Winchester ‘95. He was less pragmatic and more romantic than Louis L’Amour, and his novels embody the indomitable spirit of the early West. Several of his books made this list as well.
Keep in mind that political correctness hadn’t even been invented a century ago when many of these books were written. Zane Grey in particular has a way of using local vernacular in his books. Don’t be offended–it’s simply the way things were at the time.
First published in 1902, The Virginian: A Horseman Of The Plains is considered to be the first western novel. In my opinion it’s also one of the finest. Telling a fairly realistic tale of ranching, adventure, love, hatred, and humor, the narrative follows a tenderfoot from the East and his salty cowboy mentor (the Virginian) through the adventures of ranch life in early Wyoming. Several movies—including an early Gary Cooper film—as well as a TV series have attempted, with limited success, to capture the mood inspired by the read. A word of caution: if you read this book be prepared to acquire cowboy hat, boots, and gun belt, swing your leg over the nearest horse, and point his ears toward Wyoming.
This tale set in early California begins as a young boy and his father travel into his mother’s land of the Californios, and follows the boy into manhood. Woven through with threads of adventure, mystical encounters with “The Old Ones,” and life, battle, survival, and death in the desert, this book will leave you feeling like you lost something you never knew existed, yet still emerged victorious.
This tale is a magnificent description of the wild lawlessness, beauty, and deadly nature of cattle ranching in the early West. Cattle rustlers, gunfighters, renegade outlaws, romance… Who could ask for more?
Hedges unvarnished prose is extraordinarily true to buckaroo life. In fact, upon completion the reader might have trouble convincing himself that Last Buckaroo is not a true story. The tale follows a young, would-be cowboy and his old, whisky-sodden buckaroo mentor through the rocky hills, tough broncs, and bad winters of the cattle trade. The book ends in good fashion, leaving the reader wishing that he or she were one of the Last Buckaroo’s.
This was the first big book I ever read, at the mature age of seven. Bendigo Shafter tells a tale of a wagon train forced by inclement Wyoming weather to stop and make a winter stand. A boy faces adversity, becomes a man, and builds a town. I’ve read it many times, and each time it’s left me a better man.
This series is geared toward young readers, but even you tough blisters and old fogies alike will find it gripping and entertaining. It’s an autobiography or sorts about Moody’s own childhood and youth, a gripping account of love, hardship, survival, and tenacity. If you find horses, cattle, and cowboying exciting, these wild, true-to-life stories will hold you hostage until the end.
While on the subject of youth books, I would be remiss to overlook Wilder’s incredible tales of her own childhood and youth in the wilds of 19th century Midwest. Her stories have held children enthralled for decades, and will continue to do so as long as kids posses a taste for adventure, outdoors, and nature. Wilder somehow weaves her tales of marauding Indians, aggressive wolves, bad winters, and stormy summers into a narrative of incredible hardship and adventure that every reader wishes they could be absorbed into. Young or old, if you haven’t read the Little House Books, you must.
This unusual tale renders a reasonably accurate portrayal of the famous but short buffalo hunting period of the Old West. It was a time of bloodshed, fast wealth, and death. A young buffalo hunter and a girl weave a story through the vast but diminishing herds of buffalo, struggling to survive Comanche attacks, thieves, stampeding herds, and evil. It’s a tale of heart, indomitable spirit, and romance.
There are three books to this story, and if ever a set of novels depicted toughness and courage in the face of extreme odds, it’s this one. Richmond Hobson put his memoirs into book form so gripping that you’ll have a tough time turning out the light at bedtime. Early 1930s found Rich and his buddy traveling north into British Columbia in search of the last great-untamed grasslands. They found them, and established one of the largest ranches in history. This gritty, humorous narrative brings the reader face-to-face with bad weather, bears, moose, natives, cold, storms, horses, raging ice-covered river crossings, and more. The three titles are Grass Beyond the Mountains, Nothing Too Good For A Cowboy, and The Rancher Takes A Wife.
One of the most famous stories of the Old West, a boy and his dog struggle to look after his family and livestock while his father is driving cattle North to the rails. Set in antebellum Texas, the novel was written in 1956 and nominated to receive the Newbury Medal. The story was such a success that a movie was made in 1957, becoming one of the most iconic children’s movies of all time. Gipson followed Old Yeller with the sequels Savage Sam and Little Arliss, both fantastic reads. If you consider yourself a red-blooded American and haven’t read Old Yeller, you’ve got homework.
Jubal Sackett is set in the pre-fur trade era in America, fraught with suspense and permeated with history. Jubal is the fourth book in L’Amour’s Sackett series, wherein L’Amour details much of American history chronologically, from Pre-Colonial to Wild West. The Sackett series includes some of Louis L’Amour’s finest works.
The recollections of Mack Hughes, compiled by his daughter Stella, comprise an extraordinary account of cattle ranching in Arizona during the early 1900s. Hughes went to work for one of the largest outfits in Arizona at the age of 12, and lived the wild life of a reckless cowboy to the fullest. It’s a true account of courage, wildness, and skill that most men of today can only dream of. Told by a real cowboy with a gift for telling real stories.
An extraordinary tale set in an extraordinary landscape near the Four Corners region, this story pre-dates the “American West” by a considerable margin. Depicting the life-and-death struggle of a small band of natives, hunted toward extermination by a more powerful tribe. This novel is gripping, emotionally inspiring, dramatic, and wise. A must-read.
This book is one of many hilarious, information-packed, heart-felt short-story books by Green. Ben was a Texas cowboy in the truest sense, and his love for horses and cattle is genuine. Set in the turbulent years of the early 1900s, Green was training horses, trading cattle, and running his own ranch by age 16. He went on to work as a Mustanger south of the border, bringing horses home to sell as cavalry remounts. Finally settling down as a veterinarian in West Texas, he lived life to its fullest. Thankfully, he put pen to paper and recorded most of his adventures.
Set in the modern-day (sort of) Southwest, Haunted Mesa is a chilling adventure about a post-Anasazi second dimension storied and feared by local natives. L’Amour’s surpassing ability to draw his reader into the narrative makes this tale of the desert, evil assassins, a paranormal investigator seeking the truth, and a beautiful girl who leaves sunflowers in strange places an extraordinary read.
Awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this 1985 novel tells a riveting tale of Texas border cattlemen taking their herds and driving them north to Montana. Brutal and descriptive, it’s also romantic and enthralling. A masterful mini-series was filmed in 1989 starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, leaving every man wishing he were Gus (Duvall) and every woman in love with Captain Woodrow F Call (Jones). It’s worth reading—and watching.
Any list of truly good Westerns would be incomplete without one of Will James’ stories. A true cowboy, he was gifted with the ability to tell it like it really was. As a side note, James also drew the illustrations in his books – rendered in pencil and as true to life as the works of Fredric Remington. In Smoky he tells the story of a horse born on the range, broken to ride, and trained into one of the finest cow-horses on the range. Then he gets stolen and ends up pulling a delivery wagon in a city. The story is told from the horse’s perspective, and I’ll leave it to the reader to find out how it ends.
If there is such thing as a chick-flick in a book, this is it. That much said, Drummond has a way with words, and I enjoyed every page. It’s the true contemporary story of a city girl who falls in love with an Oklahoma rancher. Fun, dramatic, and romantic, it’ll make every woman want a Marlboro Man of her own, and every man wish that he were a cowboy. And if further credentials are needed, it’s a New York Times Bestseller.
Set in Texas cattle country, this novel depicts the struggle between ranching and the inexorable creep of agriculture-destroying progress. Kelton’s dry, almost bitter realism tosses out any notion of romantic, all’s-well-that-ends-well attitude, forcing his reader to face cold hard facts of life along with his characters. The Man Who Rode Midnight is one of Kelton’s finest.