In search of a good western book
Ever since I randomly found the book The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig at the Half Price Books closest to my Minnesota hometown, I’ve been on a casual quest to find another “western” book that’s as satisfying.
I read The Whistling Season when I was probably 14 or 15. I considered reading Doig’s other books, but the descriptions (at least of the ones stocked in Half Price Books!) never appealed to me. Soon after, I read The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss, another Half Price Books find. It’s a terrible title, but an amazing book.
These two books ending up defining the kind of western book I like reading. Those characteristics are:
- Has animals – probably horses, but could be sheep or just regular interactions with wildlife. The animals are notably not pets but a key means of transportation, food, and/or livelihood
- Takes place in the West, but this is broad – really, just not the East Coast
- Has descriptions of farm tasks or chores of some sort, ideally repetitive and frustrating
- Nomadism or some kind of traveling.
- Descriptions of the land
- Coming of age story is a nice to have, but not a requirement
- Some involvement with Native Americans, either central or peripheral, that calls the whole American western settlement scheme into moral question
- (nice to have) Includes romance or love story, but it must not be central. Ideally, it’s not conclusive.
When I was in high school, I discovered the Minnesota author Leif Enger. I read Peace Like a River, and soon after, So Brave, Young, and Handsome (very soon after it came out – I still have the hardcover book). I liked those a lot at the time for their lyricism, descriptions of the Midwest and West, and compelling characters. I haven’t reread these books, though – I’d be interested to see if I still like the books that were so compelling to me as a teenager. Maybe some day.
Other western or western-adjacent books I’ve liked over the years include O Pioneers and My Antonia (both by Willa Cather), and All the Pretty Horses (Cormac McCarthy). However, after a good run of Western books in high school, I ran into a bunch of duds.
First up, The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich. I picked up The Solace of Open Spaces after Anne Helen Petersen posted about buying the book. It’s a nonfiction collection of essays written by a Californian who decamped to Wyoming to film a documentary in the 1970s and ended up staying for years. This sounded like the ideal book to me. I was looking forward to reading about descriptions of wide-open spaces and technical details about ranching life intertwined with snippets about related area history. To some extent, I got all of these things. Despite that, I really disliked this book for a few particular reasons. First, Ehrlich used completely overwrought metaphors to describe the feelings she was going through. But, since she didn’t talk in concrete terms about what was actually going on in her life, the metaphors were practically meaningless, not to mention overly flowery. Ehrlich also makes cloying attempt to portray herself as a local, as a friend of locals, and as someone who successfully assimilated – yet still is better than and above the actual locals. She also makes a lot of sweeping generalizations about the people of Wyoming overall, giving the impression that she only cares about the people around her to the extent she can use them as fodder for her essays.
After this disheartening experience, I took a long break from western books. I finally went back to Ivan Doig. I really enjoyed his biography, This House of Sky. I also read more of his fiction: Dancing at the Rascal Fair and Bucking the Sun. While I liked aspects of these books, like their lyricism (a balance between metaphorical language and clear, concrete descriptions of the land), I found the plots to be frustratingly melodramatic.
Then I read Honey in the Horn (H.L Davis), after reading Le Guin’s review of it in her essay collection Words Are My Matter. I checked it out from the library, and the book I borrowed was actually a first edition from 1935 in pretty great condition. It was a thoroughly satisfying book that I know I’ll want to reread again, though the title really does mystify me. I read The Jump-Off Creek shortly after reading Honey in the Horn, inspired by my long love of The Hearts of Horses as well as Le Guin's statement that Gloss is the true heir of Davis. The Jumo Off Creek was a perfect book, and a perfect companion to Honey in the Horn. One of the many perfect scenes was a proposal scene that comes midway through the book. Lydia turns down her neighbor, Tim, in a way that reminded me of the first proposal between Gabriel and Bathsheba in Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. The Jump-Off Creek didn’t have the resolution of Far From the Madding Crowd, but I liked it better with ambiguity.