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The Old West, Circa 2015

by Bethany Latham

*This article originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of RA News.*

Since the days of the "dime novels" in the mid-1800s, the Western has occupied a particular niche in American literature. While there are exceptions, Western novels traditionally featured a few key themes: adventure, outlaws and lawmen, and a male-driven narrative -- but perhaps most important is the protagonist's strength of character and the concept of the "frontier." In these stories, there is a strong sense of place, a setting of near mythic proportions: the Old West. Gunfights, cowboys, the range, cattle, horses, the desert, Native Americans, and small towns replete with dusty streets and a saloon -- these are the atmospheric mainstays of the Western, and they draw Western readers the same way a sedate English drawing room appeals to fans of Regencies.   

Traditional Westerns are simplistic and short -- the hero fights and overcomes whatever nemesis is on offer (Indians, evil cattle rustlers, corrupt town officials), sometimes rescues a damsel in distress (or not; at times females don't figure at all), and rides off into the sunset. These are the conventions of the traditional Western, which enjoyed its heyday in the 1950s and 60s through phenomenally popular authors such as Louis L'Amour. In the current decade, the Western's popularity is, perhaps, not what it once was, but it does still have a solid modern following, and these readers look not only to reprints of the classics from decades past, but also to current authors who continue in this vein

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There are those who, like L'Amour before them, have been quite prolific, such as Peter Branvold (Once More into the Breech), an author with upwards of 70 novels under his belt. Spur Award-winning Johnny D. Boggs has covered everything from the Battle of Little Bighorn (Greasy Grass) to a series of books starring Native American Daniel Killstraight, a Comanche tribal lawman (Killstraight, et al.). Boggs is also a good example of the fluidity of the geographic boundaries of the Western, which can range anywhere West of where American (or even Canadian) civilization stops. His novel, The Cane Creek Regulators, is set on the "Western" frontier of the 1760s: the South Carolina backcountry. Bill Brooks is another author who remains firmly in the realm of the traditional Western and utilizes a series protagonist. Brooks showcases some of the staples of the genre in Winter Kill, where down-on-his-luck rancher John Henry Cole joins a Texas lawman to track a murderer from Wyoming to Texas, encountering such dime novel greats as Buffalo Bill Cody and Doc Holliday along the way. Relative newcomers to the Western scene include Ethan J. Wolfe (The Range War of '82), whose novels feature a setting with researched historical detail, in addition to character introspection which still fits within the fast-paced plotting requisite to the traditional Western. Another recently debuted Western author is John D. Nesbitt, whose concise plotting and vibrant backdrops will be familiar to fans of classic Westerns (Don't Be a Stranger, Justice at Redwillow).

Prolific novelist Robert B. Parker is probably best known for his work in the mystery genre, but he also tried his hand quite successfully at the traditional Western. His Cole and Hitch series (starting with Appaloosa) follows the adventures of Territorial Marshalls Virgil Cole, the gunslinger of the duo, and his faithful deputy, Everett Hitch. The series proved so popular that it was continued after Parker's death by Robert Knott (The Bridge, et al.). Another author who's straddled the genre line is Loren D. Estleman. In addition to his mysteries and crime fiction, Estleman has also been successful with his Westerns, both standalones (The Long High Noon) and his series focusing on Page Murdock, a Deputy U.S. Marshall sent to Texas in 1884 (The High Rocks). Joe R. Lansdale is another genre-bender who skews towards the Western. His novels can, at times, include more darkness and humor than many traditional Western authors, a mystery always figures, and this Edgar-winning author occasionally dives into the murky waters of race relations. A favorite setting of his is East Texas (The Bottoms, Edge of Dark Water, The Thicket), and while some of his works fit within the themes and temporal period usually associated with traditional Westerns (The Thicket, Paradise Sky), others are set within the Depression era, and feel more like noir.

While many of these authors have received the genre-based Spur Award for their Western work, Larry McMurtry is perhaps unique in that he won a Pulitzer for his novel, Lonesome Dove. In the "literary" camp and described as an author who deconstructs the mythic aspects of the Old West, McMurty's novels retain elements of the traditional Western, but also chart new territory in their protagonists (hard drinking, less than morally upright) and themes (some of his work borders on satire). His latest, Last Kind Words Saloon, features an English lord and his beautiful mistress who fail miserably at cattle ranching, much to the amusement of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Guy Vanderhaeghe has been compared to McMurtry, and his trilogy of Western novels (The Last Crossing, The Englishman's Boy, A Good Man) is set on both the American and Canadian frontiers. Michael McGarrity likewise focuses on the frontier's harsher elements. He explores how they affect the family unit in his saga of pioneering folk which so far includes Hard Country and Backlands.

The list so far may give the impression that only male authors mount up and venture into the Wild West. However, while they may be in the minority, female authors of Westerns certainly do exist. Ann Parker has written a series of Silver Rush mysteries (beginning with Silver Lies) set in Leadville, Colorado in the Rocky Mountains. Mary Doria Russell has indulged her interest in one of the most famous/infamous of Western heroes in Doc, a fictional biography of Dr. John Henry Holliday, and its sequel of sorts, Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral. Pamela DiFrancesco harkened back to the acid Westerns of the '60s and '70s with a dose of magical realism thrown in for her novel, The Devils That Have Come to Stay, a strange tale of gold fever and greed. One is also more than likely to find female authors writing Western romances, of either the steamy (Sara Luck, Donna MacQuigg, Maureen MacKade) or the inspirational variety (Carol Cox, Stephanie Grace Whitson, Lauraine Snelling, Mona Hodgson, Karen Witemeyer, and others). Given the moral fortitude that has been a staple of the traditional Western, it may come as no surprise that it melds well with the inspirational sub-genre, and this is true even outside the field of female-centered inspirational romance. Paul Bagdon (Thunder on Dos Gatos) has penned Westerns whose protagonists espouse Christian beliefs while dealing with typically Western challenges, such as the harshness of the life on the frontier and cowboy conflict.

The above should give an overarching impression of the type of modern authors and novels that have succeeded the Western classicists such as Louis L'Amour and Max Brand. Readers looking for more can also view a snapshot of current Westerns by checking out the publishing line-ups of Five Star, Robert Hale's Black Horse Westerns (often reprints and marketed primarily as e-books), and La Frontera (specializing in Western short-story anthologies as well as novels). Another way to keep abreast of the latest and greatest in Westerns includes perusing the list of Spur Award winners, designated annually since 1953 by the Western Writers of America.   

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Bethany M. Latham, Associate Professor and Electronic Resources/Documents Librarian at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama, is Managing Editor of the Historical Novels Review.