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Who Says Westerns are Dead?

by Lauren Havens

*This article originally appeared in the July issue of RA News. Subscribe to RA News and any of our other newsletters.*

Perhaps you’ve noticed that a Louis L’Amour book isn’t as popular a checkout item as it once was. While it is true that novels falling into the strictly “western” category may not be flying off the shelves, aspects of the western are popping up in a variety of other genres.

By strict definition, a western novel takes place in the American Old West, in the latter half of the 19th century, when the wilderness needed to be tamed, justice had to be fought for, and heroes had to fight for what they believed in. This untamed environment was filled with cowboys, Native Americans, settlers, and the requisite bad guys. Today, rather than focusing on the setting, time period and the usual characters, many authors are borrowing the themes commonly found in westerns, and placing them in new time periods and locations -- even new worlds! In the sections below, several books have been selected to highlight the particular theme, even though that book may have more than one theme within it, which isn’t uncommon with novels borrowing from westerns. Some of the most commonly borrowed themes are:

  • The Cowboy: a lone character or the small group whom he often leads is a source of hope, morality, or justice amid the wilderness.
  • Battling the Wilderness: the protagonist attempts to survive alone in the wilderness, including going against "civilized" society's rules. 
  • Forced Civilization: the subjugation of nature or the original inhabitants for the benefit of the incoming people.

The steampunk genre is of particular note as these books not only borrow the themes of traditional westerns but they also include the day-to-day clothing, weapons, and behavioral patterns. The subgenre features anachronistic technologies in an alternate history of the British Victorian era or of the American Old West.


The Cowboy

The cowboy or the small group he leads is a source of hope, morality, or justice. Many novels use the theme of a single voice speaking out against a powerful, corrupt society. Helping to separate this character from heroes in other genres are his powerful actions. This isn’t a character who is content to write an angry letter to the editor. He leads with action, action that tends to go against the established rules of society in order to save society, or the aspects of society that are worth saving. A spirited character with an iron will, the cowboy doesn’t take no for an answer.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
ISBN: 9780385736817
Orphaned Mary lives in a post-apocalyptic world infested with zombies. After the wall surrounding their village is breached, she and a small group of fellow survivors must make their way to safety. (Teen)



The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Allan Moore and Kevin O'Neill
ISBN: 9781563898587
In an alternate Victorian England, several well-known (fictional) adventurers of the time are brought together to fight against enemies of the British empire. (Adult)


Lucy the Giant by Sherri Smith
ISBN: 9780385729406
This heartwarming novel follows a girl who is so big for her age that she is bullied and unable to fit in. She escapes to a crabbing boat but is unable to leave the past completely behind. (Teen)


Moon Called by Patricia Briggs
ISBN: 9780441013814
Shape shifter Mercy Thompson is the only coyote living near a pack of werewolves. A mechanic by trade, she is swept up in the affairs of the pack, whose Alpha just happens to live next door. (Adult)



Battling the Wilderness

These protagonists do their best to survive in the wild. While this may be similar to the traditional Western, with characters completely surrounded by the wilderness and finding it all too easy to run into danger, it is not always the case. Battling the wilderness may mean that the main character is forced to go against the rules of society -- isolated and friendless. It may also represent an evil that the protagonist must combat in order to survive.

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt
ISBN: 9780765360236
Amelia Harsh embarks on a quest to find the lost city of Camlantis, the civilization believed to have established a perfect pacifist society. She leads an untrustworthy group of mercenaries and convicts with funding provided by the man she blames for her father's death. As they battle their way through hostile territory Amelia and her compatriots battle the darker aspects of themselves. (Adult)


Outrunning the Darkness by Anne Schraff
ISBN: 9781616510008
Jaris Spain is a teen trying to survive the brutal, urban environment in which he lives. Not only must he deal with difficulties in school and at home, he must reject the temptation of gangs and drugs on a daily basis. (Teen)


World War Z by Max Brooks
ISBN: 9780770437404
Humanity has nearly been wiped out by a zombie plague. The narrator tells the story of the world's desperate battle against the zombie threat, as told to him by those who were fortunate enough to survive. The survivors' experiences present a range of views and backgrounds on what happened and shows how the onslaught of zombies has led to the collapse of society. (Adult)



Forced Civilization

Sometimes the incoming people have good intentions; they want to benefit their own people without negative consequences for the native group. Sometimes, the incoming group wants to conquer, as with invading armies or aliens. While this theme may appear frequently in fantasy novels or adventures stories, the wilderness can also be used to examine ourselves as a society and as individuals, and that theme can increasingly be found in books that examine issues like global warming, immigration, and the mixing of cultures.

Dogboy by Victor Kelleher
ISBN: 9781932425765
Brind was found amongst a litter of Sir Edmund Dowe's mastiff as an infant and raised with them. Though he later learns language, his interactions with human society are difficult. Unable to feel completely comfortable in either the human or the natural world, he struggles to understand who he is. The novel will make readers ponder civilization, survival, and humanity. (Ages 9-12)


The Invasion by K.A. Applegate
ISBN: 9780590629775
The Invasion is the first book in the young adult Animorphs series in which a group of teens must defend their planet from invading aliens. Given an extraordinary gift by a dying alien, they must use that gift and their own strength to protect a world unaware of the danger. (Teen)


The Wanderer by Robyn Carr
ISBN: 9780778314479
The people of Thunder Point, Oregon enjoy being close to nature but developers see the town as a potential gold mine. When Henry Cooper, a man with perpetual wanderlust, inherits a friend’s beachfront property, his decisions will decide the community’s fate. (Adult)


Fortunately for western fans, the genre is finding renewed life in other types of fiction. Their basic structure and themes are found in all genres -- from Romance to Science Fiction and everything in between -- and at just about any reading levels. It's definitely worth pointing out to western fiction fans who feel like their pool of book selections is shrinking daily. Displaying more traditional westerns with selections from other genres (while noting that they share) may nudge readers to explore books a bit outside of their comfort zone.

Lauren Havens works at Durham Technical Community College and Durham County Library's North Carolina Collection. She is interested in better understanding how socioeconomic factors influence patrons' behavior both in the library and online. In addition to her work as a librarian, she conducts online research for jury trials.