Beyond Bestsellers: Confessions and Suggestions from a Western Avoider

by Denise D.

Confession

Library folk like books (not a secret). But most of us have one (or more) genres we read with great reluctance. For years, Westerns were my genre-to-avoid.

A library friend once described Westerns as romance for men. That explanation sufficed for me. I don’t really like romance and I’m not a man. So why would I like Westerns?

Reconsideration

Why indeed? Because Westerns thrive on setting and character– the two essentials I look for in any book. I want to be transported to a different place and time (setting) and spend time with interesting people (characters).

Then I remembered my favorite genre from the early 1990s. I was a stressed-out student in a competitive program in a violent city. When I found time for pleasure reading, I read to escape. Where did I go? The Wild West, of course.

Westerns from other voices

But not the West of gunfights and violence. That was outside my front door. And not the West of yore. I went to the contemporary West. Where women held their own in the outdoors. Where Native Americans persevered in a world defined by their Otherness to the cowboy. I read books that stayed with me for the rest of my life.

My favorite “Westerns”

Maybe it’s because I was in my wandering twenties when I met these books, but they immediately jumped to my “best books ever” pile.

Native Voices

Sherman Alexie, of course, is now a local legend. But, when my aunt handed me The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven during a school break in 1993, it was a revelation. I was working with Native American tribes on a complex environmental land use project, but was absolutely clueless about modern reservation life. This book changed my career focus and became THE BOOK I handed to everyone. Sherman Alexie has gone on to publish many works of literary art, but this one launched my gratitude for him. From him, I went onto other Native literary stars, James Welch and Louise Erdrich.

Women’s voices

Another book that grabbed me in the 1990s was Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver. (Sherman criticized Kingsolver’s work as colonial, a point I give credence.) Whereas Alexie’s stories opened my eyes to an unfamiliar world, Kingsolver’s heroine was another young woman forging her identity in the modern West, similar to the women of Chinchilla Farm, Dalva and Cowboys are My Weakness.

Recent Favorites

Once I started expanding my definition of Western beyond the classic cowboy-with-gun standard, I realized that I still do read Westerns. In fact, the three recent reads above appear on my list of “Westerns” I suggest for the Western-avoider.

What about you? Are you a Western-avoider? What are you reading for the Western month of September?

 

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