Jonnie Martin is a native Texan, city-bred like the lead character in her literary western, Wrangle. Early in her career she was a journalist with a Texas newspaper before heading out to pursue a business career. Later she earned a BA in Literature/Creative Writing and an MFA in Fiction and returned to Texas, where she works as a novelist and a columnist for a newspaper, and blogs weekly on her website. In the long journey, she re-discovered her roots through her writing, drawn back to the land and the people who formed her.
Like every writer I have ever met, I began reading early and continue to devour books nonstop. I have always had a penchant for literary novels and in the past six years began to narrow my search to modern novels that have the markings of a classic. Three years ago, I narrowed my focus again, in both my reading and writing, toward literary westerns that might fit that description. That is a more difficult challenge.
Best of the Literary Westerns
I keep a running list of my favorite literary westerns on my website and I find that these books mysteriously re-appear on my bedside table from time to time, requiring a new read. Here, I limit my notes to four books published after 1990—which unfortunately leaves out Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose (1971), Ivan Doig’s Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987), and Molly Gloss’ The Jump-Off Creek (1989).
The Meadow by James Galvin (1993) — Galvin is primarily a poet, and writes a lyrical view of the 100-year history of a Colorado meadow at the base of the Neversummer Mountains. “The history of the meadow goes like this: No one owns it; no one ever will. . . . Only one of them succeeded in making a life here, for almost fifty years. He weathered.” The book is a paean to the western way of life and as if it were not beautiful enough, he followed it with Fencing the Sky (1999). Written with Galvin’s usual poesy, Fencing is a dirge for the dying West.
Plainsong by Kent Haruf (1999) — When pregnant 17-year-old Victoria Roubideaux comes to live with two crusty old bachelors, Colorado ranchers Harold and Raymond McPheron, the men have no idea how to talk to her. They ask what she thinks of radio reports on market prices—commodities prices, that is—for cattle, soy beans, June wheat and pork bellies. Set in a fictional prairie town in Colorado, Haruf’s ability to create laconic western characters on the page is remarkable. As the title Plainsong suggests, this book is a simple and beautiful song.
Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy (1999). No one captures the brutality of the West like Cormac McCarthy, but this book is not gratuitous in its violence or oppressive in its mood—not nearly so dark as his Pulitzer-winning post-apocalyptic novel The Road. The book combines three of his prior novels that have linked stories of two teenage cowboys who search for the ranching lifestyle. The trilogy begins with the hopefulness of youth and ends with the stark reality of the dying West. McCarthy’s direct style still conveys breathless moments of poignancy.
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (2012). A departure from Johnson’s modern, edgy works, this novella follows a day laborer in the West in the early 1900s, a simple, uneducated man buffeted by loss and the violence around him. When he helps in the execution of a Chinese laborer caught stealing, he is horrified. Walking home in the falling dark, Grainier almost met the Chinaman everywhere. Chinaman in the road. Chinaman in the woods. Chinaman walking softly, dangling his hands on arms like ropes. I felt every blow to Grainier’s safety and sanity.
Mink River by Brian Doyle (2010). Resplendent with Irish and Indian lore, the book is set in “A town not big not small. In the hills in Oregon on the coast. Bounded by four waters: one muscular river, two shy little creeks, one ocean.” The people have similar, sad pasts; the Irish descendants still remember “The Hunger” that drove them to America; the Indian descendants still remember the lost lands of their ancestors, “The People.” And while the histories live on in their minds and even in their language, this is not a bitter community, but a very human one.
I’m halfway through two books by first-time authors; both are memoirs; both have been noted by the NY Times and won awards; and both are stunningly excellent.
The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez (2012). A National Book Award finalist, this memoir vibrates with life and the stories of Martinez’s will to escape his upbringing in a barrio in Brownsville, Texas, in “poverty so crushing that it leads to the death of his friends (Texas Observer).” Humor helps to alleviate the reality of this brutal existence.
Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt (2003). Judy Blunt never set out to be a writer, but she is a natural, richly capturing the world of her homesteading family scratching to survive on the prairies of Eastern Montana. She grew up, married her cowboy, and did the unthinkable; breaking generations of family tradition, she took her children and left ranching life behind.
Waiting Their Turn
Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner (1948). I came late to William Faulkner, a southern rather than western writer, but I live in Texas and we do have a drawl. I suspect Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying will always be my favorite, but I reach back and read a different one of his novels from time to time, including this one of murder and racial divide in Mississippi.
A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry (1983). Also a little off-course for me in my quest to find modern literary westerns, but I cannot resist the works of a poet and essayist like Berry, who captures in such rich details life in the forest and farmlands of Kentucky, and the stories of loss and redemption among simple folks of the land.
Jonnie’s current selections are genre-specific. How do you read? By theme? By author? By the-next-shiny-new-thing? By criteria unique to you? Dish!