In the second half of the 19th century, the figure of the cowboy emerged as the defining feature of American Western literature. Publishers found success with dime Westerns, novels mythologizing the lives of “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Kit Carson, Wyatt Earp, and other dubious frontiersmen. Decades later, when film became a dominant form of mass entertainment, the moving image of this lonesome and troubled white man riding on horseback would come to personify the ethos of an entire region, a metaphor for a young and white America, heroically subduing the supposedly barren landscape.
My debut novel, Woman of Light, is also a Western saga. It is propelled by five generations of Chicana and Indigenous women and is based on my family’s oral tradition in what is now known as Colorado. In response to the saturating mythos of the white cowboy, my novel includes markers of the Western genre, such as sharpshooters and Wild West shows, but it breaks away from these rigid confines to offer a more naturalistic view of the American West from the late 19th century through the Great Depression.
I’ve always admired writers who have worked to dispel myths about the West. I am especially drawn to the novels that have illuminated a wide range of people who inhabit the region. Some of these books are now considered classics, but there are newer titles, too, that tell the truths of our communities. These six novels provide a sharper rendering of Western stories and a broader view of the region that has captured the world’s imagination for centuries.
The Rain God, by Arturo Islas
An exquisite multigenerational novel by Islas, a pioneering Chicano writer, The Rain God follows the Angel clan along the Texas-Mexico border, where descendants of the stern and pious Mama Chona hold one another in a complex familial embrace. Born in El Paso in 1938, Islas became the first Chicano to publish a novel with a major New York press in 1990, but died one year later of AIDS-related complications at age 52. Widely considered a masterpiece, The Rain God is taught in many literature and Chicano-studies classes across the country for its groundbreaking portrait of the central family. The novel’s matriarch was a young woman in Mexico when her firstborn, a brilliant university student, was gunned down in San Miguel de Allende during the Mexican Revolution. The Angel family is thrust north to the desert. Readers receive an intimate glimpse of this web of children and grandchildren, friends, and neighbors. In vivid realist scenes, this masterwork of American literature touches on themes of border consciousness, queerness, and the inescapable finality of death.
Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn
Born in Kansas in 1945, Dunn was the daughter of migrant farmworkers and sharecroppers. Her family of five siblings roved throughout the American West before settling in Oregon, a childhood Dunn considered a “standard Western American life.” Her third novel, the grotesque carnival saga Geek Love, follows a similarly roaming family of five children—the Binewskis of the Carnival Fabulon. Aloysius and Crystal Lil Binewski run a traveling circus; when it falters, they decide to genetically modify their own children into sideshow “freaks” through use of radiation and toxic drugs. The result is one of the most unforgettable and unique families in American literature. Told in two timelines, Geek Love is narrated by the now adult Oly, a Portland radio host and a dwarf with albinism and a hunchback who is determined to keep her family history alive for her estranged daughter. The novel, bursting with creative genius, displays Dunn’s prodigious understanding of family dynamics, especially among siblings in this marginalized troupe of performers.
My Ántonia, by Willa Cather
Frequently called a classic, Cather’s fourth novel, My Ántonia, is rapturous with prairie imagery and depictions of the 1918 book’s shining star, the resilient and uncommonly brave Ántonia Shimerda. Told from the perspective of the orphaned Jim Burden, who is sent from Virginia to live with his grandparents in Nebraska, this moving story of human connection across time is a page-turner propelled by a deeply emotionally intelligent voice. Jim first encounters Ántonia and her Bohemian immigrant family while traveling by train to the Great Plains. Once settled in Nebraska, Jim forms a close friendship with Ántonia and witnesses her strength after her father dies by suicide. Scholars debate Cather’s queerness, but My Ántonia is easily read as a queer-coded text, one in which Jim and Ántonia are not connected through the usual trappings of heteronormative romance. Instead, as they grow up, they embrace the human need to understand the weight of our early beginnings and trace how our foundational relationships shape our futures.
Under the Feet of Jesus, Helena María Viramontes
Viramontes’s first novel, published in 1995 and dedicated in part to Cesar Chavez, is a saturated, sensory experience through the grape fields of California’s Central Valley. The book is slim, but each achingly realistic scene teems with life as its main character and her family of farmworkers navigate corruption and dangerous labor conditions. In lush and commanding prose, we come to know Estrella, who was abandoned by her father as a young girl. When Estrella is a teenager, her mother, Petra, discovers that she is unexpectedly pregnant by her new companion, Perfecto, who misses his home and wrestles with the decision to stay or leave for Mexico. With gorgeous, sweeping sentences, pared-down dialogue, and keen attention to workers’ lives, this haunting novel has been compared to the work of John Steinbeck and William Faulkner. Under the Feet of Jesus is a true wonder that leaves the reader with a greater understanding of the American West and the people who are vital to our food supply.
Where the Dead Sit Talking, by Brandon Hobson
A compulsively honest narrator is mesmerizing, and the voice behind Hobson’s 2018 novel, Where the Dead Sit Talking, is absolutely transfixing. In this darkly strange yet comforting story, a Cherokee man named Sequoyah reflects on his time in the foster-care system as a teenager. Like his ancestors before him, Sequoyah and his mother are pushed out of Cherokee County. His mother, meandering through a maze of poverty and addiction, soon is imprisoned for driving while under the influence and for possession of drug paraphernalia. Sequoyah is eventually placed in rural Oklahoma with the Troutt family, who have two other foster children, George and Rosemary. On the opening page, we learn that Rosemary, a 17-year-old Indigenous girl, will die in front of Sequoyah. This impulse toward hard-edged truths endears Sequoyah to the reader in a rare and vital way, spotlighting Indigenous experiences that have so violently been overlooked by mainstream Western literature. “People live and die. Death is quick,” says Sequoyah by the novel’s end, teaching us and himself about the realities of our frequently painful human existence, so marked by loss.
Four Treasures of the Sky, by Jenny Tinghui Zhang
Four Treasures of the Sky, an adventurous and ambitious debut novel, follows Daiyu, a 13-year-old girl kidnapped from a fish market in China in 1882. Daiyu’s grandmother disguises her as a boy in order to protect her, and she is then sent to work in a calligraphy school, but despite her concealment, she is eventually trafficked to a brutal San Francisco brothel. In this new and strange land, Daiyu survives by constantly adapting to her surroundings. The novel was inspired by a historical marker describing a little-known vigilante murder in 1885 Idaho, where five Chinese men were hanged. Zhang’s powerful debut reminds us of some of the more hideous parts of the American past while illuminating white supremacy’s lingering, contemporary poison. Meticulously researched and historically illuminating, Four Treasures of the Sky offers a careful examination of character and the devastating impacts of anti-Chinese sentiment across the West.
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