The Lie at the Heart of the Western

Sho​shone Bannock Reserve Indian R​odeo.
Anne Rearick / Agence vu / Redux

A gentleman comes from the East Coast to make his fortune. When the train lets him off in a dusty Wyoming town, he encounters an array of cowpunchers, card sharps, and ne’er-do-wells, whose coarse manners shock and intrigue him. At the saloon, he’s treated to their opinions on the local women, as well as one man’s boast that he never forgets a face—so long as that face is white. A game of cards nearly turns into a shootout when one man calls the newcomer a “son-of-a—,” causing him to lay his pistol on the table and utter what will become the story’s catchphrase: “When you call me that, smile.”

So begins Owen Wister’s The Virginian, considered by some to be the first Western novel. Published in 1902, it became a mega–best seller, made Wister rich, and helped popularize an international genre of literature and film. The Virginian doesn’t get a lot of attention anymore, but its basic tropes are still what many readers think of when they picture a Western: a bunch of white men shooting at one another, or at Indigenous people, who enter the story as faceless antagonists if they enter it at all.

But the past several years have seen the rise of a different kind of Western novel. The genre has been evolving for some time, with TV shows like Deadwood and films like No Country for Old Men and Hell or High Water offering a twist on the usual formula. And recently, a number of authors have upended it further, in the process sweeping away some of its most calcified myths.

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The protagonist of Hernán Diaz’s 2017 novel, In the Distance, for example, takes the opposite of a traditional hero’s journey; instead of trying to conquer Western land, he seeks to disappear into it. In Téa Obreht’s 2019, Inland, cowboys and outlaws are replaced by a camel driver, an exasperated mother, and visitors from the afterlife. And in How Much of These Hills Is Gold, C Pam Zhang’s 2020 debut novel, a Chinese American prospector’s daughter forges her own path across California after her family is kicked off their claim.

These novels preserve some aspects of the old Westerns: the parched vistas, the isolation, the high-stakes emotion of characters running afoul of the law. But they also call into question the genre’s basic premise: the idea of the frontier as a place to be mastered and overcome. Instead, the Western becomes a way of thinking about humans’ relationship to land, the past, and the idea of home.

 Idaho, Duck Valley Reserv​ation
Anne Rearick / Agence vu / Redux

“If the Western is the expansion of America, I wanted to question who or what is American,” Zhang told me in an email. “If the Western is about nostalgia, I wanted to complicate that nostalgia through immigrant characters who simultaneously feel the tug of inherited nostalgia for another land.”

Indeed, the protagonists of recent revisionist Westerns are tugged not merely West to make their fortunes, but in more complex directions. In Diaz’s In the Distance, for example, a Swedish boy named Håkan tries to sail to New York with his brother, but gets on the wrong boat and ends up alone in San Francisco. His search for his brother leads him to travel against the flow of settlers; as Lawrence Downes wrote at The New York Times in 2018, he instead goes “west to east, around in circles, down into the earth, and north to Alaska.”

Håkan becomes an outlaw, but is the most unwilling of gunslingers; after he slaughters a band of thieves for assaulting the woman he loves, he is so consumed with shame that he lives largely as a hermit for decades, digging a warren of subterranean caves and sheltering inside them. Dressed in rags and eating only what he can trap or gather, he is completely absorbed by the work of maintaining his underground burrow. “He seldom considered his body or his circumstances—or anything else, for that matter,” Diaz writes. “The business of being took up all of his time.” Rather than conquering the West, in other words, Håkan becomes a part of it.

Téa Obreht’s Inland, too, offers a twist on the hero quest. Instead of a horse, Lurie Mattie rides a camel, his travels across the West inspired by the real-life United States Camel Corps. Like Håkan, Lurie is an immigrant; he arrived in the U.S. as a child from the Ottoman Empire. Unlike Håkan, he has an unusual gift, or curse: He can feel the desires of the dead. Obreht’s other protagonist, Nora, is an Arizona homesteader who is haunted, too—by the memory of Evelyn, her dead daughter, who still speaks to her. By the time Nora’s story intersects with Lurie’s, readers sense that neither will attain the standard Western hero’s goal of laying claim to the land.

But when Nora opens Lurie’s canteen and gains, for a moment, some of his supernatural power, she’s able to see a different future for herself. “This is the place,” Obreht writes, “until it isn’t; her house—until it isn’t; no water and therefore no house, no paper, no town at all, one way or the other, no matter what; but then some other town, some other house, some house elsewhere, some new house in Wyoming; and Evelyn there—Evelyn with her in the new house, after all.” Ultimately, Nora’s and Lurie’s stories both raise the possibility of a home in the West—in the world—defined not by treaties or conquest or lines on a map but by the presence of loved ones, living or dead.

The characters in Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold are also forced to consider how to put down roots when owning land isn’t an option. The story follows Lucy and her sibling, Sam, who must make their way in Gold Rush–era California after the death of their parents and the cancellation of the family’s claim. The latter occurs thanks to a racist law intended to target their Chinese American family: “The law strips all rights to gold and land from any man not born in this territory.”

The siblings take divergent paths through their grief and dispossession into adulthood. But when they reunite, they must make a decision about where their future lies. As Lucy makes that decision, she thinks back to her childhood environs, her memories inextricably tied up with love, family, and loss:

Maybe if you only went far enough, waited long enough, held enough sadness pooled in your veins, soon you might come upon a path you knew, the shapes of rocks would look like familiar faces, the trees would greet you, buds and birdsong lilting up, and because this land had gouged in you an animal’s kind of claiming, senseless to words and laws ... then, if you ran, you might hear on the wind, or welling up in your own parched mouth, something like and unlike an echo, coming from before or behind, the sound of a voice you’ve always known calling your name.

While the old Westerns were about claiming land, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is about being “claimed by it,” about how landscape and history combine to shape a human life.

Idaho, Horseshoe Bend
Anne rearick / Agence Vu / Redux

Diaz, Obreht, and Zhang all propose different kinds of relationships with land and place than those offered in conventional Westerns. And such relationships are sorely needed as America begins to reckon with its colonialist past and present. “Many more of us should question who has rights to a place, and whose rights were stolen in the process,” Zhang told me. “Not necessarily in an antagonistic way, but in an empathetic way that is informed by the tangled, bloodied history of exploitation and violence that has led us up to this point.”

Throughout her novel, Zhang is clear about whose rights were stolen in the California hills—not just Lucy and Sam’s, but also those of the Indigenous people who lived there before the prospectors arrived. In old Westerns, by contrast, Indigenous people either don’t appear at all or are presented as obstacles keeping white people from what should belong to them. In John Wayne movies, for example, “we oftentimes see the hero celebrated for killing people who look like me,” Joshua Nelson, the chair of the University of Oklahoma’s Film and Media Studies Department and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, told me.

Perhaps for that reason, Indigenous writers and filmmakers have not always been interested in revisiting the tropes of the Western, Nelson said. “The Western has never been very much about American Indian people,” he explained. “So, by and large, Indigenous folks have instead wanted to tell stories that were about them.”

Many of these stories, though they may not have the hallmarks of the revisionist Western, deal with issues of land and sovereignty in their own ways, Nelson said, citing works by Louise Erdrich and other Indigenous writers and filmmakers such as Jeff Barnaby and Sterlin Harjo. Erdrich’s The Round House, for example, is about an Ojibwe woman who has been sexually assaulted near the border of reservation and United States land, calling into question which courts have jurisdiction over the case. The story follows her son, Joe, as he investigates the crime himself, coming to a greater understanding of trauma, law, and justice in the process.

Stories such as this, by Indigenous creators, and neo-Westerns such as those by Zhang, Diaz, and Obreht are coming to the fore at a time of greater cultural attention to the many histories that have been papered over to make the myth of America. It’s also a time when the land of the West is deeply at risk from climate change. “Wildfires raged through California while I wrote and edited and put out my novel,” Zhang told me. And it’s a time when authors continue to experiment with genre and play with time, in alternate histories like The Underground Railroad or fantasies like The City We Became.

When The Virginian came out, and for decades after, “the frontier” was a site of fantasy for many white readers. “Practically every American male has at one time or another thought of himself as a cowboy or rancher,” the novelist (and rancher) Struthers Burt wrote in his 1951 introduction to the text. But today, the so-called frontier can be a site of reimagining—of how to live on land without possessing it, how to make a home without stealing someone else’s, and how to tell the story of the past in a way that informs the future. “To me, the true DNA of the Western is nostalgia,” Zhang said. “Westerns exist at the trembling edge between one world and another.”

To be sure, How Much of These Hills Is Gold and novels like it look to the past for inspiration. But they also look outward, inviting readers not simply to imagine themselves as “a cowboy or rancher,” but to envision other lives, other journeys, and, perhaps, other worlds.