From romantic tales of the wild west to violent modern Western novels, let your imagination run wild with the best Western books to read.
My dad and his father don’t have a lot in common, but they both shared a love of Western movies. A love that was passed down to me. I have fond memories of curling up on the couch to watch The Searchers and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.
As a bookworm, I’ve come to realize that while I’ve watched plenty of Western movies, I’ve completely neglected to expand into Western books.
Thus, I decided it was time to research the best Western books that I need to read. And since reading a Western book is one of the prompts of the 2023 Reading Challenge, I figure you might love to explore my list of the best Westerns as well.
Best Western Books
In Larry McMurtry’s classic Western novel, two aging Texas Rangers embark on one last adventure – a crazy cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Far from the easy paycheck they expected, the journey turns dangerous time and again, weaving a tale that showcases the changing American West. Though the pace is slow, the writing is excellent, and the great characters really drive the story, making it every bit deserving of its Pulitzer Prize.
In the 1870s, teenager Mattie Ross seeks vengeance for her father’s murder. To track down the murderer in the Indian Territories, she hires Federal Marshal Rooster Cogburn who teams up with a Texas Ranger for the hunt. Mattie’s no-nonsense narration makes this one of the best Westerns to read (and watch).
Mixing a Western romance with an epic story, Hondo endures as one of the best Western books to read. Lone wolf Hondo Lane is wandering the deserts of an Arizona on the brink of statehood when he encounters Angie Lowe. Quickly, Hondo finds himself drawn to the beautiful Angie as she raises a son all alone. When the warrior Vittorio is planning an uprising against the White oppressors, Hondo and Angie get caught up in the fray.
C. J. Box
C. J. Box is well-known for his novels of game warden Joe Pickett in Twelve Sleep, Wyoming. Open Season, the first novel of the Joe Pickett series, finds Joe investigating a body dumped in his own backyard. Though the local police have dubbed the case already solved, Joe feels there are deeper motives at play. Layering the thrill of a murder mystery against the beautiful backdrop of the modern American West, C. J. Box has become a bestselling author in the last few decades.
Blood Meridian is an epic novel about the violence and depravity that attended America’s westward expansion, brilliantly subverting the conventions of Western books and the mythology of the Wild West. Based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, it traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennesseean who stumbles into a nightmarish world where Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving.
Books About Prairie Life
Of all the books set in the West, nothing quite conveys the sweeping prairie-like feel of Willa Cather’s noted work, My Ántonia. Near the end of the 19th century, 10-year-old orphan Jim Burden moves to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. There he meets Ántonia, the daughter of Bohemian immigrants. The classic novel follows their lives as each starts to reach for the American Dream – to build a home in a new land.
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The third book in her famous autobiographical series, Little House on the Prairie tells of Ingalls’ move from the woods of Wisconsin to the prairies of Kansas. Explaining the ins and outs of prairie life in fascinating detail, Wilder’s books give children a look at the ingenuity, the fierce determination, the hardships, and the prejudices of growing up in the American West.
At the close of the Civil War, vivacious fiddler Simon falls in love with beautiful Irish lass Doris. Though they meet for just a moment, Simon swears that he will one day find her again. With a few small nods to her previous bestseller News of the World, Jiles lures you into her lyrical Western novel. Although Simon’s journey has its ups and downs, Jiles’s storytelling keeps an even tone throughout, giving you a nice peaceful read.
Alma Katsu tells a fictional account of the real-life Donner Party but with a supernatural twist. As the pioneer company makes its way across the Great Plains to California, they are plagued by hardships as a sinister force seems to be brewing. With supplies running low and members disappearing, the group begins to wonder if evil has been residing among them all along.
Modern Western Books
While we tend to think of Wild West Books as being set in the 1880s, modern Westerns are just as fascinating. Replacing bandits with drug runners, No Country for Old Men is an epic Western story set in the modern day. Llwellyn Moss is stunned to discover a pickup truck surrounded by dead bodies in the desert. Even more so, to find a load of heroin and two million dollars in cash. When Moss takes the money, he sets off a chain reaction that leads to catastrophic violence that the aging sheriff struggles to contain.
When Walt Longmire, a Wyoming sheriff, discovers the body of Cody Pritchard, he knows trouble is looming. Two years earlier, Cody and two other men were only given a slap on the wrist after they raped a Northern Cheyenne girl. As Walt tries to solve the murder, he can’t help wondering what lengths someone might go to for revenge.
Following a large cast of characters: a DEA agent, a high-class hooker, an upright priest, heirs to a drug empire, and an Irish hitman, The Power of the Dog describes three decades of the United States’ War on Drugs. From the streets of New York City to the jungles of Central America, The Power of the Dog highlights an entire chain of humans caught up with a drug cartel.
In a comedic look at understanding human nature, Edward Abbey tells the story of a motley gang of eco-terrorists determined to protect the environment at all costs. After returning to find his beloved Utah desert threatened by industrialization, Vietnam veteran George Washington Hayduke III teams up with a feminist saboteur, a billboard torcher, and a wilderness guide to wage war for the environment, laughing their way from one adventure to the next.
Westerns: Classic Movies
Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s classic The Ox-Bow Incident perfectly epitomizes the violence of the early American West. Set in 1885, the story centers on the realities of the lawlessness of the wild west. When a well-loved local is killed by cattle thieves, the townspeople take it upon themselves to mete out justice, lynching three innocent men.
In 1889, a young man named Shane rides into the Wyoming territory and changes the Starrett family forever. Silent but radiating a power that you know not to cross him, Shane comes on as a farmhand for Bob Starrett’s father. Bob watches as his father’s leadership and Shane’s strength lead the local homesteaders to stand up against the menacing cattle driver Luke Fletcher.
While searching for stolen cattle, Amos Edwards and Martin Pauley realize the search is a ploy by the Comanche tribe to leave the homestead undefended. They return to find Amos’s brother’s family murdered and the youngest daughter missing. Thus sets off a six-year search for Debbie, where you learn more about Amos and Martin and LeMay brilliantly explores thoughts on race in the American West. While LeMay’s story is considered a great Western novel, the film adaptation starring John Wayne is considered a masterpiece.
Epic Western Novels
Decades ago, a brutal unsolved murder of a white family that left a lone child alive resulted in bloody vengeance that rocks generations of a small North Dakota town and the nearby Native American tribe. As part Ojibwe and part white, Evelina Harp is a normal little girl falling desperately in love but is caught up in the long history of violence that still plagues the region.
James A. Michener
Known for his epic historical fiction novels about different locations, James A. Michener turns his sights on Colorado, the Centennial State. Told through the many different characters that shaped the state, Michener writes of an Arapaho chieftain, his Comanche and Pawnee enemies, a man fleeing Amish country, and a cowboy who has fallen in love with an Englishwoman. Their collected stories weave together in dramatic waves in this interesting Western book.
At 111 years of age, Jack Crabb narrates the story of his life. After his pioneer family was massacred when he is ten years old, Jack is adopted by a Cheyenne chief and renamed Little Big Man. For years he lives as a member of the tribe and watches his people butchered by Custer’s troops. As an adult, he lives again as a white man, encountering Wild Bill and Wyatt Earp, and even finding himself fighting with Custer on Little Big Horn. A satirical look at the American West, Little Big Man is an entertaining story with plenty of deeper social commentary.
in 1823, Hugh Glass is one of the most respected trappers in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. While on a scouting mission, Glass is savagely mauled by a grizzly bear. Two company men are ordered to stay with him until he dies, but fearing grizzly bears, they abandon him to die alone. Instead, Glass uses sheer determination and spite to survive a three-thousand-mile journey through the American frontier to get revenge.
Groom’s episodic novel brings the Mexican Revolution to life in this thrilling tale of a battle of wills between revolutionary Pancho Villa and the Colonel, an American railroad tycoon. After Villa kidnaps the Colonel’s grandchildren and flees to the Sierra Madres, the Colonel and his adopted son head to El Paso. Seeking to round up a group of cowboys willing to take on the Generalissimo.
C Pam Zhang
When their father dies, Lucy and Sam set out to bury their father in the only acceptable way – with silver coins on his eyes in a worthy spot. Yet finding “home” is not easy among the stifling prejudice of the American West against Chinese immigrants. Mixing Chinese mythology with the gold rush of the wild west, Zhang’s debut is a powerfully imaginative tale about two unforgettable siblings.
In 1850, an enslaved groom leads a thoroughbred horse to a series of stunning victories. When the Civil War breaks out, a young artist fighting for the Union encounters the groom and his horse under dangerous circumstances. In 1954, a gallery owner becomes obsessed with a mysterious 19th-century equestrian painting and, in 2019, a scientist and an art historian are brought together to uncover the secrets of the horse and its groom.
In 1894, seventeen-year-old Ada thinks life is going well when she gets married. When a year passes and she hasn’t had a child, Ada must flee her old life for fear of being burned as a witch. She takes up with the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang, led by the charismatic Kid. Hoping to create a refuge for outcast women, the Kid has them go on a dangerous mission and Ada must decide how much she is willing to risk.
Set during the Great Depression, Englishwoman Alice Wright marries a handsome American and finds herself transplanted to rural Kentucky. To escape her unhappy home life with her withdrawn husband and overbearing father-in-law, Alice agrees to become a traveling librarian, riding around the countryside bringing books to local residents. In her new job, she meets other fierce women and gains lasting friendships. Add in plenty of drama, love stories, corrupt businessmen, and even murder, and you have the perfect light historical fiction to read on the beach.
After her father is executed in the Mexican War of Independence, Beatriz reluctantly accepts a marriage proposal from Don Rodolfo Solórzano. Settling into his house, Hacienda San Isidro, Beatriz begins to hear voices and see visions. When her husband returns to the capital, Beatriz seeks help from the local priest to fight the lurking evil and discover what happened to the Don’s previous wife.
Western Books to Read
After the Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd accepts a commission to transport a young girl back to Texas. Raised for years by Kiowa raiders who killed her family, Johanna has no wish to return to her distant relatives. The Kiowas are her family now, and she doesn’t even remember how to speak English. In the tradition of Western books, Jiles’s short novel pushes the boundaries on morals and families.
When John Grady Cole’s grandfather dies in 1949 and the family ranch is sold, the Texas youth persuades his best friend, Lacey Rawlins, to go to Mexico to find work as cowboys. They encounter Jimmy Blevins, a young man whose lost horse and pistol lead to unintended consequences. After they find employment, John Grady begins a passionate affair with the ranch owner’s daughter, despite being warned of the dangers. Yet John Grady’s idyllic ideal of Mexico is shattered when Blevins’ actions cause the arrest of John Grady and Lacey.
Stephen King brilliantly blends science fiction, fantasy, and Western books together in The Gunslinger. In a parallel version of the American West, Roland of Gilead, the gunslinger, pursues the man in black on his way to the Dark Tower. Along the way, he teams up with young Jack Chambers and they tackle numerous obstacles as they trek across the desert.
When the Commodore, a mysterious and powerful man in the Wild West, declares something done, Eli and Charlie Sisters have no say in the matter. So when the Commodore orders the death of Hermann Kermit Warm, they must obey. Yet as they travel from Oregon City to Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he and his brother do for a living in this darkly comedic novel.
Do You Enjoy Reading Western Books?
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my Western Books list? What Westerns have I forgotten? As always, let me know in the comments!