6 Best Western Books Update 05/2022

Best Western Books

To help you learn more about the best Western novels ever written by straight-shooting Western authors, we looked for a long time on the dangerous back roads of the Internet.

If you want to know which Western books are the best, here is our list by category. Cowboys don’t like small talk, so we’ll get right down to business: As long as you don’t mind getting into a good old-fashioned Western showdown in the comments below, you’re welcome to disagree with what I said.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

By Ron Hansen

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

An outlaw is hard to measure because he or she can be both sympathetic and disgusting at the same time, blurring the lines between right and wrong. No one epitomizes that contrasting image quite like the outlaw Jesse James, a preacher’s son who became a famous bank robber and murderer—and no tells his story quite like famous Western author Ron Hansen in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

The Hell Bent Kid

By Charles O. Locke

Using themes of revenge and the loss of innocence, Charles O. Locke’s The Hell Bent Kid is a classic chase story about a teenage girl who flees through the heart of Texas with the Boyd family after her. One of the best-known books of all time, From Hell to Texas, was first published more than 50 years ago. It was made into a movie with Don Murray and Henry Hathaway, called From Hell to Texas.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

By Dee Brown

At Wounded Knee, poet Stephen Vincent Benet says, “Burn my heart there.” This is from his poem “American Names.” A phrase that author Dee Brown makes real in his nonfiction books of the same name is what he says. Brown tells the story of the Native American tribes who were killed off in the late 1800s in this book. He does so honestly and provocatively, giving a voice to a moral horror that the United States often hides.

The Log of a Cowboy

by Andy Adams (1903)

The Log of a Cowboy

When you look at the short list of very early Westerns (before 1910 or so), you’ll often see The Virginian (1902) at the top. I didn’t find the title of this book very easy to read, and I gave up about half way through. The Log of a Cowboy, on the other hand, was very easy to read and kept my attention the whole time.

To write this book, Adams used real-life stories and anecdotes, as well as his own experience of being a cowboy for over a decade, to write about a fictional Texas-to-Montana cattle drive through the eyes of young Tom Quirk. There isn’t much in the way of an overarching plot or a main conflict, but it’s still fun. In this book, the reader gets to see everything that an Old West cattle trail had to offer, from cattle runs to dry spells to river crossings to Indians and outlaws. Everything from paperwork to boredom to how guard duties were split up is included in this, too. Adams wrote the book because he was fed up with the unrealistic cowboy stories that were being written at the time. The book is often thought to be the most realistic depiction of a cattle drive ever written.

Dry, but worth it for anyone who likes Western books! The outline of Lonesome Dove’s plot is very similar to that of Adams’ first book, so if you have any doubts about its place in the canon, you will quickly see that.

Riders of the Purple Sage 

by Zane Grey (1912)

As far back as the early days of the Western dime novel, Grey was the ruler. His output was very high, but the more he wrote, the more bad reviews he got from critics. Critics are always wary of people who seem to write too much. I don’t think those criticisms are true, because I find a lot of Grey’s work to be very readable and fun today, even though most of his work was written more than 100 years ago.

Riders of the Purple Sage, which came out in 1912, is the best of the bunch. It’s always on “Best Western Novels” lists for a good reason.

It’s a Western that has a more complicated plot than most. The story is about Jane Withersteen, who is harassed by fundamentalist Mormons. Elder Tull wants to marry Jane, but she doesn’t want to. Bern Venters and a mysterious gunman named Lassiter come to her aid when trouble starts up. Lassiter is looking for a long-lost sister, and Venters and Lassiter can help her find her. There are a lot of threads here, and some great plot twists. A good thing about this is that it’s more complicated than most books in the genre.

The Ox-Bow Incident 

by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (1940)

Cowboys Art Croft and Gil Carter have been riding into Bridger’s Wells, Nevada, where they have found a charged atmosphere. Several cows have been stolen, and a man named Kinkaid has just been killed. The people in the town are angry as hell and are looking for justice. Groups start forming almost right away. One group wants to get the judge and sheriff involved and make sure no bad things happen. Another group wants to form a “posse” to go after the rustlers and use Wild West justice: a hanging at sunrise to get the job done. They say that it takes too long to go through the courts and that too many men get away with crimes.

Yes, a group of people does gather. Then, the alleged rustlers are caught by the group. Is each man being hanged? Bridger’s Wells: Are they given a fair chance to be tried? Are they free?

Many of the Westerns on this list aren’t as fast-paced as this one, but the morality story inside its 80-year-old pages is still very relevant. Cowboy flannel and leather holsters are used to talk about the ethics of the mob. Western writers like L’Amour and Grey could be said to romanticize the West and its heroes in their work. Clark is more like Dashiell Hammett, who wrote about the West and its heroes in his work. People who are good and bad have a lot of problems, and the reader can’t figure out who he wants to be on his side.

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