"I Was Born Under a Wand'rin' Star"

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"I Was Born Under a Wand'rin' Star"

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Editat: oct. 1, 2017, 6:37pm

I was born in the South but spent my earliest years to age 8 in the West. My grandpa was a wheat rancher in Montana, an emigre draft dodger, fleeing WWI from France. He started as the town butcher, married a bride he brought west from Wisconsin to help him homestead. They lived their first year in the barn, having not built a house yet.

As a 4 and 5 year old, I remember going into the little town on a Saturday, the same time the cowboys and ranchers came, too. My special treat was a soda fountain drink at the drug store and a fistful of candy coated almonds (really my grandpa's favorite candy, not mine), which I loved to eat, sitting in his car. He bought a new one every other year. Why did I love this so?

Because I could sit out of the wind and stare at the dark weathered wiry little men who leaned with one leg cocked behind them, against the drugstore wall, hand-rolling their cigarettes, a talent not a few of them could accomplish with one hand. They were tanned, clean, smelling of barbershop emollients, and endlessly romantic with their far seeing squint-eyes barely visible under their pulled-down Stetsons. I felt safe in their presence, alone in the car. And the tumbleweeds couldn't get me.

That memory and others probably caused me to have a deep love for Western books and writers. I know these people, I've memorized their landscapes.

Americans, especially, love their myths of the Old West. Our beings resonate to epic tales of mountain men, cowboys, desperados, cattle drives, "noble savages," range wars, and shoot-outs. When we think of Western writers, Zane Gray is probably the first author who springs to mind. When we think of all-time great Western novels, Lonesome Dove brooks no argument. When we're asked to recommend a classic Western story, Jack Schaefer's serialized "Rider from Nowhere" epitomizes that exemplary tale.

What? Never heard of "Rider from Nowhere"? Perhaps you know it better by its later title when published in book form, Shane.

But the classic Western has its variants. Consider Norman Maclean's beautiful Western novella about the anti-hero, A River Runs Through It, or Ivan Doig's celebrations of the Montana landscape between the wars, even Willa Cather's hymns to the settlers of the Great Plains are examples.

But the new kid on the block is the class of books that can own the identifier, "Western noir." Two brilliant novels that belong to that class deserve your attention. The more well known is The Sister's Brothers, a novel that explores the idea of honor among hired killers. Less well known but even more revolutionary is the rich saga by Tom Spanbauer's The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, a novel about the West that John Wayne wouldn't recognize and who some call a "gay Western."

I've never read a Zane Gray novel. So he's not my favorite, nor IMO, the greatest writer of Westerns. I think everyone else mentioned here are favorites and great.

What do you think -- have a favorite Western author, an opinion about the best one writing now or who wrote in the past? Let's make a distinction between Western writers and writers of Westerns. Haruf, Steinbeck, and Stegner are Western writers as, arguably, is Maclean. McMurtry is both. But Tom Berger's parody, Little Big Man is a Western novel. Andy Adams, Owen Wister, Charles Portis, and Annie Proulx write Westerns.

Herd 'em up and head 'em out!

oct. 22, 2015, 3:06pm

>1 Limelite: A lovely essay. Thank you.

I'm not a reader of Westerns at all, but you may inspire me to try some. The only ones I've ever read are three by Louis L'Amour that I picked up while driving across the western states from Chicago to San Jose, hitting a string of national parks on the way (including Badlands and Glacier and Arches and Zion). I read ones that were set in the territory we were crossing.

Do you not think much of Louis L'Amour? I know he's popular, but I have no idea how he ranks among other authors in the genre.

oct. 22, 2015, 3:29pm

You've struck another author whose books I haven't read. I think I'm a Literary Western snob. I shouldn't be, but I came to the genre as an adult with too sophisticated tastes (IMO) for what I believed, in my early 20s, to be pulp fiction and dime store novels -- those paperbacks with lurid covers.

I really need to read Riders of the Purple Sage and Hondo -- they're iconic, both authors and both novels.

oct. 22, 2015, 3:50pm

Riders of the Purple Sage is awful.

oct. 22, 2015, 5:56pm

Enjoyed the essay, Limelite. I've not read many Westerns, steeped primarily in the Clint Eastwood-Sergio Leone filmic visions, which already critiqued and undercut many of the Western standards. I read one Louis L'Amour novel, under similar circumstances as Meredy, and enjoyed it but wasn't motivated to seek out any others.

I've been hearing that Lonesome Dove is worth my time and attention, but haven't gotten to it.

I love Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and am seeking out a novel by Rudie Wurlitzer upon which it was (allegedly) based, but they are also departures from the standard Western, as I understand it.

oct. 22, 2015, 8:29pm

Lonesome Dove is tough to recommend because of the presentation of it and the near universal love for it...but it's great.

oct. 23, 2015, 10:46am

I don't read Westerns as a general rule, but I have found some that I quite enjoyed.

The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter van Tilburg Clark is what I would define as a classic. Written in 1940 is is still fantastic. Clark lived in Nevada at the time. (So both a Western and a western author).

Second on my list would be Doc by Mary Doria Russell.

My favorite western author would have to be Craig Johnson. Not 'westerns' in the traditional sense, his books reflect the Montana of today and so far every one has been a great read.

Probably not on anyone's 'western' list are the "Weird West Tales" of Mike Resnick. A 'steampunk' western series that starts with The Buntline Special they are fun and entertaining and put a whole new picture forward of the 'wild west'.

oct. 23, 2015, 11:04am

>5 elenchus: and >7 mysterymax:

LD is, IMO, the Great American Novel, as I've promoted elsewhere on LT. It's a novel I've read at least 4 times and get something new from it each time. It's probably the only novel I've re-read knowingly.

Doig, Haruf, Maclean, Spanbauer, and deWitt (Canadian author of The Sisters Brothers) are all literary fiction writers, not hard-boiled writers of Westerns.

I'll be looking for Craig Johnson.

Cormac McCarthy is another literary writer of Westerns. I haven't read any of his books, either.

Steampunk needs a topic around here. Would you like to start us off in another thread, >7 mysterymax:?

oct. 23, 2015, 11:23am

I wonder if anyone is aware of / is enthusiastic about Westerns set somewhere other than the (U.S.) American West. Perhaps Canadian Rockies, or South America, or Australia? Of course the context is different, so maybe there's nothing and that's part of the distinction of the genre. But there are enough cultural and historical parallels that I wonder if a fresh take might be offered.

oct. 23, 2015, 3:01pm

There also the mountain man books, like, Mountain Man, by Vardis Fisher...then there's the Guthrie novels, predominantly The Big Sky, though the rest in that series are also good.

oct. 23, 2015, 4:05pm

Cool riff, Limelite. I've always thought westerns were sci-fi for dads, and I can't read most sci-fi. I read and liked The Last Picture Show, but that's not really a western just set out west. I have a copy of The Sisters Brothers but it's not calling me. Not really. Wait, is there a nun in it?...

oct. 23, 2015, 6:23pm

>1 Limelite: I enjoyed your intro very much!

I don't read a lot of Western books. I love Stegner's Angle of Repose, but his other books leave me cold, and I really enjoyed No Country for Old Men, but have never made it through anything else by McCarthy. Lonesome Dove was impossible and I gave up about 1/4 of the way in.

I have read Zane Grey, quite a bit of it. When I was younger, my family took long camping trips in the summer, usually for a month or more, and we covered lots of ground. During long, flat stretches of road I would read Zane Grey to my dad. The books made my dad rock with hilarity, although I couldn't see the humour. As an adult, I realized that my dad was laughing at the story and the writing, but for years I thought that Grey must be a humourist that I was too young to understand!

oct. 23, 2015, 8:32pm

>9 elenchus:

I think Australia has the closest correpondance to the US as a setting for a Western. Look how the country got started; look at the white vs. Aboriginal history; look at their examples of the desperado, and look at the settler stories that feature wide open spaces, lonely ranches, rugged individualists, and lots of Man vs. Nature thematic opportunities.

Anyone have other opinions? Agree?

nov. 3, 2015, 6:49am

>13 Limelite: Really enjoyed reading your OP.

You mentioned Jack Schaefer's “Shane”. One of his later works, “The Canyon”, I found to be a magical read. The young indian boy therin with the nick-name The boy with the moon in his eyes says it all.

nov. 4, 2015, 11:03am


Seems the moon was a very significant symbol or part of the environment among Indians. I've read two novels featuring Indians where the word appears in the title.

Years ago, I read The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters but don't remember the names of any Indians in that book. I loved the story as a kid and thinking about it now makes me want to read it again.

nov. 9, 2015, 5:07am

>15 Limelite:

Yep! Read the reviews on Jaimie McPheeters, I will have to try and snag a copy, sounds good.

nov. 11, 2015, 12:06am

I have been asked by Limelite to comment Comanche Dawn by Mike Blakely. It is a very well written story of the introduction of horses to America in the 1690's and the birth of the Comanche nation. It appears to be a well researched novel but being a novel there is probably a fair bit literary license. I highly recommend it though as you learn a bit of Indian culture and it is not just a gunslinger western.

I have several other excellent western novels to recommend:

1. Walk in My Soul by Lucia St. Clair Robson : this is the sad story of the plight of the Cheerokee indian experience and the novel ends with the forced migration from their farms ... the so-called "Trail of Tears". The characters are real. You will read about Tiana a Cherokee woman and a young Sam Huston. You should be disgusted at the greed of the white migration to the west. The Cheerokee were as close to white culture as could be found... they had farms, a written language and a newspaper but that meant nothing to the white people of the time. The story is hard to put down and a very well written Historical novel.

2. The Outlander by Gil Adamson : I suppose this is a borderline western as it takes place in 1903 in south eastern British Columbia, Canada. It is a story of a young woman on the run from two brothers of her abusive husband whom she murdered. An excellent read ending with a real event...the Frank Slide of Turtle mountain.

3. Gone to Texas by Don Wright : I read this book expecting a typical gunslinger book but was pleasantly surprised. It is about two members of the James gang shortly after the Civil War, who leave the gang after a bank robbery gone wrong and flee to Texas to escape the law. What I liked was the description of the life and times then. The characters seemed quite real to me.

4. Shaman by Noah Gordon : this is the second book in the "Cole Series". The first book is even better than this one, titled - The Physician but this first one takes place in Europe. The Shaman takes place in America just before and during the American Civil War. It is a story of an immigrant coming to America bringing superb skills as a doctor and physician...inherited from his ancestor from the other book. He has a son who is deaf and you follow this son as well as he learns to overcome his disability and becomes an excellent doctor himself... a very good read.

5. The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan : this is a long and very well written novel about the fall of the Alamo. It tells the story from both sides and as such seems to me to be a definitive novel on the subject in story form.

6. Sacajawea (Lewis & Clark Expedition) by Anna L. Waldo : if you read only one book from this list, read Sacajawea. I have rarely rated a book at 5 out of 5 but this is definitely a 5 star book. Sacajawea is an Indian woman with a child who travels as a guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Without her that expedition would have failed miserably. Waldo starts each chapter with an excerpt from the diary kept during the expedition and build a fictional account around these excerpts. A very long novel... one you wish would not end.

I hope you like my picks... I am constantly looking for other good Western reads so I will check out the other posts here.

nov. 11, 2015, 10:20am

Lynkxear, are you familiar with the works of Allan W. Eckert? He writes frontier novels set in the West when the West was the Ohio valley westward into Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia. Not very far west, geographically, but chronicles the troubles between the Native Americans and those who were running from civilization. I've read a couple of them, The Frontiersman is the only title that comes to mind. My family shows up prominently in The Frontersman, but not in a good way. It's set mostly on the West Virginia side of the river, but this was the wild west in 1750. I recommend at least The Frontiersman and, as I recall, the other one was every bit as good.

Editat: nov. 11, 2015, 10:51am

I'm a Montana girl. While I was going to college in the 70's, I worked in a bookstore where both Norman Maclean and A. B. Guthrie (The Big Sky, The Way West) would come in and hang out. The Way West won a Pulitzer.

Another Montana western writer that I've always enjoyed is Dorothy Johnson. If you haven't read any of hers, you might look for her short story collection The Hanging Tree.

I don't read many westerns , but I'm interested in reading something by Canadian author Guy Vanderhaeghe. He just won his third Canadian Governor General award.

Editat: nov. 11, 2015, 9:41pm

>17 Lynxear:
Thanks for the book titles. I'm developing a soft spot for atypical Western fiction. One of my favorites is Robert Olmstead's Far Bright Star, called "a thinking-reader's western" by critics. True. But it's one of the most devastating short novels I've ever read. I include it in my personal file of "Little Gems," those small or short books that are particularly brilliant. If you get hold of it, you won't be wasting your time.

nov. 12, 2015, 1:20am

>18 geneg: I have read a science fiction book The HAB theory by Allan W. Eckert ... I was not impressed with this book. It was an apocalypse book... the story was fine except the apocalypse never happened and I felt cheated as the apocalypse is a topic that I am very interested in reading.

But I understand he is more of a historical fiction writer and as such I might give him a second chance.

nov. 12, 2015, 1:26am

>20 Limelite: I'll look for it