Searching long and hard through the treacherous backend roads of the Internet, we wanted to brush up your knowledge on the best Western novels ever written.
Cowboys aren’t much for small talk, so we’ll get to the point: Here is our list of the best Western books by category. Feel free to disagree—but if you do, expect to be challenged to a good, old Western showdown.
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Best Shoot ’Em Up Western
Often there is a kind of glory given to the gun-slinging culture of the Wild West. But what if you removed that hint of glory? Then you would have the incredible (and incredibly grim) Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, which takes readers to a world of gun and arrow shooting, scalping, and breaking bottles over the heads of bartenders—a world where heinous acts of violence reign supreme.
Best Historical Fiction Western
It’s difficult to quantify the lure of the outlaw, that often sympathetic villain who blurs the lines between compassion and disgust, 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 author Ron Hansen in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Best Romantic Western
If the dove is a symbol of peace, the characters of Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, have yet to find it. Centered around the lives of disgruntled former Texas Rangers Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, this is a tale of despair and redemption, of love lost and found and lost again. By the way, this novel also won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
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Best “You’ve Probably Never Heard of It” Western
A classic chase narrative weaving themes of revenge and the loss of innocence, The Hell Bent Kid, by Charles O. Locke, chronicles the escape of teenager Tot Lonham through the heart of Texas with the vengeful Boyd family in hot pursuit. First published more than 50 years ago, it was made into a movie called From Hell to Texas, starring Don Murray and directed by Henry Hathaway.
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Best Lone-Wolf Western
Louis L’Amour is so successful an author that he once wrote a movie novelization still revered in Western literature more than 60 years after the movie first came out. In Hondo, a lone, rogue cowboy who is no stranger to murder enters the house of a married woman and her child—and their lives will never be the same again.
Best Nonfiction Western
“Bury my heart at Wounded Knee,” writes poet Stephen Vincent Benet in his poem “American Names.” It’s a phrase that author Dee Brown makes literal in his novel of the same name. In Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Brown recounts the tragic massacre of the Native American tribes in the late 1800s, honestly and provocatively giving a voice to a moral horror that America too often tries to hide.
Best Children’s Western
Aside from dying of cholera in the Oregon Trail video game, reading Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, has been a childhood staple for generation upon generation. Set in the late 1800s, this fictional novel, based in part on the author’s own experience, is the story of the Ingalls family and their life on the Kansas prairie, detailing the hardships and pleasures of a family in the untamed West.
Best Dynamic Duo Western
Contrary to their last name, Charlie and Eli Sisters are, well, brothers. They are also some of the best hit men in the Wild West, commissioned to kill a man who possesses a peculiar formula that can reveal the location of gold in riverbeds. The darkly comic The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011.
Best Life-on-the-Frontier Western
Set in the Nebraska plains, My Ántonia, by Willa Cather, is the story of Ántonia, a woman who finds herself in a situation that is doubly strange: once, because she is a foreigner knowing little English who has come with her family to the United States, and twice, because within the United States, she has come to the frontier, a land strange and unknown to even the Americans who live there. But her struggle to persevere in this strange frontier land is an inspiration to all.
Best Old-School Western
Before there were Westerns, there was the Western, a novel called Riders of the Purple Sage, by Zane Grey, that is often credited for truly kick-starting the Western as a genre. It is the story of Jane Withersteen, a Utah rancher whose livelihood is threatened by a proposed marriage she does not want, until a lone cowboy named Lassiter comes to town.
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Best Revenge-Tale Western
Mattie is just your typical 14-year-old. That is if your typical 14-year-old girl’s father had been murdered and robbed by a man named Tom Chancey and said typical 14-year-old girl would stop at nothing to get vengeance for her father’s death. Such is the fast-paced, thrilling story of Mattie in True Grit, by Charles Portis.
Best “Most Likely to Be a Modern Classic” Western
If the dramatic nature of “Don’t Mess with Texas” was bundled up into one family history and written into a book, then that might come close to describing The Son, by Philipp Meyer. This epic story of family, oil, blood, and tragedy alternates between three characters from the late 1800s to the late 1900s, and has been highly praised.