The Wild West, as it is known, is not just a geographical location in American history but an era that lives on through legends. From Ohio and Kentucky to Alaska and Oregon, people have always moved westward. This land birthed the “cowboy” trope from the mid-to-late 1800s and, thus, revolutionized the fiction genre as we know it.
In the 1900s, novels began adapting to the American cowboy legend. The appeal was unignorable. The cowboy wasn’t your atypical “perfect” definition of a hero. He wasn’t a knight-in-shining armor. The beauty of the cowboy is in its groundedness and simplicity. The cowboy resonated with audiences on a deeper level. The stories of cowboys riding on their trusty steeds cutting through the rugged Wild West gave birth to what we know as the Western genre.
Before we delve into ten of the best historical Western fiction books of all time, let’s understand its four main components.
The 19th Century Setting
The story’s setting is one of the main features of a historical Western fiction story. An Old Western will usually take place in the 1800s, particularly mid-to-late. This was a time when Western frontiersmen and cowboys were particularly active. While the Machine Age was on the horizon in the East, the West was still wild.
We’re talking ranchers, gunfighters, frontiersmen, and, yes, cowboys. Inherently, the career of the typical Western character is somewhat limited. Oh, and horses are an essential feature in the ensemble for obvious reasons. These characters usually possess particular traits/skills ranging from hunting, fighting, and cooking.
After all, what sets a Western apart is the various challenges the frontier brings. An Old Western story will be, or should be, very descriptive. The landscapes are vividly portrayed and described while highlighting the challenges they bring, such as drought, wild animals, and mountains.
Intrigued? Here are some of the best Western books to immerse yourself in.
Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
Kicking off the list, we have a book by an author who was considered the king of Western novels. Riders of the Purple Sage was published in 1912 and quickly became the best of all his works. Hence, you will find this particular mention among lists of the best historical Western fiction ever.
The story involves Jane Withersteen and her harassment perpetuated by a group of Mormon fundamentalists. Jane refuses the proposition of marrying Elder Tull, and, as you would imagine, trouble begins. Jane then takes the help of Bern Venters and a gunman named Lassiter. The book is filled with exciting sequences and plot twists.
Shane by Jack Schaefer
Shane is easily regarded as one of the best Western novels of all time. Even though the book is concise, the story itself exudes the full potential of storytelling with its virile energy.
The book is narrated by Bob Starrett, who is in a small outpost in the Wyoming Territory. Out of the blue, Shane rides into Starrett’s home and takes up temporary residence. Shane eventually becomes close to the family, and Bob sees the rider as a godlike figure.
Enter Luke Fletcher, an all-around bad guy looking to confiscate the land from a group of homesteaders, including Starrett.
Without spoiling too much, let’s leave it at that for you to bask in the sheer masculinity, thrill, and unrivaled artistry in the West.
The Searchers by Alan Le May
Everyone may know The Searchers for its famous movie adaptation, but those who haven’t read the book don’t know what they are missing out on.
The story starts with one of the most devastating openings on the list. Comanche viscerates the Edwards family, murdering the men and kidnapping the women. The story follows a years-long quest by Marty, a young man virtually adopted, who is a part of Edward’s family.
The book is particularly on the list due to its impeccable writing, encapsulating homesteaders’ plights and how he navigated them to make a life on the off-dangerous frontier.
True Grit by Charles Portis
This read features arguably the most memorable and scariest characters in Western history. We have the 14-year-old Mattie Ross following the one-eyed US Marshal Rooster Cogburn.
The narrator of the story is an older Ross, who tells the story of the time she tried to avenge her father’s murder. Mattie then journeys to Fort Smith, Arkansas, in search of the man who would help her on the quest and ends up meeting Cogburn, who has the correct “grit” for the job.
The language of the read is incredibly addicting. Portis has a knack for penning memorable scenes, keeping readers hooked until the end.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
This historical Western fiction is the benchmark for the genre. The book also received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize and a masterclass in writing.
The lore is pretty straightforward. We have a group of long-time friends and a group of ranch hands who, together, embark on a cattle drive from the Rio Grande to Montana. In the process, they encounter outlaws, Indians, and much more.
The author fleshes out the simple story into a book spanning a whopping 800+ pages, but make no mistake; you will be begging for more by the end of it.
The Revenant by Michael Punke
You might know of this title as the movie for which Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Academy Award. However, the true beauty of The Revenant’s story is to be experienced through the pages as penned by Michael Punke.
The story is a survival story set in the 1820s in Wyoming and Montana. After being brutally mauled by a bear, Hugh Glass is in tatters, barely alive. Hugh’s comrades manage to carry his body for a couple of days, only to realize there is no way he is going to make it. They bury Hugh’s body, abandoning him on their journey. And just like that, from the dirt, Glass rises and finds his way back.
The adventure is filled with graphic scenes masterfully written by one of the most talented authors of our generation.
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
Unlike most historical Western fiction featured in the list, the story takes place in a relatively modern setting, the 1980s. During hunting, Llewelyn Moss finds himself involved in a drug deal gone wrong and claims two million dollars for himself, which he stumbles upon among the carnage. In the process, Moss is hunted down by some nasty individuals, including Anton Chigurh, one of the most terrifying villains in Western history.
The book delivers in terms of thrill, anticipation, and a satisfying twist on the genre of Western fiction.
The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout
Even though the typical story trope of a Western gunman is fairly saturated, The Shootist feels like a timeless masterpiece, courtesy of Glendon Swarthout.
Diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, gunman J.B. Books looks to spend his final days in El Paso. The town does not take his stay well; Books, however, persists. Being an infamous man, Books encounters numerous reporters trying to get a story out of him while gunmen are looking to bolster their reputations by compromising the veteran.
It is a powerful story, encompassing the dying days of a man who wishes to correct his sordid reputation. In the end, we get to experience one of the most memorable scenes you’ll come across in fiction.
The Son by Philipp Meyer
This particular story is told through the eyes of the three main characters: Colonel Eli, Peter, his son, and his great-granddaughter, Jeanna.
As a kid, Colonel Eli had managed to survive a Comanche raid, living with the tribe for three years. Upon his return, Colonel had become a Texas Ranger and, subsequently, a rancher, feuding with the neighboring Garcia family. To Peter’s discontent, the Colonel’s son, Eli, turns out to be a disappointment, falling in love with a Garcia daughter. On the other hand, Jeanna has the drive for business and setting up an empire.
The book contains a history of the West blended in with a family drama that will keep you engaged.
Wichita U.S. Marshall by Jedediah Ravine
Wichita U.S. Marshall features a riveting narrative of the protagonist, Wichita, who struggles between justice and vengeance and the unintended consequences of his chosen path. Leaving his old life behind, he wishes to start anew with the love of his life, only to find his house ripped to shreds and his heart broken. But with the thirst for vengeance, Wichita follows his enemies’ trail in a revenge story that will keep you transfixed. Besides the compelling story, the beauty of Wichita U.S. Marshall exudes via the wise voice of Jedediah Ravine, as the book is best experienced in the audiobook format.
If you truly wish to immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of the Wild, Wild West, be sure to check out Wichita U.S. Marshall, one of the best Historical Western fiction, now available on Amazon.