5 Must-Read Western Novels for a Taste of the Old Frontier

While today’s cowboy boots rarely leave the dance floor, we’re all familiar with their Wild West origin: worn leather, sweat-stained rims and the “times when men were men.” From Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry to Hondo by Louis L’Amour, these five Western novels lend a wild ride back to the Old Frontier. Behold the Western archetypes of gunslinging marshals, marauding Native Americans and cowboy romances as plots unfold and good men die.

5. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry based his 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove on real-life Texas Rangers. Saddle up with Gus and Call as they ride from Texas to Montana in McMurtry’s illuminated world of cattle drives in the 1800s. The journey north is trenched in life lessons, horse thievery, Native American war parties, river crossings, loss and rustic western simple pleasures. The characters inspire laughter and tears as they teach what’s truly important in life. McMurtry makes those Texas Rangers and the Wild West a part of you.

4. True Grit by Charles Portis

In an era when the world preferred its women less hardy, True Grit brought us Mattie Ross. While the plot serves as an obvious John Wayne movie adaptation and a later Coen brothers film (nominated for 10 Academy Awards), the book’s character development has yet to be achieved on the big screen. True Grit grabs you, page by page, as Mattie Ross avenges the murder of her father at the age of 14, demonstrating “true grit” all the while.

Ross narrates the tale half a century later, gifting us with her recount of the revenge enacted by the dynamic trio: a young Ross, unruly Federal Marshall “Rooster” and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf.

3. The Son by Philipp Meyer

The Son maps three generations of southwestern violence and lust for oil, cattle and land. From the 19th century frontier savagery to 20th century oil booms and high society, the saga follows the family’s rise from borderland pioneers to exceedingly wealthy oil tycoons. Eli McCullough, the most enthralling narrator, is thirteen when he is taken captive after his family is savagely murdered by Comanches.

Eli grows into a respected Comanche himself, speaking their language and loving their women, until disease and starvation leave the tribe to die at the hands of armed Americans. Forced back into white American civilization, Eli reluctantly becomes a Texas Ranger. The novel begs the question: Who has the right to this land that we call ours?

2. All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

All The Pretty Horses, a national bestseller, winner of the National Book Award for fiction and the first book in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, follows John Grady Cole as the family’s West Texas ranch is sold, and Cole, with nothing to his name, rides off to Mexico with compadre, Rawlins, in 1949. A 16-year-old with nowhere else to turn. Fortunately, Cole and Rawlin’s equestrian skills land them a gig with a Mexican hacienda.

Cruelty and violence open the boys’ eyes to a harsh world and nd the injustice only worsens when John falls in love with the Mexican owner’s daughter. The real reason to pick up the book: McCarthy’s language is brilliant.

1. Hondo by Louis L’Amour

Any Louis L’Amour book, really, will do. However, his Hondo, published in 1953, features a captivating love triangle between a pioneer woman, Apache warrior and anglo gunman in the late 1800s. John Wayne dubs this book the finest western he had ever read, and with great reason.

Like Meyers, L’Amour doesn’t single the Apaches out as the bad guys. With a more romantic, empathetic tone than the other western classics, Hondo depicts somber loves and loyalties that will have you swooning. The beauty of L’Amour’s imagery will have you feeling all sorts of ways.

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5 Must-Read Western Novels for a Taste of the Old Frontier