I literally did not know where to start on my list of favorite 19th Century American West novels. There are so many that picking just a few was challenging to say the least! Romance? Western? Inspired by real events? Old favorites? New releases? I fell in love with this setting when my third grade teacher gave me Little House in the Big Woods (Laura Ingalls Wilder)—that’s over five decades of reading!
I still have my entire Laura Ingalls Wilder collection, all of them pretty tattered from childhood and teenage reading.
All of LaVyrle Spencer’s books are keepers that I read again and again for the depth of character and the “real” conflicts. Two of the most tattered are The Fulfillment and Vows. Ironically, both stories focus on love triangles with no traditional “villains.” In The Fulfillment, Jonathan is racked with pain over his inability to give Mary a child but when he asks his brother Aaron to father a child for him, all three face the consequences of infidelity, forever altering Mary and Aaron’s abiding friendship, marital trust, and the brothers’ relationship. It’s a haunting tale of good intentions gone wrong. In Vows, Emily and Tom fight their attraction every step of the way until Emily realizes her engagement to Tom’s best friend must be broken despite the heartache to all. A subplot involving Emily’s parents and her mother’s best friend makes the book all the richer.
Other authors on my historical romance keeper shelf include Maggie Osborne and Jill Marie Landis. I have been a fan of both for many years and was blessed to have them each provide cover quotes for my own novels.
Of course, I have always loved westerns in the classic sense. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is a treasure trove of unique characters. The Virginian (Owen Wister) forces the reader to think about honor. My Antonia by Willa Cather is a true exploration of the immigrant pioneer experience and the strength involved. Like my shelf of historical romances, I have more western keepers than I’ve room to mention here.
Then, there are the novels inspired by real events. My heart currently lies here, with these types of stories the focus of what I now write.
Jane Kirkpatrick’s A Light in the Wilderness is the layered story of three women who settled Oregon: freed slave Letitia battles prejudice and legal challenges, reluctant pioneer Nancy endures loss to follow her husband West, and Kalapuya Indian Betsy seeks ways to impart the wisdom of her people on to her grandson in an ever-changing world. In One More River to Cross, Kirkpatrick traces the fate of Stevens-Murphy company, stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains two years before the Donner Party suffered a similar fate. Her skilled weaving of three women’s stories offers unique perspectives on what matters most in the face of life and death.
Ashley E. Sweeney takes on the topic of the Donner Party in Answer Creek. Told from the perspective of Ada Weeks, the novel blends the threats that befell the entire party, the necessities of survival, and Ada’s own internal struggles.
I need to also mention a fairly unknown novel that swept me off my feet. The Not So Quiet Life of Calamity Jane by K. Lyn Wurth is a retelling of Jane Canary’s tragic life and all that lay beneath the legend. I was awed by how deeply Wurth was able to allow me into Canary’s point of view. Rarely do I set a book down to say “wow” and bask in the passage I just read.
I really could go on and on but I will leave my list at these selected few of my many favorites. The American West truly is a place in which one can get lost!
Deeply committed to remaining true to historical fact within her fiction, Pamela Nowak employs a deft combination of research and character development fiction to make forgotten stories come alive. She’s won multiple national awards, including a Will Rogers Gold Medallion and two First Place Laramie Awards.