We’re approaching a hundred days of confinement this week here in Northern California and I’m jonesin’ for a jailbreak. Unfortunately, the raging COVID-19 virus continues to keep me captive. So, it looks like I’ll be doing more armchair traveling than road-tripping this summer. Sequestered in my home and neighborhood I find I’m drawn to stories that transport me to the wide-open spaces of the American West.
Plug “Western” into a search bar and you’ll likely pull up a list like “Westerns that Every Man Should Read.” These lists feature cowboys, ranchers, homesteaders, gunfighters, sheriffs, rangers and frontiersmen with heavy emphasis on the Men that would appeal to Every Man.
But are there Westerns that “Every Woman Should Read?”
In researching my own Western novel featuring a female protagonist, I came across a number of stories set in the 19th century American West that did not relegate women to a supporting role. These women also homesteaded, farmed, tended livestock, encountered Native Americans, navigated cultural differences with other immigrants, raised children, created beauty and discovered their own inner reserves on the new frontier. Some of them even became gal gunslingers.
If you’re looking to see How the West was Won by Women, consider these stories from the past that continue to have relevance today.
Combine the lazy days of summer with the languid months of COVID and you have time to read a longer classic like Wallace Stenger’s Angle of Repose or John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It would not be a misspent summer to work through Willa Cather’s beloved trio My Antonia, O Pioneers and my favorite, The Song of the Lark.
Fraught race relations and cultural clashes were a natural consequence of the westward expansion. Skirmishes between immigrants from various countries—primarily over water to irrigate all that arid land—were common and “Indian troubles” rampant. Some of the most heartbreaking tales feature pioneer children who were captured by and integrated into Native American communities then reclaimed by their people with devastating results. Paulette Jiles’s News of the World explores such a story with spare, elegant efficiency. And if you’re looking for a non-fiction companion read try The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Atman by Margot Mifflin.
Learning to live in harmony with the land even as they conquered it— climate change concerns, anyone? — was paramount for 19th century homesteaders. Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist or Irene Sandall’s Beloved Over All capture the stark beauty and challenges of farming and ranching. The revelatory biography Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder paints vivid pictures of the acclaimed author and her family taming the land they love.
Finally, the West was both a place and a dream that drew unconventional people—outlaws, renegades and rebels; not to mention religious zealots. Some might even say, influencers and visionaries. My novel, The Casket Maker’s Other Wife, features Mormon immigrants in Utah and Idaho Territories who practiced polygamy. Stories of women like my protagonist Anna who chose to enter polygamy for survival and/or religious conviction can cast a light on how modern women navigate challenging frontiers. For other contemporary takes on Mormon polygamists in the 19th Century read Ann Weisgarber’s The Glovemaker: A Novel, Judith Freeman’s Red Water or Sandra Dallas’s True Sisters.
And while we wait to fully open up, if you’re looking for longer fictional narratives about this time, place and practice, I’d recommend three classics—Virginia Sorenson’s A Little Lower Than the Angels, Maureen Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, or Ardith Kennelly’s The Peaceable Kingdom. All three authors were born in Utah in the first part of the last century. They would likely have known a few old-timey polygamists ( the LDS church abandoned the practice in 1890). Accordingly, their stories carry particular weight despite (or because of?) the more archaic writing styles.
Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.