Five Westerns That Inspired Malcolm Brooks

Five Westerns That Inspired Malcolm Brooks

Malcolm Brooks’s Painted Horses, set in 1950s Montana, is an undisputed ode to the American West. Archaeologist Catherine Lemay finds herself in Montana where she encounters John H., who has been living as a fugitive in the canyon where she is conducting her dig. The two connect in unexpected ways amidst a broader narrative about life in the West in the 1950s, providing insight into a way of life that has all but evaporated. Here, author Malcolm Brooks chats about his five favorite influential Westerns.

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    1. Lonesome Dove

    I received this book as a gift from my eighth grade English teacher in the summer of 1985, in what turned out to be a pivotal moment for me as a reader. I had a two-hour bus route to high school the next fall, and Lonesome Dove made the ride seem short. I’d been reading uncomplicated genre Westerns for a couple of years, and McMurtry’s rambling, character-driven epic was like a lightning strike to my very consciousness, showing me that regardless of setting and era, real literature, like real life, is by turns lyrical, comical, mystical, and often totally heartbreaking.

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    2. The Hanging Tree

    Probably best known for the classic titles “A Man Called Horse” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” Dorothy M. Johnson was a pioneer in her own right—a woman working in a field almost totally owned by men. Born in 1906 and raised in the frontier town of Whitefish, Montana, she determined early on to fend for herself, and set off for New York as a professional journalist. At first blush her short fiction appears to be standard 1950s pulp, but dig deeper—amid the dust and drawls and duels in the street are striking comments on myth and reality, powerful portraits of frontier women, and hauntingly direct depictions of Plains Indian custom. “Lost Sister,” inspired by Comanche captive Cynthia Ann Parker, defies every genre formula while capturing both the romance and the tragedy of the passing frontier. Miss Johnson herself lived and died as a total original—her headstone in Whitefish simply reads PAID.

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    3. All the Pretty Horses

    Blood Meridian may well be to Cormac McCarthy what Hamlet is to Shakespeare, but this first novel in the Border Trilogy is, to me, his most fully human story, the one to which I endlessly return. On one level it’s a classic boy’s adventure tale, on another a knight’s quest across a medieval wasteland. It’s also an amazing hybrid of moody, atmospheric writing and spot-on detail—the saddles are right, the guns are right, the dialogue is right, and the larger themes of honor and crushing hierarchy totally transcend genre. My oldest son is named after the main character.

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    4. Legends of the Fall

    Jim Harrison’s revivification of the novella, first published in full—with illustrations!—in Esquire. A sweeping, old-fashioned epic conveyed in well under a hundred pages, Harrison defied conventional narrative technique to achieve the headlong pace of a bison stampede, assuming bison could charge from the Montana plains to European battlefields to Caribbean smuggling coves. Full to bursting with gunplay and star-crossed romance, Plains Indian hunting lore, and a sort of 19th century naturalist’s eye for the grand hard ground of the West, the author must surely have known that stretching things to blockbuster proportions might corral an entire herd of cash cows. But to his credit, and our benefit, the art of the thing always came first.

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    5. Blood and Thunder

    Truth becomes more riveting than fiction in the hands of Sides, and the complicated, paradoxical, utterly badass Kit Carson proves a perfect central character. Illiterate but polyglot, gallant but crafty, charitable but homicidal, Carson typified the American frontier hero even while the Myth of the West was still in utero. “He pursued vengeance as though it were something sacred,” Sides writes, “with a kind of dogged focus that might be called tribal—his tribe being the famously grudge-happy Scotch-Irish.” Unleashed in the service of American Indian displacement—here the Navajo Wars of the mid-19th century—Carson’s particular brand of schizophrenia makes for a double-sided glimpse into the American soul, by turns heroic and murderous, idealistic and hypocritical, noble and downright appalling.

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