Saddle Up: Five Must-Read Westerns

Saddle Up: Five Must-Read Westerns

Westerns are an incredibly entertaining genre. They have adventure, action, and real human relationships all rolled up into one. Samantha Mabry, author of All the Wind in the World knows this well. Her latest novel, which was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, follows the love story of Sarah Jac and James. The two fall for each other in an inhospitable environment (you guessed it: out West) and must fight to stay together. Here, Mabry shares her favorites from the genre.

The following list of Westerns leaves out the more typical, traditional novels (Lonesome Dove, True Grit, The Virginian) in favor of some of my personal, and in my opinion overlooked, favorites.

Angle of Repose

Angle of Repose is one of my all-time favorites. It’s a story in a story of sorts, about a historian who decides to write about the lives of his frontier-era grandparents. There are gorgeous epistolary elements, based on the real-life letters of a woman from New York who moved with her new husband out West. I’m not sure my description is doing this novel much justice. Just trust me, it’s brilliant. There are such so many elements here that are lovely—most of all the attempt to make sense of the present by looking to the past, rising to the myriad challenges of an uncertain future, and survival amidst what seems like certain defeat.

No Country for Old Men

There are other Cormac McCarthy titles, such as Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses, that are considered “true” Westerns, but I’ve always had a soft spot for a story set in the modern day that still manages to capture the spirit of the Wild West. No Country for Old Men features a nihilistic villain and weary hero, and the story itself is brutal and frightening, and it is set against a spare and quietly beautiful landscape.

Under a Painted Sky

This young adult novel is about a young Chinese girl named Samantha who, along with a runaway slave named Annamae, flees Missouri and heads out on the Oregon Trail. The girls disguise themselves as boys named Andy and Sammy. Early on in their travels, they link up with some cowboys (young and adorable cowboys, naturally), and become uneasy allies. I love stories where people come together—or are forced together—and then overcome various trust issues to become a family.

The Birchbark House

The Birchbark House is a children’s novel about a year in the life of a young Anishinabe girl named Omakayas, her family, and her community. The story—set in what is now Minnesota—mostly chronicles day-to-day life, but lurking in the background is the threat of the white settlers encroaching on Anishinabe lands. This is a wonderful, at times tragic, story about family, history, and connection to place.

Death Comes for the Archbishop

I’ve always been mesmerized by novels that are episodic in structure, meaning that they consist of a set of interlocking stories. In the case of Death Comes for the Archbishop, there are nine books, the first of which begins with a line about a young priest wandering, lost and alone in the middle of New Mexico in 1851. Ultimately, this is a novel about men with goals and how those goals are thwarted by unforeseen challenges and an inhospitable environment. It’s dusty and sad and lovely.

Samantha Mabry grew up in Texas playing bass guitar along to vinyl records, writing fan letters to rock stars, and reading big, big books, and credits her tendency toward magical thinking to her Grandmother Garcia, who would wash money in the kitchen sink to rinse off any bad spirits. She teaches writing and Latino literature at El Centro College in Dallas, Texas, where she lives with her husband, a historian, and her pets, including a cat named Mouse. She is the author of the novels A Fierce and Subtle Poison and All the Wind in the World, which was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Visit her online at or on Twitter: @samanthamabry.


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