O Pioneers!

08.20.13

Ivan Doig’s Book Bag: Five Favorite Books on the American West

Ivan Doig, the great chronicler of the Montana landscape whose new novel is Sweet Thunder, picks his favorite books on the American West.

The American West as Living Space
By Wallace Stegner

Once when I asked a prominent historian what he thought of the many writings by Stegner, novelist and English-department star at Harvard and Stanford, about the background and the West, he didn’t hesitate: “He hits the nail on the head every time, damn him.” This trio of essays, a mere 86 pages of text delivered as a set of university lectures, is a marvel—composed nearly 30 years before fracking, pine-beetle kill of forests from Colorado to British Columbia, and unprecedented fire seasons with suburbs on the front line—of exploring his great theme of the country West of the rain-halting 98th meridian, the clash of its ecologies, and its cultures.

Monte Walsh
By Jack Schaefer

Not Shane? Why? Schaefer’s lesser-known but more valid Western novel is big, long, gabby with ranch dialect that sounds just right to my bunkhouse-trained ears, and our best portrait of the cowboy as drifter and what happens to him when he slows down and the times catch up with him. Made into a pleasurable movie starring Lee Marvin—worth seeing just for Jack Palance as a good guy.

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant
By Alexandra Fuller

I surprised myself in listing this one, hidebound as I am against the blurring of nonfiction and fiction. But Fuller manages to mix real reporting and pumping of sources with dialogue reconstructed from before she was on the scene to tell a heck of a story of a ranch kid turned oilfield roustabout, his off-the-wall buddies, and the wife and family who tried to contain his unsprung behavior. Contemporary and heartbreaking, as is the author’s portrayal of a Wyoming selling itself and its people for oil and coal.

Fools Crow
By James Welch

“Now that the weather had changed, the moon of the falling leaves turned white in the blackening sky and White Man’s Dog was restless.” The late James Welch, himself Blackfoot and Gros Ventre, wonderfully transports us back to a tribal time in the very first sentence. Jim and I were close friends and maybe the only writers who grew up in proximity to the rough Blackfoot reservation town of Browning, Montana. Perhaps because of the tribal toughies he hung around then, he never employed the softened term “Native Americans,” and Fools Crow is a powerful epic of the time—1870—when Indians were Indians, in their proud but doomed effort to keep their way of life and in the purview of advancing whites willing to massacre to stamp it out.

Bless Me, Ultima
By Rudolfo Anaya

This Southwestern classic is lyrical and often enough mystical in evoking the coming of a very old woman thought to be a curandera, a miracle worker who could heal the sick with herbs and remedies, in the upbringing of an impressionable 7-year-old Chicano boy, and how beautifully they clicked. Pause often in this one to hear Anaya’s lovely prose roll through your ears: “When she came the beauty of the llano unfolded before my eyes, and the gurgling waters of the river sang to the hum of the turning earth.”