Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Romancing the West

By Jeff Burns

            Soon after English settlement of North America began, “the West” has been romanticized in literature, song, and popular culture.  The romanticization continues into the present.  Consider the popularity of western movies and television shows and the western imagery used in advertising and art.  And it’s not just Americans who take interest in the American West.  Several years ago, when I was traveling in the Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany, I saw Marlboro Man-like images on bus stops, posters, and in store displays.   It seemed that when advertisers wanted to invoke images of the US, their go-to image was the cowboy. In parts of eastern Europe, people participate in Old West reenactments like we attend Renaissance fairs.  In Aufenfeld Austria, there is a spa in which the saunas and massage rooms have Wild West Themes. 


            The western image even contributed to the fall of communism.  In the first free elections held  in communist Poland, held in 1989, labor union/political faction Solidarity used an image of Gary Cooper from “High Noon” on posters . 
           Current novelists continue to write about the American West, and the best incorporate great history into their works.  If you’d like to read some exciting novels and learn along the way, you should explore the novels of Tony Hillerman, Craig Johnson, and Larry McMurtry.

            Tony Hillerman passed away in 2008, after having written over 30 fiction and nonfiction books. He’s most famous for the 18 crime novels following the adventures of Navaho Tribal Police (NTP) detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.  Not only are the NTP novels great detective stories, full of quirky and interesting characters, but they are also chock full of information about the Southwest and about the cultures therein:  Navaho, Hopi, Pueblo, Anglo, and Hispanic. The mysteries are always full of rich and accurate cultural details.  The first NTP novel is The Blessing Way, and you can read them in order, but it’s not necessary.

             Craig Johnson, a Wyoming novelist, has so far written 11 novels and numerous stories featuring a Wyoming sheriff named Walt Longmire, and his work has been made into a television series.  Longmire is your typical troubled detective story hero.  He drinks too much, and that’s just one of the many problems that plague his personal and romantic lives.  He’s surrounded by an eccentric and endearing cast of characters who live in an exceedingly harsh environment. Professionally, he finds himself mixed up in elaborate and often extremely violent crimes that he solves with the help of Henry Standing Bear, his friend since childhood, and a Cheyenne.  Longmire’s jurisdiction straddles the Crow and Cheyenne reservations, so the reader is immersed in Crow and Cheyenne culture and history.  The Cold Dish is the first Longmire title.  Johnson tells great stories about great characters and also injects a great deal of humor.

            Larry McMurtry has also seen a number of his works turned into television and feature events, and he has also written highly acclaimed screenplays himself “Terms of Endearment” and “Brokeback Mountain” for example.  His most famous western work is probably Lonesome Dove, the story of ex-Texas Rangers on a long drive from Texas to new homes in Montana.  He also wrote about strong frontier women in Buffalo Girls and Telegraph Days.  I also enjoyed Streets of Laredo, Comanche Moon, and The Last Kind Words Saloon.  His western non-fiction includes Crazy Horse: A Life, The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley & the Beginnings of Superstardom in America, Oh What A Slaughter! : Massacres in the American West: 1846—1890, and Custer.

            So, whether you’re starting or just fueling your own romance with western novels, here are three authors you should check out.

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