ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Well, now to our serious Three Books. We're inviting writers to recommend three great reads on one theme. Today, teacher and writer Emily Wylie explains her passion for books about the American West.
Ms. EMILY WYLIE (Teacher): Maybe it was all that "Little House on the Prairie" and "Hee Haw," but somehow I came out of a New England childhood suspecting that I was meant to be a cowboy, or even better an Indian; I wasn't fussy. I just knew I'd work better in a life that involved spitting and horse sweat and bacon grease, a milieu with big views and no small talk.
I made my own beef jerky from stolen roast beef, and ruined table cloths to make teepees. But it wasn't long before I was all too aware that cowboys chasing Indians was the stuff of sorrow, not fun. And I grew up to be the kind of person who says Native American, not Indian - shoot, the kind of person who says milieu. And if there's anything a cowboy doesn't do, it's speak French.
But in books I still live my other life. My current favorite Native American author is Sherman Alexie, whose work always devastates with all-too-realistic descriptions of modern reservation life. But his newest, a young adult novel called "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," is actually really uplifting.
Alexie's hero, Junior, is a boy whose community calls him apple - red on the outside and white on the inside. He navigates the bullying he gets from white and native peers with resilience and even humor. He's not heroic quite, but he is wonderfully, inspiringly human.
If you are looking for heroic, for the full-blood cowboy of Western tradition, I'd go with "Hondo" by Louis L'Amour, if only because you realize 20 pages in that this is a romance novel for dudes. Sure, there are great fight scenes, but you're reading them to get back to the wooden but still somehow affecting love scenes between Hondo, the near-silent but very capable gunman hero, and the lady rancher with good posture he reluctantly falls for. L'Amour gives us characters whose steadfastness satisfies as much as it stretches our credibility.
But if "Hondo" gives us the full-bore mythology of the West, Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" unravels those myths. McMurtry, himself descended from cowboys, rightly won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel which somehow lovingly portrays the crude, nearly mute, casually violent cowboys who people the story.
You might pick up this novel with its bumpy embossed cover and 900-page count for escapist purposes. But by the time you leave the town of Lonesome Dove with the rag-tag gang from Hat Creak Cattle Company, you'll be reminded of your own humanity with all its flaws and vulnerabilities.
The reality of the American West was horribly, tragically antagonistic, of course. But in these books, my favorite characters look a lot alike; they speak little, love open space and freedom, are intensely moral, and loyal to the end. That and bacon grease? That's the milieu for me.
SIEGEL: Emily Wylie is a writer and public school teacher in East Harlem.
At our Web site, you can find more recommendations from the series Three Books, such as three books about the beach or books about blood and brains. Those are at npr.org/summerbooks.
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