Three Books About Cowboys and IndiansAs a child, Emily Wylie always wanted to be a cowboy — or maybe an Indian. Though she no longer constructs teepees out of table cloths, she turns to these three books when she wants to relive her romance with the American West.
Emily Wylie writes and teaches in New York City. On a horse, she's 8 feet tall.
"Three Books..." is a new series in which we invite writers to recommend three great reads on a single theme.
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, horse sweat and bacon grease, a milieu with big views and no small talk.
So I made my own beef jerky from stolen roast beef and ruined table clothes 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. 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 I still live my other life — at least when it comes to books. Here are my picks for three books that will make you feel home on the range.
'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian'
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, hardcover, 240 pages
My current favorite Native-American author is Sherman Alexie, whose work always devastates with all-too-realistic description 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 who switches from the "rez" school to the rich suburban school nearby, prompting his community to call him "apple" — red on the outside and white on the inside. Hitchhiking there and back every day because he has no money for the bus and no one sober at home to drive him, 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.
Hondo, by Louis L'Amour, hardcover, 208 pages
If you're looking for the heroic, full-blooded cowboy of Western tradition, I'd go with Hondo by Louis L'Amour, if only because — as you realize 20 pages in — 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. Mixing in a noble Apache chief, L'Amour gives us characters whose steadfastness satisfies as much as it stretches our credibility.
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, paperback, 960 pages
If Hondo gives us the full-bore mythology of the West, then 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.
McMurtry's novel is hugely sympathetic — you don't have a chance as a reader to not like these folks; rather, you alternate feeling sorry for them and admiring them. 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 Creek Cattle Company, you'll be reminded of your own humanity — with all its flaws and vulnerabilities.
The reality of the American West was of course horribly, tragically antagonistic, but in these books my favorite characters look a lot alike — they speak little, respect the land, love open space and freedom, and are intensely moral and loyal to the end. That and bacon grease? That's the milieu for me!
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.