The fascinating complications of life and history in the West overtake us at their own pace.
These complications — reflected in the canon of regional literature — may come while kicking up dust near the Spanish Peaks and realizing that to live west of the 100th meridian, as John Wesley Powell and Wallace Stegner framed it, is to live in a high desert that doesn’t support life-giving crops without redirecting massive river flows.
They may come while driving toward the indigenous, spiritual wonder of the Pawnee Buttes, passing by a nuclear missile silo buried underground, and suddenly realizing everyone else sees a land so empty that they can hide their worst things here.
They may come after exploring an ancient Mexican land grant near the Four Corners, and finding out that Mexican widows actually had stronger property rights before the U.S took over the Southwest from the Mexican government in 1848.
Occasionally a bold new author piles on complications with a dizzying new story of land, possession and race amid Western mountains, as C Pam Zhang does for Chinese laboring families in “How Much of These Hills is Gold.”
Denver librarian Terry Nelson remembers the feeling of growth-by-complication when she was a student looking for Black historical figures beyond the better-known “buffalo soldiers.” She found the true tale of Fannie Mae Duncan, a Colorado Springs businesswoman who copied Harlem’s Cotton Club as a top jazz destination for Black soldiers segregated at home by the country they fought for overseas. (Nelson is senior special collection and community resource manager for the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, and many of her recommendations are below.)
See? Things get complicated fast when we start asking whose history of the West we are telling. Those buffalo soldiers? Black men sent by the U.S. Army after the Civil War to help oppress Native Americans, and who were met with deep racism and disdain by some of the white settlers they were ordered to protect.
We offer here a starter list of “50 Books to Understand the West,” with the mammoth caveat that your own picks may vary. These are some of the books we would hand to a newcomer pushing west of the 100th meridian, or east of Tahoe, who wanted to feel more connected to, informed about or entertained by their new home. But we also know our staff perspective is limited, so we employed the insight and talents of people like Nelson and Dawn DiPrince, chief operating officer of History Colorado and director of the El Pueblo Museum in Pueblo.
HELP US MAKE THE LIST EVEN BETTER: Find some new titles on this list. Ask us more about them. Tell us when you first read them. Argue about them. Critique them as limited, outdated, offensive, misleading or downright untrue. And most important, tell us which ones are missing or add your comments to the list.
We’ll keep updating the list with your suggestions and comments.
When you look for them, use a local bookstore to buy a copy, or the fantastic Prospector interlibrary search and loan system that brings even the most obscure title to your local branch. We have links to these resources at the bottom of the list.
But please do read, and help us shape the Sun’s must-read list for Westerners. The selections are presented in random order.
This collection was compiled by Sun writer Michael Booth with staff contributions.
* Indicates that a story was suggested by a reader.
“House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest,” by Craig Childs.* A Sun reader writes: “The West is littered with the remnants of lost civilizations. The author traces ancient pueblo cultures across the southwest partly by studying their pottery and also actually walking their ancient highways. He continually interviews researchers to try to understand what the current state of the knowledge is in regard to what happened to these peoples,” including the Four Corners region’s Anasazi.
“The Buddha in the Attic,”by Julie Otsuka.* Reader Cassi C. recommends this one about Japanese catalog or “picture” brides emigrating to America to live with someone they’d never met. It may stretch our definition of the West a bit by focusing on California, but the crossroads of cultures and the thrill and terror of traveling to a new, rugged place are universal. “In beautiful poetic style she tells the many diverse stories of ‘us’,” Cassi writes.
“Uranium Frenzy,” by Raye Ringolz.* Reader Jeff Hoffman favors a book about another kind of gold rush. The book details “the uranium boom and bust during the 1950s and 60s on the Colorado Plateau. It helped me understand the relationship between the people that populated this area and the federal government and public lands,” Hoffman writes to us. The attitude, as with nearly all Western resources at the time, was, “Take a shovel and go out and bring me back some money.”
“Rabbit Boss” by Thomas Sanchez. Four generations of Washo Indians in the Sierra Nevada carry the story of this 1973 novel, praised by Native and white reviewers alike. Sanchez was an orphan growing up in a multi-ethnic, hardscrabble culture, and infuses his work with economic awareness and social justice — or injustice.
“Cadillac Desert,” by Marc Reisner. You can’t really understand the modern West without a deep dive into water, and Reisner tells of the prodigious feats of engineering — and chicanery — that literally move rivers.
“Beyond the 100th Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West,” by Wallace Stegner. A fascinating biography of a one-armed explorer and scholar, who warned of exploiting the West without trying to understand it first. Powell offered early warning of climate as destiny. Plus a big boat trip.
“The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West” by Megan Kate Nelson.* There was another civil war that raged before, during and after The Civil War, this one among Native Americans, white settlers and the U.S. Army on most of the lands west of the Mississippi. Just thinking of it that way changes your whole perspective.
“Sabrina & Corina: Stories,” by Kali Fajardo-Anstine. This 2019 National Book Award finalist from a Denver author roves around Colorado with unique insight, historian Dawn DiPrince says. Another reviewer called Fajardo-Anstine “unafraid to delve into areas of race, feminism, queerness and class. She interrogates whiteness, and its associations like passing and colorism, prodding unapologetically.”
“How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” by C Pam Zhang. In Gold Rush California, a Chinese sister and brother fight their father’s brutal fate and the attitudes of locals, among whom indifference is a big improvement from abject cruelty.
“Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” by David Grann. As long as we’re including Oklahoma in the West, this 2016 bestseller goes deep into the ultimate appropriate tale: how white opportunists conspired — and murdered — to steal the oil wealth of the Osage Nation, who in the 1920s were the richest people per capita in the world.
“Asians in Colorado: A History of Persecution and Perseverance in the Centennial State,” by William Wei. Wei is a former Colorado State Historian and a professor at the University of Colorado who meticulously documents the lives and experiences of one of the most overlooked ethnic groups in the West.
“Paradise,” by Toni Morrison. Is Oklahoma in the West? History Colorado’s Dawn DiPrince says “Paradise” is so good, she’s just decided it has to be. A good portion of the Black Western experience happened in Oklahoma, which is also home to some of the largest Native American communities in the nation, DiPrince notes. Morrison writes about an attempt at a Black utopian community, an idea tried throughout the West — including Colorado.
“Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States,” by Felipe Fernández-Armesto. There were centuries of Hispanic life in the American Southwest before European Americans even arrived. This history relocates the vantage point of your high school history class from Plymouth Rock to the San Luis Valley and beyond. The view is excellent.
“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” by Dee Brown. Historian Brown has all the receipts for his groundbreaking, revisionist history of Native Americans in the West and their treatment by Europeans. Never out of print, since 1970.
“Winter Counts” by David Heska Wanbli Weiden.* Do white people have any idea what they’re looking at when they see Mount Rushmore? — just one of the probing questions posed in this gritty thriller that ranges from South Dakota reservations to Colfax Avenue. The Washington Post said, “The betrayal of Native Americans and the issue of native identity are the backbone of this passionately told tale that hits the sweet spot between crime fiction and social novel.”
“In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” by Peter Mathiessen. This intensely researched and highly opinionated view of mid-1970s reservation life and murder charges against Leonard Peltier is a window on the American Indian Movement and the federal-Native American conflict over decades.
“Death Comes for the Archbishop,” by Willa Cather. No one writes more beautifully about Western land and sky than Cather, with the added bonus of almost-true stories about Catholic icons like Joseph Machebeuf, the first bishop of Denver.
“Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” by Caroline Fraser. We’ve rarely learned so much cultural history from a biography, from the true travails of Pa Ingalls to vicious Minnesota racism.
“Translating Property,” by Maria Montoya. As History Colorado’s Dawn DiPrince puts it, “People think of the older Southwest as being A) empty, and B) empty of women.” This surprising book uses the lens of land and property rights to look at life for Mexican women, including how getting absorbed into the United States actually sent some rights of Mexican women heading backwards.
“Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West,” by Stephen Ambrose. Both lauded and popular, Ambrose’s book brilliantly frames the feeling of whites in the East having absolutely no idea what was “out there” in the West.
“Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” by Gustavo Arellano. The popular L.A. Times columnist, also known for his previous “Ask a Mexican” column, describes the intermingled Native, Hispanic and European cultures of the West and how those show up in food. Also, how the taco truck became as ubiquitous as a Ford pickup.
“Black People Who Made the Old West,” by William Loren Katz. Denver librarian Terry Nelson says Katz’s quick profiles and stories of sometimes little-known historic figures are a delight because they are pitched so that anyone from a fourth-grader to a learned adult can enjoy them.
“Two Years Before the Mast,” by Richard Henry Dana Jr. What does a sailor’s memoir have to do with the arid West? When he shows up on the undeveloped coast of California to work turning cattle into shoe leather, the author soon observes the Spanish missions “civilizing” the Far West.
“Black Elk Speaks,” by John G. Neihardt. Considered a riveting and spiritual oral history of the Lakota people, it’s also an endless source of controversy for white historians appropriating and misinterpreting — literally — native culture.
“Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck. “Heartbreaking” is overused these days, but applies in an original sense to Steinbeck’s majestic novel of the Dust Bowl, class warfare, migrant farming and family loyalty.
“The Monkey Wrench Gang,” by Edward Abbey. The great novel plays on so many levels, from madcap adventure to dirtbag lifestyle to Mormon critique to outrage about damming rivers.
“On Her Own Ground: The Life & Times of Madam C.J. Walker.” by A’Lelia Bundles. There’s a small Denver park dedicated to self-made millionaire and philanthropist Madam C.J. Walker, a washer woman turned entrepreneur who parlayed her better Black hair products into a fortune.
“Dreams of El Dorado,” by H.W. Brands. A highly readable recent take showing how many newcomers to the West were exploiting a treasured resource, from beaver fur to gold to water.
“Driving While Black,” by Gretchen Sorin. The Green Books that Coleman train porters handed out to Black travelers as a guide to safe lodging and entertainment were most recently famous from a ridiculed white-savior Hollywood movie. But they were very real. Black librarians prefer this account, which checks in on locations in the original Green Book and profiles the author.
“Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country” by Pam Houston.* Some Sun staffers were kicking themselves for leaving Pam Houston off the original list, but hey, we live with our choices. Especially when people correct us for them. Houston’s powerful voice wanders over wildfires, environmental issues, wildlife and more, all while giving her detailed perspective on what it’s really like to “own and run a ranch in the Rockies,” the Tattered Cover says
“Wild Life on the Rockies,” by Enos Mills. Mills, the spiritual founder of Rocky Mountain National Park, climbed Longs Peak nearly 350 times beginning in the 1880s for fun, and for money as a guide. His accounts of tourists, adventure and the need to protect wild places ring true to this day.
“Everybody Welcome: A Memoir of Fannie Mae Duncan and the Cotton Club.” A Colorado Springs business woman explains why she created the Cotton Club for Black men from the surrounding military bases, at a time when de facto segregation was the rule in the West.
“Encounters with the Archdruid,” by John McPhee. The guru of narrative nonfiction writers, McPhee here profiles environmentalist David Brower’s battles with miners, developers and dam builders in the late 1960s. It’s a real-life portrayal of the endless conflict between idealism and compromise, and reminds us what was lost when Glen Canyon Dam made Lake Powell.
“Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History,” by S. C. Gwynne. Gwynne’s masterpiece combines a real-life plot of “The Searchers” with a profile of one of the greatest Native American leaders ever, and an unsparing account of Comanche and settler (invader) wars.
“The Worst Hard Time,” by Timothy Egan. This accomplished journalist makes the terror and enormity of the Dust Bowl as vivid as a daily news story.
“A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains,” by Isabella Bird. This “Life” prints Bird’s letters home telling of adventures as the first white woman to climb Longs Peak, and not the first woman to fall for a shaggy, classy mountain guide.
“Remembering Lucile: A Virginia Family’s Rise from Slavery and a Legacy Forged a Mile High,” by Polly E. Bugros McLean. Lucile Berkeley Buchanan Jones was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Colorado, in 1918. She wasn’t allowed to walk the stage for her diploma, so they mailed it. Western courage, meet Western stupidity. Read a SunLit excerpt from the book here. And an interview with the author here.
“Full Body Burden,” by Kristen Iversen. Yes, we have some serious exploitation themes here. In this case, it’s how living in the shadow of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant subjected residents to life-altering exposure to plutonium — and some of the worst elements of human nature.
“The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” by Frederick Jackson Turner. This 1893 essay shaped historians’ thinking about the West for more than half a century, claiming American culture has always been about expanding frontiers. See next: Colorado’s own Patty Limerick took a pickax to this point of view.
“Legacy of Conquest,” by Patricia Nelson Limerick. Limerick has made an admirable career out of noting the crippling limitations of historians like Frederick Jackson Turner, arguing Americans should learn more of the history and culture of indigenous and mixed Westerners rather than just the newcomers.
“Barney Ford, Black Baron,” by Marian Talmadge and Iris Gilmore. This one may be hard to get, but try reaching out to Blair-Caldwell African American Research librarian Terry Nelson or the Prospector system (link below). Ford’s life was too crazy not to be true, as a runaway slave and self-made and oft-ruined — many times over — Black man in the West. He was an early fighter for Black civil rights and voting in Colorado, among many other worthy adventures. Some say this book draws too much on “Mr. Mister Barney Ford, A Portrait in Bistre,” by Forbes Parkhill, so Nelson suggests you just read both. Ford’s story also can be seen on Rocky Mountain PBS.
“God is Red,” by Vine Deloria Jr. Deloria was a Standing Rock Sioux who helped spark Native American reassessment and activism in the 1970s, in part with this unprecedented study of native religious values and rituals. The book also critiques the values of Christian European settlers and their appropriating everything in sight. Deloria had some oddball science views of his own, and was no fan of the traditional scientists who ridiculed him.
“Atlas of the New West,” by the Center of the American West. Who doesn’t love maps? And these new takes on mapping cultural and monetary trends from CU scholars are a real mind-expander.
“Wilderness and the American Mind,” by Roderick Nash. Hyperbolists have called Nash’s late 1960s study “the Book of Genesis” for environmentalists, describing how the move to preserve came to the fore of American life. He’s updated it since to account for the massive growth of environmentalism since then.
“African Americans in the West: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources,” by Brice A. Glasrud. Contains a wealth of sources from both fiction and non-fiction, for more in-depth study. You could also call it a librarian’s-eye view of studying the West.
“The Milagro Beanfield War,” by John Nichols. Debating whether this is a warm and cute tale of a small rural uprising in New Mexico, or a patronizing gasbag full of stereotypes, is part of the point with this one. Also, reading it allows more debate over translating popular novels to Hollywood — which is also in the West.
“Lonesome Dove,” by Larry McMurtry. Rest in peace to the late McMurtry, who thought he was delivering a harsh and melancholy take on the cowboy West, and ended up with a massively popular novel and TV miniseries that grown-ass men say they “cherish” while holding back tears.
“Beyond the Aspen Grove,” by Ann Zwinger. There aren’t many naturalist-in-their-back-yard books that have done for the Rockies what “Sand County Almanac” did for Wisconsin. But Zwinger’s book is a very good start.
“Blood and Thunder,” by Hampton Sides. Kit Carson was either a genocidal genius of tracking, or a gentlemanly hero of the mythical West — or perhaps a lot of both. Sides’ rich account, lauded by the master N. Scott Momaday himself, also details the wonders of Navajo life and the cruelty of their banishment from Canyon de Chelly. Carson cut down their beloved peach trees out of spite.
“Centennial,” by James Michener. It’s a tremendous saga reinterpreting actual history around Greeley and the Eastern Plains. It’s also a limited, sometime hokey product of its era, the early 1970s, transferring almost immediately to another dubious product of its era, the wildly popular TV historical drama miniseries.
“The Principled Politician: Governor Ralph Carr and the Fight Against Japanese Internment,” by Adam Schrager. A former Denver TV journalist details both the shame of Colorado’s role in internment, and a rare politician with standout decency.
“Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West,” by Dorothy Wickenden. The true story of Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood, who left genteel life in upstate New York in 1916 for jobs as school teachers near Steamboat Springs. Reconstructed by Woodruff’s granddaughter (an editor of The New Yorker) from their letters home, a thread of early feminism is wound tight to the tale of settling in wild Colorado.
“Plainsong,” by Kent Haruf. An extremely rare sighting of a modern literary novel set on the high and dry Eastern Plains of Colorado. Haruf’s work rightfully drew national acclaim for its realistic portraits of everyday people trying to find meaning in small town life — just like those trying to find meaning in big city life.
“Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West,” by Ned Blackhawk. Before white Europeans came to do their damage to native cultures in the Southwest, Hispanic Europeans took their turn. Scholars praise Blackhawk for shining a light on the overlooked period when Spanish and Mexican leaders perpetrated great violence on the lives of Shoshone, Ute and Paiute tribes from California to Colorado.
“Comanche Empire,” by Pekka Hämäläinen. The previously mentioned Larry McMurtry called this “cutting-edge revisionist history,” going deep into the pre-European lives of the Comanche and their successful and complex systems of economics, leadership hierarchy and more. The Comanche, History Colorado’s Dawn DiPrince says, had a dispersal of leadership that helped them spread power all over.
“Killing for Coal,” by Thomas G. Andrews. Next time you drive far south on Interstate 25, pull off at the Ludlow Massacre marker and bring a page from this lively and rich history. The coal strike was outright class war, involving the Rockefellers, big steel and big coal, those nasty “detective” goons, and outright murder of the downtrodden.
“Curtis Park, Five Points & Beyond: The Heart of Historic East Denver,” by Phil Goodstein. Goodstein has detailed nearly every important neighborhood in Denver and around Colorado, and here he focuses on the history and culture of key Black neighborhoods.
“Colcha,” by Aaron Abeyta. Colorado History’s Dawn DiPrince wanted to sneak in at least one book of true Colorado poetry, so here it is, and a worthy one. Abeyta, also the mayor of Antonito, won the 2002 Colorado Book Award for “Colcha,” with indelible imagery and humanity on life in the San Luis Valley.
“The Luck of Roaring Camp,” by Bret Harte. Even the most modern scholars can’t resist the metaphor, irony and tragedy of this seemingly ancient short story, about a newborn baby in a washed-out town of ‘49ers in the California Gold Rush. “Luck” is the baby’s name. So it’s not subtle. But it’s powerful. And powerfully sad.
“Soaring on the Wings of a Dream,” by Ed Dwight. Dwight was the first Black astronaut, librarian Terry Nelson notes, but also a terrific artist whose works include the monument to Martin Luther King Jr. in Denver’s City Park, the beginning of many a march to downtown.
“There There,” by Tommy Orange. Orange’s Pulitzer-nominated novel uses the stories of 12 individuals traveling to a powwow in Oakland, California, to explore the diffuse and yet shared experiences of urban Native Americans and their sense of community.
“Colorado Day by Day,” by Derek Everett. This may not even be Everett’s best work, but it’s a huge fan favorite for people who like to get everyday bits of real history to carry along during their Colorado wanderings. Everett strives to ensure Westerners of all colors and creeds are included in the snapshots.
“Wellington Webb: the Man, the Mayor and the Making of Modern Denver,” by Wellington Webb with Cindy Brovsky. Denver’s first Black mayor was a literally towering figure through a lifetime of politics, and then led the city during key transformational projects like Denver International Airport. Never complacent, Webb still weighs in publicly when the issues move him.
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