CHASING THE SUN
A Reader's Guide to Novels Set in the American West
Setting is the unifying feature for the novels included in this readerís guide. The American West, or more precisely the North American West, a land that encompasses a remarkable variety of physical and cultural landscapes, is the backdrop for a wide variety of themes and plots employed by an equally wide variety of novelists.
It is difficult to place boundaries on the West. Its landscapes are varied: the Colorado Plateau, the Llano Estacado, the Sonoran Desert, the Big Thicket, the upper Rio Grande Valley, the brush country of South Texas, the Pacific Coast, the Alaskan tundra, and numerous other unique locales. Some book reviewers, however, contend that the one thing all Western settings have in common is aridity, and wouldn't consider novels set in Missouri or along the Pacific Coast or in other non-arid regions to be Western fiction. Some include stories set in Canada and Alaska; others differentiate these as "Northerns." Some define the West in relation to the movement of the frontier, and include James Fenimore Cooper novels that were actually set in the East. And although the bulk of the literature is set in the Old West, defined roughly as the period between the end of the Civil War and the invention of the automobile, there's a growing body of work set in contemporary times. The books in this guide are all set in states west of the Mississippi, including Alaska. I've also included novels that take place in western Canada and Mexico; both played an important part in our Western frontier experience.
There are recurring themes built around cattle drives, wagon trains, Indian wars, water rights, the Pony Express, and so on that help in classifying the Old West novels as Western fiction. Those set in the New West are concerned with such things as the environment, the struggle to hold onto a vanishing way of life, personal freedom, and individuality; these are also easily recognized Western themes. However, there are many novels that are set in the West, primarily the contemporary urban West, that do not have a recognizable Western theme and are not included in this guide.
Western fiction includes the real cowboy narrative of Will James, the formula Westerns of Max Brand and Frank Gruber, the romantic novels of Zane Grey and Louis LíAmour, the Navajo mysteries of Tony Hillerman, the ethnic novels of Louise Erdrich, the contemporary novels of Edward Abbey, and the genuine literature of Willa Cather and Wallace Stegner.
Since Western fiction covers such a vast geographic, cultural, and thematic landscape, most critical works on the subject are narrowly confined to formula Westerns, regional fiction, or a few chosen writers that academia considers worthy of formal criticism. This guide spans the Western literary landscape.
The material is organized around content such as exploration, trapping, wagon trains, the Indian wars, and contemporary fiction. Each chapter, or category, contains a readerís guide that provides "thumbnail" samples of the literature from early publications to the present, and a short review of one or more novels in that category. The thumbnails are descriptive rather than evaluative. I make no claim to having read every book in this readerís guide. Many thumbnails have been constructed from secondary sources.
The reviews are personal favorites that represent the diversity of the literature. I focus on setting, theme, plot, and characterization and leave the discussion of social or psychological insights and other formal literary criticism to others. A bibliography is included that will guide readers to sources written to any depth that suits their purpose.
The categories I used to group the titles are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. In general, the books are categorized according to subject matter. In the thumbnails, I have tried to indicate the setting, and a glimpse of the plot. But the placement of a novel in a particular category is sometimes purely subjective. "The Forests of the Night" (Dial Press, 1974), J.P.S. Brownís story of a Mexican peasantís hunt for a jaguar, is set in the high country of the Mexican Sierras, and could have quite properly been placed in either category "The Spanish West" or "The Hunters." No attempt was made to balance the titles across categories. "High Noon: The Romantic West," for example, is made up of novels most people call genre Westerns. There have been literally thousands of these novels written, and many authors such as Max Brand (Frederick Schiller Faust) wrote a multitude of them, so only a sampling of his and the other more prolific writersí works are included. On the other hand, religion has not been nearly as popular a subject and the entries under "The Glory Trail: The Church in the West" are significantly fewer.
Publication data are given for each entry to assist the reader in tracking down a copy. But in no sense should this guide be considered a bibliography. However, a selected bibliography is appended to assist the reader in further research.
A titles index and an authors index are provided to help in finding specific authors or novels.