When I first became a librarian in the early 1990’s, it was common for libraries to devote an entire section to western novels. Authors such as Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey and Larry McMurtry graced those shelves. We even stuck “boot” stickers on the spines so readers could find these books quicker.
Then, a new millennium dawned and reading tastes changed. Requests for Harry Potter, dystopian novels, and thrillers required libraries and bookstores to expand their fiction and young adult areas. Western collections were dismantled and the few classics still in demand relocated to the fiction shelves. A common saying in the publishing world at the time was “Westerns are dead.”
Last year, a new sheriff rode into town when HBO started airing episodes of “Westworld.” The show led to Westerns making a comeback in new and exciting ways. If you’ve never seen an episode, Westworld is based on a 1973 film developed by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton. It is half Western and half science fiction. Characters pay for the experience of spending time in a simulated Old West town. Besides the traditional shoot-outs and saloon scenes, part of the excitement for the audience is guessing who is a real person and who is a…robot. It’s a long way from the days of John Wayne.
In similar fashion, Western novels are popping up again but, like Westworld, they are smashing the lines between genres. Here are some of the newest genre blending categories:
Weird westerns are very much like Westworld in that they borrow elements from science fiction, fantasy and even vampire novels. Characters have come a long way since “High Noon.” Native American, immigrant and minority characters play large starring roles. A great example is Devil’s Call by J. Danielle Dorn. The lead character is a strong Chinese-American female in 1850’s Missouri who happens to be descended from a long line of witches. She runs out West and falls in love with a local doctor she meets in a saloon. They travel through several states and territories meeting non-humans. The author writes the story in a unique way: diary entries from the couple’s unborn daughter.
This is a category I like to call “realistic westerns,” but they go by other names including “revisionist westerns” or “neo-westerns.” These novels tackle critical issues in westward expansion, such as slavery and Native American rights, that were ignored or stereotyped by earlier authors in the genre. Hidden Star by Corinne Joy Brown explores religious persecution in the southwestern United States. Based on true events, the book recounts a group of Jews who successfully escaped the Spanish Inquisition but pretended to be Christians upon arriving in New Mexico. Some of their descendants, like the book’s main character, are just now finding out they have Jewish roots. Western Writers of America named this book a finalist for its prestigious Spur Award in 2017.
Reimaginings are fictional biographies of famous people in the Old West like Jesse James or Annie Oakley, usually before they were well-known. If you’re a fan of historical fiction in other locales or time periods, you’ll probably love this category of westerns. One title that is universally cherished by both male and female readers is Doc by Mary Doria Russell. The anthropologist-turned-author chronicles how Doc Holliday’s mother kept him alive in infancy, helped him overcome a birth defect in childhood, and their eventual separation when Doc takes off out west. A sequel, Epitaph, continues the story. Another example that is being discussed positively on Goodreads and other social media sites is Becoming Bonnie by Jenni L. Walsh. It is the fascinating early life story of Bonnelyn Parker in 1920’s Dallas before she became part of the infamous crime duo Bonnie and Clyde. Fans of this book are eagerly anticipating the release of the next title in the series Side by Side.
Think steam-powered machinery, Victorian fashions and characters with over-the-top personalities all set in the Old West. Many people think this sub-genre was inspired by the movie “Wild, Wild West” with Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Salma Hayek. Like the previously discussed “weird westerns,” sci-fi elements and alternate endings abound. The addition of machinery is what sets steampunk westerns apart. Try Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear about a machine that can read minds in 1800’s Seattle. There’s also the Weird West Tale series of books by Mike Resnick. A spell placed on the United States is preventing westward expansion past the Mississippi River. Real people from history such as Billy the Kid and Theodore Roosevelt use gears and machinery to devise solutions in these alternate histories.
In short, the Western genre is back and, unlike days of yore, now has something for everyone. Science fiction fans will be drawn to weird westerns and steampunk. For historical fiction lovers, there are reimaginings and post-modern Westerns. Thrillers are represented by authors like C.J. Box and romance readers will love the Valance Family series by Catherine Anderson. For other ideas, check out the wide variety of award-winners over at Western Writers of America.
Terri Frank is a professional librarian and holds a Master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Michigan. When she’s not working in a library, she’s probably visiting a library with her husband and two kids. Her current writing projects include a novel about a tuberculosis sanitorium.