Six Great Historical Fiction Stories Set in the American West
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
01 Vengeance Road
I loved this young adult Western, and not just because of its amazing cover.
Kate is a tough young woman posing as a male cowboy. She's got revenge on her mind, and she and her unlikely band of allies aren't afraid to shoot first and ask questions later. But Kate also slowly, reluctantly finds a little bit of love to soften her hardened heart.
Erin Bowman offers up great action along with what I thought were perfect amounts of self-actualization and character development, without ever being heavy-handed.
Vengeance Road is a rough and tumble story with enough suspense that I wasn't ever confident that the main characters would emerge alive.
I wished a little more care had been taken with the resolutions at the end, and I would have liked some more justification for characters' decisions late in the book, but I loved this. The cowboy dialect didn't distract, although it was notably distinct throughout.
Vengeance Road is the first book in Bowman's Vengeance Road duology; Retribution Rails is the second. (I didn't love that one quite as much.)
02 These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901
My advice is to ignore the title on this one. The syntax seems to indicate something altogether different than the beautifully written "grown-up Little House on the Prairie" (as my friend Kirstan called it) that I adored.
Turner's story is inspired by her family's memoirs, and her Sarah Prine is a strong woman living on the unforgiving frontier of the Arizona Territories near the turn of the twentieth century. The details Turner provides of life at that time and in that place bring to life Sarah's stories of growing up, struggling, finding love, and persevering. Sarah's voice is just wonderful.
There are additional books in the Sarah Agnes Prine series: Sarah's Quilt and The Star Garden, neither of which I've read yet, as well as Light Changes Everything. Turner has also written a couple of other historical fiction books that look promising.
This isn't strictly a Western, but the main protagonist does travel west, and the feeling of it is in line with the genre, so I'm bossily including it on this list.
Cy is a widower in a small Pennsylvania town who is drawn in by a newspaper article about enormous ancient bones found in a swamp. He feels unshakably compelled to travel west to find out if the mammoth animals he's heard described are still roaming the area.
So Cy leaves his ten-year-old daughter Bess with his sister, Bess's short-tempered aunt, although he expects to be away on his irrational, foolish travels for two years. (Two years!)
Bess, stuck at home, traces Cy's optimistic travel route on a map (and, disturbingly, struggles multiple times with being preyed upon by a man--I needed her aunt to tune in on this horrifying situation, stat).
Cy isn't a sympathetic character (Bess is the one I was feeling for here), but his ill-fated journey is full of misplaced hope, then mistakes and regret, but over all of it, a compulsion to continue toward an end. It's compelling, and Bess's faith in her faulted father is heart-wrenching.
West is a quick read with an important case of implausibly (but satisfyingly) impeccable timing that saves the day, twice. The ending is beautifully wrought. Davies includes fantastic details of amateur Western exploration that I adored.
04 One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow
Oh, I loved this book!
In Wyoming in 1870, the Bemis and Webber families have no other neighbors for miles, so they're not only inextricably interconnected to the land, they're connected to each other.
When a sudden upheaval results in both husbands' absences, their wives must face their hard feelings toward each other and forge an unlikely alliance if they and their families are to survive the brutal winter.
This was a slow build and a beautiful story, satisfying and often sweet, complete with young love. Hawker includes rich details of farming and rural life. I loved the explorations of the spirits of various creatures and the characters’ awareness of the spirals and cycles of nature and of life. I adored the character of the fiercely unique Beulah.
I received an advance copy of this book from Lake Union Publishing and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Hawker is also the author of The Ragged Edge of Night.
05 The Widow Nash
Dulcy has traveled all over with her beloved, quirky father Walton. He's wealthy beyond all reason, fascinated with natural disasters, obsessed with wandering the globe--and determined to identify an as-yet-undiscovered cure for his syphilis.
His mind seems to be failing him just as the proceeds from his gold mines go missing, and Dulcy is suspected. She must decipher his enigmatic notebooks and codes to clear her name. Or could she simply disappear, be presumed dead, and escape unwarranted attention--and avoid the clutches of unwanted matrimony?
In a small Montana town Dulcy reinvents herself as Mrs. Nash, a wealthy young widow. If she's lucky, she can build a new life and shed the limitations of her real identity.
The before and after of certain pivotal events almost felt like two separate books, but I was hooked on all of it--the early twentieth-century settings (Seattle, New York City, Montana, various clinic sites); Dulcy's deranged but maddeningly intriguing syphilitic mining magnate of a father; the layers of smart dialogue; the undercurrent of fear beneath the soothing comfort of the details of everyday life. I loved this.
06 Walk on Earth a Stranger
Gold is in my blood, in my breath, even in the flecks in my eyes.
Walk on Earth a Stranger tells the story of Lee, a young woman with a powerful secret: an ability to sense gold. Her gold sense has kept her family fed and sheltered, but it's dangerous too. If others knew of it, they'd likely use it--and Lee--to their own advantage. When Lee's power is discovered, she has to run, and she runs toward the gold.
I thought this was great: an adventure story of a teenaged girl fleeing from Georgia to California during the gold rush. This was really nicely paced with gripping details of the trek and of Lee's life on the road.
This is the first book in Rae Carson's young adult Gold Seer trilogy set in Gold Rush-era America; the second is Like a River Glorious, which I gave 3.5 stars, and the third is Into the Bright Unknown, which was a great final book and satisfying-revenge wrap-up. Carson is also the author of the Fire and Thorns series, four young adult fantasy books plus related novellas and a prequel.
Do you have any favorite books set in the American West?
Endless brutal and terrible things happened to indigenous peoples because white people explored and settled in the West. Yet I'm also fascinated by the optimistic explorer spirit--and I do love reading about strong female characters in a time when the world around them didn't always support women's strength and determination.
What do you think, is this a setting and a setup you're drawn to?