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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Six More Great Historical Fiction Books Set in the American West


Do you enjoy a character-driven Western?

I appreciate an unflinching reflection of the atrocities visited upon the indigenous peoples of our continent because white people explored and settled in the West.

I'm also fascinated by the optimistic explorer spirit--and I love reading about strong female characters in a time when the world around them didn't typically support women's strength and determination.

If you're interested in books like those listed here, you might also like the titles on my Greedy Reading List Six Great Historical Fiction Stories Set in the American West.

Happy reading, bookworms!


01 Inland by Téa Obreht

Much of Téa Obreht's Inland is centered around Nora, an impulsive, hot-tempered, strong woman fighting for a hardscrabble life for her family in a remote town during a devastating drought. The other plotline concerns Lurie, a man who has adventures and challenges with his surprising, loyal, exotic companion.

The two disparate stories intersect in an unlikely way in 1890s Arizona Territory, and fantastical elements throughout make even the most jaded characters believe in the odd and implausible in this remarkable book.

I read this story as an e-book and was therefore robbed of gazing at this gorgeous cover. I adore it.

Random House Publishing Group provided me with a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

For my full review of Inland, please click here.


02 Whiskey When We're Dry by John Larison

In 1885, Jessilyn Harney finds herself orphaned and alone on the homestead. Seventeen-year-old girls aren't safe on their own, so Jess cuts her hair, binds her chest, and saddles up for a trip across the mountains in search of her lawless brother Noah.

Jess is such a good shot, she ends up working for the mean-as-a-snake governor of the territory--and finds that the governor's armed forces are hunting for Noah and intend to capture him, dead or alive.

“What started the war, Pa?"

His eyes settled on me. "Stories, Jessilyn. We tell ourselves the wrong stories.”

I love love love a character-driven western. Jess's voice was fantastic. She grapples with the stories she's been told as compared to the reality she experiences as she makes her way.

Whiskey When We're Dry is a rough, heart-wrenching, wonderful story from John Larison.


03 Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth

Surprise! This book is not set in the American West. But to my mind, the atmospheric setting and the tone of the story places it firmly in good company among the other books on this list, so I Bossily included it.

Set in the Australian outback at the end of the 19th century, Only Killers and Thieves centers around one family’s conflicts with others and with each other. One poor judgment leads to another, foolish choices end in bloodshed, one brother makes justifications and feels no remorse while the other feels crushed by it all.

Toward the end we see messy second chances take shape, a little retribution, and an attempt at a changed existence—but the haunting memories of the past creep in relentlessly.

This is an often brutal book to read, but it was beautifully written, in a style that felt perfectly suited for the stark setting. I thought about this one long after I finished it. Disturbing and a mind churner. For my full review of this book, please see Only Killers and Thieves.

Howarth has published a sequel, Dust Off the Bones, which I have not yet read.


04 Doc by Mary Doria Russell

Surprise again! Doc is nonfiction, but it reads like historical fiction (as opposed to a heavier nonfiction title like Tom Clavin's Tombstone, which also includes lots of Doc Holliday information), so I'm Bossily including it.

I love Mary Doria Russell’s character-driven books, and this Western, set in Dodge City, Kansas, in the late nineteenth century, is a slow build rather than a dramatic, gun-slinging action story.

Doc doesn’t focus on the Tombstone shootout, but instead on Doc Holliday’s life, his brotherlike friendship with the Earps, and his longtime relationship with a Hungarian noblewoman-turned-prostitute, Kate.

Mary Doria Russell also interestingly explores Holliday's career as a dentist (at a time when the dental profession was tainted by traveling butchers and thieves), and his gallant, grumpy, well-read, mischievous, and generous-to-a-fault personality.

The author also wrote The Sparrow, which I adored and gave five stars. She's such a gorgeous writer, I'd read anything she tried her hand at writing.


05 Into the Savage Country by Shannon Burke

Into the Savage Country is a serenely told story of a band of fur traders--some wild, some considered gentlemen, some one of these but striving to be the other--striking out into the West in the first half of the 1800s. The writing style involves a lot of telling, which seemingly intentionally slows the pacing--and which I usually don't love, but here it gives a fittingly old-fashioned quality to the writing that feels as though it suits the time, the main protagonist, and the tale itself.

The group encounters friendly and hostile Native Americans; copes with antagonized and antagonistic British trappers; is threatened with imprisonment; experiences cruel and potentially fatal betrayal by one of their own; faces the wild and its many dangers; suffers grave wounds; and saves each other's skin countless times--including after foolish situations (which seem as though they would have been easily avoided) such as literally waking a sleeping bear and baiting an injured bull. Yet because of the pacing, I didn't necessarily feel on the edge of my seat while I read about all of it.

There is a deeper, quiet, surprisingly affecting story beneath the Western adventure, which is about trust, loyalty, sometimes begrudging but deeply felt affection, discovery of self-worth, celebrating differences, and love. And it's the pacing and tone of the story that allows for all of those elements to feel real.


06 News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Captain Kidd has fought in three wars, and after the Civil War's end, he serves as a traveling news reader, providing eager listeners along his route with news from the world.

Kidd somewhat reluctantly ends up agreeing to transport a young, recently rescued Kiowa captive 400 miles to her extended family. They'll have to pass through lawless lands to get to San Antonio, and Johanna isn't a willing participant in this venture, having become more culturally Kiowa over the years than white and unfamiliar with her remaining blood relatives.

Not all of the members of my book club felt as strongly about this one as I did, but I adored every bit of this--Captain Kidd's reluctant but gentlemanly involvement and his voice, the character of Johanna, the Texas setting, the fits and starts of adventure, the noble heart of the story, the humor, and the heartbreak. I loved loved loved it.

Jiles also wrote Simon the Fiddler and the glorious The Color of Lightning. Click here for my full review of The News of the World.

(Who's seen the movie adaptation of this book, and if you have, what did you think?)


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