Book Reviews

What One Book: The American West

The Wild, Wild West…the region has always occupied a unique niche in the American imagination. Here’s a great selection of books from many different perspectives.

courtesy of Bookmarks Magazine

A Kiowa poet, N. Scott Momaday, once remarked that the American West “is a place that has to be seen to be believed, and it may have to be believed in order to be seen.” The region has always occupied a unique niche in the American imagination. As the “final frontier,” it symbolized renewal, individualism, and democracy. Mark Twain depicted the West as an outpost for miners and outlaws. Mary Austin described a desert region of “lost borders.” John Muir praised the West’s untrammeled natural beauty. Gene Autry brought the rugged cowboy to the silver screen. And John Steinbeck immortalized the West’s nearly untouchable wealth. Yet the mythic West and authentic West did not always intersect. Underneath glittering visions of gold, palm trees, and cowboys lie harsher stories of cultural clashes, Native American removal, immigrant labor, and industrialization. Here, historians and novelists recommend their favorite books on the American West, from exploration and conquest to myth and the new “multicultural,” industrial West.

Page Stegner
Page Stegner is the author of numerous books and essays on the American West, including his most recent narrative, Winning The Wild West: The Epic Saga of the American Frontier, 1800-1899 (2002).

1 photo of Cadillac Desert Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner

The American West and Its Disappearing Water
By Marc Reisner (1986)
One of the best definitions of the irredeemably arid West and the disastrous attempts to manipulate and control its most precious resource (water) ever published. Witty, acerbic, immensely informed, it is a book that every City Council, Planning Department, and Chamber of Commerce in every western oasis community ought to read, and reread.

2 photo of Marking the Sparrow's Fall Marking the Sparrow’s Fall by Page Stegner
By Wallace Stegner (1998)
As complete and comprehensive a statement as we are ever likely to have about what it means to be a westerner, about what it means to know ourselves as a part of the natural world and competent to belong in it. [Wallace is Page’s father.]
Hal K. Rothman
Hal K. Rothman is Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He is the author of Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the 21st Century (2002), Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth Century American West (1998), which received the 1999 Western Writers of America Spur Award for Contemporary Nonfiction, and co-editor of The Grit Beneath the Glitter: Tales from the Real Las Vegas (2002), among other books. Slate magazine recently called him “the foremost guru of the new Las Vegas.”
1 photo of An Empire Wilderness An Empire Wilderness by Robert D Kaplan
Travels into America’s Future
By Robert Kaplan (1998)
Noted foreign correspondent Robert Kaplan turned his lens on the homefront in the American West and offered his dystopic vision of a real politic future. In his travels, he covers the region–inexplicably skipping Las Vegas, where the future truly resides–but asks the right questions about the future of the West and the nation. Whether he comes up with the right answers or not will provide a topic of discussion for any reader.
2 photo of Crossing Over Crossing Over by Ruben Martinez
A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail
By Ruben Martínez (2001)
Journalist Martínez follows the migration of Mexicans to the U.S. through the prism of a family that lost two sons in a rollover accident during a La Migra–U.S. Customs Service-chase. He shows the browning of the West and the nation beyond, with jaunts from Illinois and Wisconsin back to Cheran in central Mexico. If you want to see the future of the U.S., look to Martinez and his image of the flag of Mexico flying over Cobden, Illinois.
3 photo of Cold New World Cold New World by William Finnegan
Growing Up in a Harder Country
William Finnegan (1998)
New Yorker writer William Finnegan looked for a fault line in American society and found it–where the rising African-American and Latino middle classes meet the falling white blue collar America. His episodes, which range from New Haven, Connecticut, to east Texas, rural Washington state, and finally Antelope Valley in southern California, present an image of a world coming apart, run by the young and without a genuine system of rules and laws to guide it. It’s a chilling vision of youth in the U.S., one he admits is skewed by particular circumstances, but has become more and more common since the book was first published in the late 1990s.

Richard Slotkin
I’ve written several non-fiction books on the role of the frontier in American history–most recently Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America. I’ve also published three novels, all of which deal with the westward movement. The most recent of these is Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln (2000), which won a “Best Book” citation and the Michael Shaara Award from the Civil War Center. Since I can only recommend three books, I’d single out some older works whose originality of insight changed the way I looked at the West, and made me want to study it in depth.
1 photo of We Shall Be All We Shall Be All by Melvyn Dubofsky
A History of the Industrial Workers of the World
By Melvyn Dubofsky (1969)
We Shall Be All is a history of the IWW, the most radical labor organization the U.S. has ever produced. In our national mythology, the West is always the land of the entrepreneur, the empire-builder. Dubofsky reveals a  West, in which industrialism developed early and took a viciously exploitative form. In reaction, Rocky Mountain mineworkers formed the militant Western Federation of Miners, which in turn gave way to the IWW. Originally rooted in the culture of Western mining camps, the IWW reached out to the least skilled, hardest-to-organize workers from coast to coast–Blacks and Whites, immigrants, and native-born.
2 photo of The Vanishing American The Vanishing American by Brian W Dippie
By Brian Dippie (1982)
To understand the West, you have to understand that the history of Euro-American society in the region begins with the dispossession of the Native American inhabitants. An excellent overview of the ideas and politics that shaped U.S. Indian policy during the period of development is The Vanishing American. It’s well researched, accessible, and provides an excellent introduction to the subject.
Vine Deloria, Jr.
Vine Deloria, Jr. is a Standing Rock Sioux, former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, and author of Custer Died for Your Sins, God Is Red, and Red Earth, White Lies. His latest book is Evolution, Creationism and Other Modern Myths
1 photo of The Year Of Decision 1846 The Year Of Decision 1846 by Bernard Devoto
By Bernard De Voto (1943)
A brilliant chronicle of the events of that pivotal year in the story of western settlement. Massive change is always the result of hundreds of individual decisions, and de Voto weaves these stories into an unforgettable tapestry of change. We can see that the wave of immigration would have occurred even if gold had not been discovered in California, and mourn with the Donner Party that the West was far more hostile than people believed it to be. Nevertheless, it was finally settled, although in unlikely ways that we would not have anticipated.
2 photo of Storms Brewed In Other Men's Worlds Storms Brewed In Other Men’s Worlds by Elizabeth a H John
The Confrontation of Indians, Spanish, and French in the Southwest, 1540-1795
By Elizabeth John (1996)
A comprehensive overview of the Spanish frontier from its earliest contacts until American occupation.The Spanish were in the Southwestern region for more than 200 years, dwarfing even the longevity of the U.S. We are introduced to personalities and events that are virtually unknown to the majority of Americans who think only of the Alamo in relation to Spanish culture. Do we realize, for example, that the Comanches controlled the Spanish frontier from Louisiana to Santa Fe and were so powerful that Spain had to make three separate treaties with different bands of that tribe to ensure a brief period of peace on the frontier? A book solidly researched and full of shocking surprises.
3 photo of Masked Gods Masked Gods by Frank Waters
Navaho and Pueblo Ceremonialism
By Frank Waters (1950)
Written half a century ago, this book continues to be the unequaled study of Southwestern Indian religion. Describing the ceremonial life of the Pueblos, Navajos, Hopis, and Zunis, Waters connects the atomic energy program at Los Alamos with ancient rainmaking ceremonials and presents a philosophy of faith that time has not diminished. Particularly memo- rable are his description of a Navajo Sing, a healing ceremony of immense importance, and the Shalako festival of the Zunis. Vivid sketches of deer and corn dances remain as memories that cannot easily be erased, and Waters demonstrates why so many intellectuals such as Carl Jung and D.H. Lawrence could not completely understand the impact that the people and the land had on them.

1 Comment

  • Another suggestion that I would add for those interested in learning about Native American culture is “Working in Indian Country.”

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