Whatever happened to Westerns?

This blog is by Richard, our deputy head of service.

You’ve only read the title of this blog and already I can hear you scoffing? ‘Westerns’ you say, ‘they’ll never make a come back!’ Well if that’s the case, why have we had two new westerns (The Revenant and The Hateful Eight) at the cinema in the last month or so. Surely Tarantino can’t be wrong?!

Anyway – for those of you who are willing to keep reading here’s my Magnificent Seven ‘give it a go’ westerns to whet the appetite of the uninitiated…

Western Little Big ManLittle Big Man by Thomas Berger (1964)

Does this book require much description? – Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of the irascible Jack Crabb in the 1970 movie made this a very popular western, albeit a tongue in cheek take on the genre where Jack, a 121 year old, retells his life story to an oral historian – this sees Jack pretty much involved on the fringes of every major event covered by almost any other western you can pick up – he even survives the Battle of the Little Big Horn. So whilst most western fans will know that the only survivor of that battle was a horse called Comanche, the book offers a wonderfully colourful [and partly accurate] historical synopsis of the era – and that remains in some ways the main question posed in the narrative – is Jack a fraud?

Western The BloodingThe Blooding by James McGee (2013)

As a fan of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series I was probably destined to become a fan of James McGee’s series about Hawkwood [I can’t read this series without imagining that Sharpe had left the Rifles as a Captain and returned to London’s rookeries as a Runner … but I digress]. Set in 1812 this outing sees Hawkwood stranded behind enemy lines, in America, a country at war with Britain for the second time (like many people I never knew there were two wars with America!)

As Hawkwood makes his escape to the Canadian border he uncovers an American plot to invade Canada. If it is successful, the entire continent will be lost. Pursued by a relentless enemy, Hawkwood sets off across the snow-bound Adirondack Mountains; the land the Iroquois call ‘The Hunting Grounds’.   And here we get more of Hawkwood’s back story with McGee taking his skills at historical storytelling in the direction of Fennimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans.

If you like Cornwell’s Sharpe, historical crime fiction, or EVEN westerns then The Blooding and the rest of the series are waiting….

Western The sisters brothersThe Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (2011)

This is a new one for me – in looking up a few ‘best of the west’ lists I came across the usual titles: Riders of the Purple Sage (Zane Grey), True Grit (Charles Portis), even Little House on the Prairie (Laura Ingles Wilder), [only Little Big Man from any of those lists was already on mine], and then I spotted this little gem (possibly – I should say nugget as the backdrop is around gold prospecting). It’s a relatively recent publication but the language and sentence structure, whilst easy to read, are certainly evocative of them olden days.

The book is darkly comic following the exploits Charlie and Eli, who are brothers with the last name ‘Sisters’ – ok I’ll admit this confused me to start! They are a couple of the best hit men in the Wild West, but like most siblings have their own rivalries and plenty of personal baggage which only serves to enhance the comic authenticity of their interactions. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, this is certainly worth a shot (sorry for the pun).

And for those who like books becoming movies I’ve just discovered that plans are afoot for a 2016 release starring John C. Reilly.

Western The gunslingerThe Gunslinger by Stephen King (1982)

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. So begins the first instalment of Stephen King’s iconic fantasy series, The Dark Tower.

Inspired in by Robert Browning’s poem, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, The Gunslinge , part sci-fi novel, part spaghetti Western, tells the story of Roland Deschain, Mid-World’s last gunslinger [think Lancelot with a Colt peacemaker] who is tracking an enigmatic magician known only as the man in black.

A lasting memory I have reading this as a western is a scene with the gunslinger on a beach fighting off some weird see creatures – ok, that’s definitely not normal for a ‘guns at sunset’ kind of a western, but very little in Mid-world is normal.

The entire saga took over 20 years to create and, like Lord of the Rings for Tolkien, brings Stephen King to the forefront of imaginary world storytelling – everyone should try this, but with seven parts….be prepared to lose yourself in Mid-world for a long time.

And…you guessed it, another candidate for a movie – this one I hear will be around in 2017.

Western A study in scarletA study in scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

The first seven chapters of A Study in Scarlet take place in London in 1881, and see the introduction of our two heroes – Holmes and Watson; this section of the novel ends with the capture of Jefferson Hope. The next section is a flashback to events many years earlier in America, culminating in Hope’s arrival in London. The third section of the book continues where the seventh chapter left off, providing Hope’s account – essentially his statement to the police of his activities in London, and ultimately the novel concludes in what becomes the traditional style for Holmes with his explanation of the case.

Like McGee’s The Blooding, the western narrative is an interesting read, particularly as Doyle was a contemporary author writing from another continent; but putting that aside – if you have never read Holmes you really, really must.

Western The tenderness of wolvesThe Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney (2006)

The year is 1867. Winter has just tightened its grip on Dove River, a tiny isolated settlement in the Northern Territory, when a man is brutally murdered. A local woman, Mrs Ross, stumbles upon the crime scene and sees the tracks leading from the dead man’s cabin north toward the forest and the tundra beyond.   Within hours Mrs Ross will regret that knock as she discovers her seventeen-year-old son has disappeared and is considered a prime suspect.

A mix of people are drawn together following the crime and set off one by one to solve it….or to exploit it?   This is a an exhilarating thriller, a gripping murder mystery, and, like all the best westerns a wonderful example of fireside storytelling – no wonder it won Costa Book of the Year and First Novel Awards.

All God’s Children by Thomas Eidson (1996)

Pearl Eddy is a poor widow living in a small town in the prairies of Kansas, a Quaker in a Methodist town. Life becomes more difficult when she hides a black runaway from a lynch mob and later takes care of an immigrant family.

Also worth a look – The Last Ride (1995) – made into the film The Missing, starring Tommy Lee Jones in 2003

Thomas Eidson is, for me, an exquisite story teller. Each of his stories test the faith of his characters to the very limits. Whether these are religious beliefs, moral codes, or friendship loyalties, Eidson takes his characters to the edge – and sometimes gives just a little nudge to push them over. Unfortunately these titles are mostly out of print, but your extra effort in searching them out will be rewarded.

So, if you think westerns aren’t for you why not try one of these more fringe offerings and see how you get on.   And with a whole host of movie crossovers coming in during 2016, maybe there will be a revival….