Novelists Reimagine The Old West

From a New York Times story by Celia McGee headlined “Novelists Reimagine The Old West”:

Their eyes meet across a crowded street in 1870s Dodge City, Kan., the gunslinging bounty hunter and the impulsive rebel, one a dark-haired loner, the other a striking redhead: two young women destined to work out their mutual sparks on the frontier where Owen Wister enshrined the all-male, all-white Western genre novel with “The Virginian,” in 1902.

In Claudia Cravens’s debut novel, “Lucky Red,” the two main characters are Bridget Shaughnessy, earning her keep as a “sporting woman” at the Buffalo Queen Saloon, and Spartan Lee, a notorious sharpshooter who has touched down in Bridget’s life bearing the warning line, “Whenever I tire of a place, I just light out.”

The sentiment, its history reverberating from Mark Twain to Zane Grey to Charles Portis to Cormac McCarthy, animates Cravens’s interrogation of traditional stereotypes and story lines in Western fiction. So does the abiding trope of a mysterious stranger riding into town to upend law and order, minds and hearts. ‌

“I love that archetype,” Cravens said ‌over lunch at the Greenwich Village restaurant Cowgirl, “but I thought, ‘what if the stranger Bridget falls in love with is a woman instead of a man?’”‌

Cravens, a seventh-generation Californian who identifies as queer-bisexual, said that “playing with the genre and the mythic space” gave her imagination a home on the range.

She is not alone‌. A wave of new fiction, attuned to both revised approaches to American history and personal responses to the meaning of the West, is reframing the idea and image of the region to include realities and subject matter long ignored or denied. Stories drawn from varying wellsprings of race, class, gender, epoch and perception have expanded the genre, rearranging the standard narrative to create a more complex sense of time and place. ‌

Alongside the shift of women’s experiences from the margins to the heart of the action signposted by “Lucky Red,” Black, Asian American, Hispanic and Indigenous voices have been staking their cardinal presence. ‌ ‌

“Until recently,” said Debra Magpie Earling, a Bitterroot Salish author whose new novel, “The Lost Journals of Sacajewea,” came out in May, “publishing essentially allowed for two native writers a generation — N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie, Tommy Orange and Brandon Hobson. But now the floodgates have opened.”

Nancy S. Cook, a former professor of English at the University of Montana, said she is struck “by how many younger Black, Indigenous and other writers of color are being welcomed into the larger cultural conversation” that is celebrating and scrutinizing a West of many parts and mythologies, and the natural environment increasingly in play there.

Yet it wasn’t long ago that C Pam Zhang, author of the acclaimed 2020 novel “How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” approached a literary agent about a novel featuring a Chinese family swept up in the Gold Rush and was told, she said, “This book is too much about immigration and race and environmental concerns.”

The West has also exerted a gravitational pull on more established authors recently. This spring, Susanna Moore, Victor LaValle and Charles Frazier have turned their gaze westward.

In September, author Lauren Groff will scout the wilderness narrative in colonial America with “The Vaster Wilds,” and in October Ariel Djanikian’s “The Prospectors” will explore the long shadow of exploitation and dispossession cast over a Western family, while‌ Tim O’Brien, author of the Vietnam War classic “Going After Cacciato,” will release‌ “America Fantastica,” about an uncommon bank robber roaming the West bent on revenge.

In academia, historians — Philip Deloria at Harvard, Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin at Stanford, Beth Lew-Williams at Princeton, Ned Blackhawk at Yale, among others — have produced scholarship that speaks to what the journalist and cultural critic Michelle García said had been “the efforts of generations of artists and writers to rewrite an American West that was the invention of the imperialist gaze.”

The novelist Tom Lin said that, in researching his 2021 assassin picaresque “The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu,” he could find no Chinese in photographs commemorating the construction of the transcontinental railroad until he was introduced to Chang and Fishkin’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project.

Hernan Diaz, who won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year, and in 2017 set his first novel, “In the Distance,” in a myth-chasing West, attributes the current surge in Western fiction to attempts “to turn the romance and stereotypes of the West‌‌ — and its tension between violence and morality‌ — inside out in order to visit some questionable moments in our past.”

Ahead of that curve‌ — and among Cravens’s influences, she said‌‌ — were the challenges to the problematically conceptualized West of TV and film posed by the likes of “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Lonesome Dove,” “Deadwood” and, she said with a laugh, “both versions of ‘True Grit.’”

Another impetus, argued the author Amor Towles, whose most recent novel, “The Lincoln Highway,” begins as a westward adventure that gets turned around, was “the Silicon Valley tech boom, which brought back attention to the West in new, subconscious ways, especially California’s role as a mythically new place, where new things can happen, rules are broken, wealth is made and a boomtown dynamic prevails.” His next work is a novella set in Hollywood in 1938.

In broadening and diversifying the Western genre, much of the new fiction is also highly personal, the birthright of writers positioned to reach back into family stories and collectively held sagas. ‌ ‌

“I was frustrated that my family’s history wasn’t portrayed in the official history we were taught in school,” said Kali Fajardo-Anstine, who grew up in Denver, Colo‌., of mixed Chicano, Indigenous, Filipino and European descent. ‌ ‌

Last year‌ Fajardo-Anstine published‌ “Woman of Light,” a novel ranging from Southwestern ancestral homelands to a 1930s Denver dominated by a murderous white elite, which became a ‌best seller. The winner of this year’s PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel was Oscar Hokeah’s “Calling for a Blanket Dance,” set in a harshly contemporary Oklahoma informed, he said, by anciently clashing differences‌‌ — and different environments‌‌ — lodged in the competing strains of his Kiowa and Cherokee heritage. ‌ ‌

The Caribbean-American author Lauren Francis-Sharma said that, for her 2020 novel “Book of the Little Axe” and its research-based portrayal of Black lives among the Crow, she compared her antecedents in Trinidad’s slaveholding past with the “colonialism” ‌that arrogated the American West.

‌Addressing such personal legacies can prove almost intolerably painful. ‌Earling said she originally resisted writing her new novel about the Lewis and Clark Expedition and its fable-shrouded young Lemhi Shoshone guide‌.

“I knew the mythology and the historical consequences of Lewis and Clark’s actions,” said Earling, who lives in Montana and spent summers on the Flathead Reservation, “when Manifest Destiny bouldered into the West, blanketed it in whiteness and decimated the tribes.”‌

Her first novel, “Perma Red‌,” published in 2002 and reissued last year, dealt with those consequences: Indigenous people forced onto reservations and into surrendering their children to mission-based boarding-schools; labor and housing discrimination; a toxic language of racial slurs.

It took Earling almost 20 years to write her second book, a formally inventive, historically eye-opening novel voiced by a Sacajewea who starts out a Shoshone-speaking 7-year-old and is gambled away to a Francophone fur trader whose child she bears at 12.

In the novel, as in many of the new Westerns, nature is an enduring, even sacred, force, increasingly under threat. The story’s landscapes reflect the same environmental consciousness that, in “Lucky Red,” marvels at‌ spectacular vistas clouded by the destructive effects of future ranching, farming, mining and dam building. “There’s this tension with the mind-blowing space,” Cravens said.

‌Cravens’s awareness of Western nature’s vulnerability was matched by her desire for authenticity in the novel, she said, from the foods Bridget fancies to the plot’s violence‌ to the clothes the characters wear. Cravens’s mother, a former costume designer, “was my constant correspondent,” ‌she said.

Among the garments are also scraps of Confederate ‌gray: Before Bridget loses her father, she has to endure his boozy mourning for the South’s cause, defeated in what she refers to as the “Brothers’ War.”‌

“Let’s not forget,” said the journalist and historian Caleb Gayle, “that the American West represented the exporting of the South at its most vicious and most violent,” depositing in places like Colorado the mind-set of the marble mining dynasty in Kate Manning’s 2022 novel “Gilded Mountain.”

Adelaide Henry, the Black protagonist of Victor LaValle’s horror epic “Lone Women,” arriving on the Montana plains to homestead in 1915, faces behaviors straight out of the Jim Crow playbook, dwarfing even the monstrous secret she totes everywhere in a locked trunk.

“Lucky Red”’s Dodge City lies at the southern end of the cattle trails that might have dusted the plains in LaValle’s “Lone Women.” Because “Bridget’s small, particular world would have been quite segregated,” Cravens said, all the characters are white.

Riding out toward the Western horizon is Bridget’s only way to “turn away from every place I’ve ever been.” And Cravens is “reading a lot about forests and monsters and mysteries,” she said. “I’m looking forward to seeing where that takes me.”

Celia McGee is a book critic and arts writer in New York. A former publishing columnist for The New York Observer and entertainment reporter for the New York Daily News, she now writes for The New York Times, Elle Decor, Culture and Travel, USA Today and others.

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