“September is like a quiet day after a whole week of wind.”
So begins Mildred Walker’s coming of age novel Winter Wheat set in the early 1940s in the great wheat country of central Montana. Walker, a little know but beautiful writer, can capture the essence of a season in one sentence, and the rhythms of farm life in Montana in one book.
There is no group of writers that can capture the sense of landscape and the people who loved and battled that landscape better than the writers of the Western States. And there in no better time than early fall as the cool air drifts down from the mountains and settles here in the valley to grab a few of these writers off the shelves and wrap their words around you like a blanket.
If unfamiliar with the writers of the Western States–Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming–there is no better author to begin your journey with than with Ivan Doig. A frequent mention on lists of “top ten favorite books of all time” is Doig’s novel Dancing at the Rascal Fair, the second in the trilogy about two Scottish immigrants who at the turn of the century struggle for survival on the brutal Montana frontier as they work to establish claims and build flocks of sheep. Of course, you could also read the trilogy in order starting with English Creek and ending with Ride with Me, Mariah Montana. Another fine and more recent novel of Doig’s is The Whistling Season. He is also the author of several books of nonfiction, most notably This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind.
As good as Doig is, the undisputable king of the writers of the Western States is the master Wallace Stegner. Stegner, who has been called the “dean of Western writers” and taught emerging student writers such as Edward Abbey, Ernest Gaines, Thomas McGuane, and Raymond Carver, is best known for his novel Angle of Repose. This Pulitzer Prize winning work is the intertwined story of a historian researching and writing the history of his pioneer grandparents. Written in gorgeous prose, Angle of Repose has often been named the greatest novel ever written about the West. Stegner was a prolific writer and some of his other popular titles are Crossing to Safety; my personal favorite The Big Rock Candy Mountain; and his nonfiction account of John Westly Powell’s running of the Colorado river entitled Beyond the Hundredth Meridian.
I would be remiss to write a blog about writers of the Western States without mentioning these two gentlemen, A.B. Guthrie and Norman Maclean, who both have left their mark amongst the bookshelves. If Stegner was known for writing the greatest novel ever written about the West, then Guthrie was known for creating three of the most memorable characters of Western American literature in his epic adventure novel The Big Sky. The story of three men who travel west and live as frontiersmen is as vivid and sweeping as the landscape it describes. Norman Maclean, on the other hand, has produced only one slim novel in his lifetime. One exquisitely beautiful and perfect novel called A River Runs Through It, a tale of family, fly fishing, and Montana. This novel was brought to the big screen by Robert Redford.
If you are looking for more recent writers of the Western States look for work by Mary Clearman Blew who has written several memoirs and short story collections about Montana ranch life, and Mark Spragg who, among other works, wrote the novel An Unfinished Life that was turned into a movie starring Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, and weirdly enough, Jennifer Lopez. (I guess Redford has a thing for Western writers also.) If you haven’t read The Meadow by James Galvin, don’t miss this beautifully rendered story of ranch life along the Wyoming-Colorado border and the neighbors who share a meadow there. Galvin’s chapters deftly flash back and forth over 100 years, and his writing is lyrical and artful. If you are seeking a little quality nonfiction, pick up Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, her story of moving to a small ranch in Wyoming. Ehrlich is an incredibly intelligent essayist who writes with such precision, beauty, and accessibility that you can lose yourself in her for hours. Her young adult novel A Blizzard Year, set on a ranch in the Northern Rockies, is also excellent.
If you need any help locating the above mentioned books or are interested in similar titles, please don’t hesitate to ask our staff for assistance. If we don’t have what you are looking for, we can always add your request to our Wants Lists or place a special order.