Bring your saddle bag of books, cowpoke

Golden Age Western Comics press photo

Golden Age Western Comics press photo

Update: Now that the call-in has been done (2/20/14) you can find the reading list compiled from recommendations by hosts, guests, callers and correspondent here:


We’re heading out to the plains, the Rio Grande, the Four Corners and the western badlands on the next book club call in. On Thursday, February 20 at 11 am, John Ernst and I talk about western writers we love, and take your calls about your favorite books set in the American West.

Recently, I talked about the upcoming show with Dale Hobson and Bill Haenel–our digital team–and both mentioned the two icons of American Western fiction–Zane Grey and the prodigiously prolific (about 100 books) Louis L’Amour. My neighbor, a farmer in his mid-seventies, has read every Louis L’Amour novel. Across America, Zane Grey was a similar favorite in the first half of the last century–and “Riders of the Purple Sage” was the author’s biggest hit. When I was a kid, we watched “Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater” on tv; later, we followed a western rock group called New Riders of the Purple Sage (there were at least a couple of bands with that name before them).

I have a feeling John Ernst will pick more literary favorites from the West. Some of my favorite authors whose work is dusted with desert sand and cactus-prickly, or evokes the smell of pine and smoke of the high country, include:

Jim Harrison, who was born in the midwest but has lived in and written about the (true) west for most of his adult life. Harrison has written in virtually every genre–poetry, essays, novels, novellas, short fiction. He is perhaps best known for the novella “Legends of the Fall,” which was made into a well-received film some years ago.

Cormac McCarthy, of course.

Larry McMurtry, whose “Lonesome Dove” won the Pulitzer–for me the ultimate cattle drive tale.


Cow Boy, circa 1888. Library of Congress

Cow Boy, circa 1888. Library of Congress

Annie Proulx, who spent much of her life in the east and won the Pulitzer and National Book Award for “The Shipping News,” a book set about as far east as you can get in North America–Newfoundland, nonetheless has captured the western ethos through years spent in Wyoming. Perhaps best known in recent years for the short fiction, “Brokeback Mountain,” which was made into an award-winning movie (and for which McMurtry served as screenwriter).

But I’d better stop.

I’m going to discover at least one new western fiction writer between now and the program…and I’ll be looking forward to hearing about your favorites. You can send me authors’ names and recommended titles in advance of the show: Thanks.

Check out Leadbelly singing Jesse James–a song jointly attributed to Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. Complete lyrics posted below the video.

Golden Age Western Comics press photo

Golden Age Western Comics press photo

Words and music adaptation by Woody Guthrie & Huddie Ledbetter

Just about the worst gun battle ever out on the western plains
When me and a bunch of cowboys went running with Jesse James
Come a cow-cow yicky, come a cow-cow yicky, yicky yea.

Run into Jesse James, boys, run into Jesse James
The guns went off like thunder and the bullets fell like rain
Come a cow-cow yicky, come a cow-cow yicky, yicky yea.

The guns went off like lightning and the bullets fell like hail
Was on our way to Denver on the old Dodge City trail
Come a cow-cow yicky, come a cow-cow yicky, yicky yea.

And in that bloody battle with Frank and Jesse James
My partners fell around me with bullets in their brains
Come a cow-cow yicky, come a cow-cow yicky, yicky yea.

Frank and Jesse James, boys, they robbed that midnight mail
The bank and express station and broke the county jail
Come a cow-cow yicky, come a cow-cow yicky, yicky yea.

If you’re afraid to fight, boys, if you’re afraid to die
You’d better stay out of the Badlands where the red hot bullets fly
Come a cow-cow yicky, come a cow-cow yicky, yicky yea.

If you’re afraid of dying, if you’re afraid of death
You’d better stay at home, boys, stay out of Jesse’s path
Come a cow-cow yicky, come a cow-cow yicky, yicky yea.
Come a cow-cow yicky, come a cow-cow yicky, yicky yea.


8 Comments on “Bring your saddle bag of books, cowpoke”

  1. Chris Morris says:

    The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt is awesome.

    And you can’t go wrong with No Country for Old Men.

    Can’t wait to replenish my reading list based on next week’s show.

  2. SESZOO says:

    Well Howdy and bring me on back to childhood .. Thanks Ellen for bringing this forgotten time back into the light , When I was young my father gave me a small collection of old westerns that were his when he was a kid ,I believe they were from the 30s, which I have in turn some few years back gave to my son ,They were a fun read and I believe they set the stage for the hardy boys and nanci drew mysterys though I’m not sure , They were called the X Bar X Boys and they were always haveing adventures in the old West, getting into jams and solveing many a mystery and catching the evil doers in the end ,All around good guys, They were written by a James Ferris and were a fun read for kids books , I’m not sure how many were written and I haven’t thought of them now in years as I did pass them along ,but they did bring back a flood of memories of simpler and better times . Don’t believe as many kids read and get into books the way we did before all the media that’s available today. Thanks again for the kick back to 45 to 50 yrs . ago …

  3. Lucy Martin says:

    Back in high school I was quite taken with The Cowboy and the Cossack by Clair Huffaker, which seems to be liked by others as well.

    Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

    “On a cold spring day in 1880, fifteen American cowboys sail into Vladivostock with a herd of 500 cattle for delivery to a famine stricken town deep in Siberia. Assigned to accompany them is a band of Cossacks, Russia’s elite horsemen and warriors. From the first day, distrust between the two groups disrupts the cattle drive. But as they overcome hardships and trials along the trail, a deep understanding and mutual respect develops between the men in both groups.”

    Who says Yanks and Russians can’t be pals?

  4. CJ says:

    Check out The Virgil Cole/Everett Hitch westerns by Robert B. Parker of Spencer and Jesse Stone fame.

  5. Keith says:

    Don’t forget Thomas McGuane. Novels and some true stories like “Some Horses”….

  6. Bruce D. Morrow says:

    As a preteen I enjoyed reading My Friend Flicka, about a boy and his horse in Wyoming. When I flunked out of college I hitchhiked out West and worked on ranches for a year in northeast Wyoming, until I got a letter with Greetings from Uncle Sam. In the spring I spent a few days riding a horse into ravines looking for cows having a problem giving birth, as in a half-born calf hanging out their backside. At night the geldings would engage in horseplay outside the bunkhouse, snorting and biting each other on the ass. Ranchers tended to think people back East had it easy. It was thirty below for a week that winter, and a lot lambs died in a May snowstorm. Sheep don’t know enough to head for shelter. They bunch up and travel with the wind, even if they end up against an exposed section of fence.

  7. Peter Slocum says:

    Maybe my favorite reading genre, and I keep coming across gems by people I never heard of.
    But first, Mari Sandoz, raised in the Sand Hills of Nebraska in the early 20th Century. Her classic “Old Jules” is about life with her tough, mean, amazing father. Also, “Crazy Horse,” “Miss Morrisa,” “Cheyenne Autumm.” One of the absolute best writers about the Plains and the Native Americans who lived there. We found some of her relatives on a trip out there two years ago.
    Ivan Doig, Montana’s great voice. “English Creek,” Dancing at the Rascal Fair,” about the immigration of Scottish sheep ranchers.
    Tony Hillerman, contemporary mysteries set among the Native American tribes of the Southwest.
    Laura Bell’s searing, compelling memoir, “Claiming Ground,” is equal to any Annie Proulx, and that’s saying a lot. Young Kentucky woman finds strength and maturity in Wyoming sheep country.
    For a realistic look at young men exploring the frontier, how about Andrew Garcia’s “Tough Trip Through Paradise,” a journal narrative of life on the Montana frontier in the late 1870’s.
    Finally, “Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn” by Larry Colton. 2000. Crow Indian Nation girls playing basketball and fighting for identity and their future in present-day Montana.

  8. Mr. Wakiki says:

    I know it is the ‘new west’ of sorts Thomas McGuane

Comments are closed.