We asked readers by email and on Facebook to tell us who their favorite writers of the Plateau and the West are. The responses are enthusiastic and insightful. We are gratified to post them here. In the coming months we will ask our favorite up-and-coming writers to review some of these suggestions. It will be a chance for all of us to get to know some new writers and see what else is out there to read in the THP niche.
Here then are some of our readers’ thoughts.
I’d like to recommend 2 books by Levi Peterson for your Colorado Plateau Writers book shelf:
The Backslider (1986)
Night Soil: New Stories (1990)(Including:”The Newsboy,” “The Third Nephite,” “Petroglyphs,” “The Goats of Timpanogos,” Sunswath,” “A Wayne County Romance,” and “Night Soil”)
“Mormons in conflict,” is how Peterson once described his stories, but what makes them memorable is that they are all solidly grounded in the natural world.
Allison Smith King:
One of my all time favorites is one written by Rosanne Bittner called Thunder on the Plains..it’s a historical romance, but a lot of history about the transcontinental railroad…
Linda Milbury Chappell:
The Backslider… Levi Peterson
anything by Anthony Doerr…although an Idaho writer, his story locations aren’t bound by the Rockies and the Pacific.
How ’bout Tom McGuane?
I just finished a fantastic book set in Utah and environs – In My Father’s House: A Memoir of Polygamy by Dorothy Allred Solomon. Her father was an elder in a fundamentalist Mormon sect, with many wives and children who spent their lives on the run from the authorities.
Janet Milbury Borg:
Nearly everything by John McPhee, but especially Encounters with the Archdruid
Linda Milbury Chappell:
Oh, and Ivan Doig, too.
Big Rock Candy Mountain, Archaeoastronomy of the American Southwest
Gotta say The Meadow, by James Galvin.
Ivan Doig’s English Creek trilogy
McGuane on fishing (or Montana), Steinbeck on the Central Valley, Charles Bowden on la frontera, JW Powell on water and the west, Hunter Thompson on the new West, Bukowski on Los Angeles (the West epitomized), Henry Miller on the mythical California, McMurtrey on the Texas Plains, McCarthy on the metaphorical West, Craig Childs on the hidden west, Kerouac on the broken promise of the West, John McPhee on the geology and people of the West, TC Boyle on the conflicting delusions of the West, Abbey on the Southwest, and Stegner on just about all of it.
Anne Clinard Barnhill:
Well I love Wallace Stegner! He’s my favorite–my hubby loves Louis L’Amore. My son, Cormac McCarthy. Is this what you mean? I don’t really know who is up and coming.
Hope this is helpful.
Natalie Smith Parra:
Anything by Willie Vlautin!
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner is my favorite book about the West and certainly ranks among my Top Ten Favorite Books of all time.
Off the top of my head I’ll add John McPhee (various titles), Jack Turner (The Abstract Wild), Ted Kerasote (Return of the Wild), Bruce Berger (The Telling Distance), and others. In the past I would have included Craig Childs as well but his last book and some related interviews I heard with him kinda soured his credibility in my eyes. . . . Almost forgot Doug Peacock (Grizzly Years and Walking it Off)! Here’s something you may enjoy: from Nature Photographers.
I could talk about this subject for hours. Stegner and Maclean are appropriate and deserving heroes of western literature because of their complexity of thought and their compassion when regarding the subject of the west. In my opinion, however, Ed Abbey is a bit overrated because of his my-way-or-the-highway mode of thinking; his writing, while bombastic, entertaining, and often beautiful, is simply too polarizing and leads to nothing even close to a solution to the myriad problems that westerners face and will continue to face. “Fly in the ointment,” yes. Rabble rouser, yes. Inspiration and defender, definitely. But his work and thought destroy all possibility of dialogue, and that is what we need most, especially right now.
My favorite authors and works on the west?
–James Galvin, specifically his book The Meadow and selected poetry (see God’s Mistress). The Meadow is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. His narration is unique and refrains from being didactic. Just solid, imagery-rich storytelling that just happens to be about my turf here in Northern Colorado. His poetry is also underrated and breathtaking when he’s on.
–Ivan Doig. The western version of Wendell Berry. While sometimes a bit too nostalgiac for my sake, his prose is clear and truthful. Modest themes with modest characters but important lessons.
–Ron Carlson. Another underrated contemporary writer whose short stories and novels read like a western Hemingway or Ray Carver. He knows his characters and feels sad with them.
–A. B. Guthrie, especially The Big Sky , which should be regarded as required reading for any student of the west. Probably my favorite “western” novel ever. Beautifully violent, true, and heartbreaking, this book is the literary father to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which probably never would exist if not for Guthrie’s work. His Fair Land, Fair Land, has the most intense, realistic, and appropriate ending of any other book about the west I’ve ever read. I’m of the opinion that Guthrie and Stegner should be mentioned in the same sentence.
–William Kittredge. He is important to me because he is level headed and realistic about the future of the west. He also came from an agricultural background and this is a voice that needs to be heard when discussing issues of grazing, water conservation, and pesticide use/abuse. His short stories in We Are Not In This Together are fantastic examples of how the medium can work, but his autobiographical peices are the best. See his memoir A Hole in the Sky and his shorter works Who Owns The West? and Taking Care. One of the more trustworthy voices at work right now.
I could go on but I have to tend to our daughter. Again, thanks for asking this question.
Be sure to see WEST OF THE 98th (Univ. of Texas Press) edited by Lynne Stegner, due out in August. Advance proof copy probably available.
David G. Pace:
I think that Maximilian Werner’s Black River Dreams (meditative essays on fly fishing, much of which takes place in Utah and Arizona) represents some of the best contemporary environmental/nature writing. He participated in the Utah Humanities Book Festival last October, paired as he was with another fly fisherman/essayist George Handley (Home Water, UofU Press). What I’ve read of Max’s novel manuscript Potter’s Field is equally lyrical and nature-driven.
Thanks for your website and advocacy. As a writer, I’m also interested in your publishing house. My work is definitely about Utah culture but only peripherally about the land. And yet, I feel like you can’t write about the culture out west without it being shaped by the land.
Oh, interesting question! I’d have to go with:
1) Wallace Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. I’ll never forget his line that aridity separates the West from the rest of the nation, as well as that essay Letter to My Mother.
2) California and the West, by Edward Weston and Charis Wilson Weston. Weston was the first photographer to win a Guggenheim, and used it to document everything from MGM Studios to the Joshua tree to Yosemite. While visiting Ansel Adams, Adams darkroom burns down… and Weston’s wife, Charis, spins this all into a fantastic travelogue to accompany the photos.
3) Joan Didion’s The White Album (with that stunning series of essays, California Republic) and the companion book, Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Best document of the San Francisco 60s that exists.
Thanks for this chance. I’m a poet who just moved to San Francisco, so this stuff has been on my mind.
My favorite novel set in the West is the magical, the heart-rending, the unforgettable The City of Trembling Leaves by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Several years after reading it during high school, now an undergraduate at Harvard, I wrote a fan letter to Mr. Clark, which he graciously responded to. The only other writer I’ve pestered with an admiring letter was James Gould Cozzens, who also responded graciously. If I kept their letters, I don’t know where they are. So far as I can tell these two writers don’t seem to get much attention nowadays by the literati, which proves one more time how deficient in judgment the literati can be.
On the top of my list–and my bookshelf (besides Abbey)–are David James Duncan, Ellen Meloy, and Rebecca Lawton. You might notice a trend here: rivers. Yes, I love to read (and write) about rivers, as well as hiking the backcountry, spiritual flyfishing, and even baseball if DJD is writing about it. Those books? Here’s my list:
The River WhyThe Brothers KRiver TeethMy Story as Told by WaterGod Laughs and Playsall by DJD
Raven’s ExileThe Last Cheater’s WaltzThe Anthropology of TurquoiseEating Stoneby Ellen Meloy
Reading Waterby Rebecca Lawton
I am also currently devouring everything by Craig Childs.And I love Linda Hogan, TTW, and Barbara Kingsolver.And I ADORE Jim Harrison!There have also been some great anthologies out there. I’ll mention two: Walking the Twilight: Women Writers of the Southwest and Walking the Twilight II.
Thanks for asking. Aloha, Kat Wilder
High Country News asked a bunch of western writers to recommend a booklist for President Obama! See: http://www.hcn.org/issues/40.17/a-western-primer
Stephen Trimble (photographer and author of Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America):
Start with Wallace Stegner, our wise elder, and Marking the Sparrow’s Fall, a collection of his best essays. For a case study about the consequences of hubris and denial (useful lessons after the Bush years), see Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California by William deBuys and Joan Myers.
That the West is rural is now a myth. Atlas of the New West by William Riebsame is 10 years old, but lays out the facts of this changing landscape and introduces two crucial commentators, Patricia Limerick and Charles Wilkinson. For more of Limerick, move on to Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West. For Wilkinson, start with The Eagle Bird: Mapping a New West. Photographer Mark Klett brings the ideas in these books to vivid life by matching historic photos with his wry modern images in Third Views, Second Sights: A Rephotographic Survey of the American West.
For a range of authentic Western voices and visions, read This House of Sky by Ivan Doig; Who Owns the West? by William Kittredge; The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy; Storming the Gates of Paradise by Rebecca Solnit; and, for one complicated and eloquent Indian voice, From Sand Creek: Rising in This Heart Which is Our America by Simon Ortiz.