I’ve always loved historical fiction, but this year, I got really into books set in the 1800s and western novels. It’s just fascinating to me to try and imagine what life would’ve been like back then, when the west was still a wild frontier and wagon trains moved slowly across the country toward (hopefully) more promising futures in California or Oregon. I scoured articles across the internet, trying to find the best western novels I could and then subsequently devouring them. I read so many that I thought I might make a list of my favorite novels set in the 1800s, or the best western novels.
Not all of the novels listed here are “western novels,” per se. Some of these books are merely set in the 1800s. Many of them involve the American Civil War. Some of them involve wagon trains. A lot of them involve encounters or attacks by Apache tribes, or Comanche tribes, etcetera. Some of them involve outlaws, while more still involve Texas Rangers. Some of them are well-known classics, and some of them are more obscure. But I enjoyed all of them, just the same.
This is my list of the best western novels:
I can’t overstate how much I loved this novel. Lonesome Dove is the quintessential “great American western,” hands down. The story follows retired Texas Rangers, Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Woodrow Call – who rarely get along and are different in almost every way but evenso are partners and seemingly best friends- along with a whole other slew of amazing characters, as they move a cattle herd from the dusty town of Lonesome Dove, Texas all the way to Montana. All of McMurtry’s characters are so vivid and realistic – Dishwater, the “whore” Lorena, young Newt, the vile & vindictive Blue Duck- the list goes on and on. It’s such a great adventure, and there’s a lot of humor throughout the entire book. If you’re like me, you’ll love the banter between Gus and Call especially.
At 1,000+ pages, this book is no small feat, but trust me, you won’t want it to end once you get into it. After devouring Lonesome Dove, I went on to read the prequels to the novel, Dead Man’s Walk and Comanche Moon.
Lonesome Dove Quotes
“It’s not dying I’m talking about, it’s living.”
“If you want one thing too much it’s likely to be a disappointment. The healthy way is to learn to like the everyday things, like soft beds and buttermilk—and feisty gentlemen.”
“I’m glad I’ve been wrong enough to keep in practice… You can’t avoid it, you’ve got to learn to handle it. If you only come face to face with your own mistakes once or twice in your life it’s bound to be extra painful. I face mine every day–that way they ain’t usually much worse than a dry shave.”
The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters.
“I hate rude behavior in a man,’ he explained in his quiet, unassuming drawl. ‘I won’t tolerate it.’ He politely tipped his hat, and rode away.”
This book is a classic, and at 224 pages, it’s a quick read. If you’ve seen the movie (either version,) then you know what a great story it is. From GoodReads: In the 1870s, young Mattie Ross learns that her beloved father was gunned down by his former handyman. But even though this gutsy 14-year-old is seeking vengeance, she is smart enough to figure out she can’t go alone after a desperado who’s holed up in Indian territory. With some fast-talking, she convinces mean, one-eyed US Marshal “Rooster” Cogburn into going after the despicable outlaw with her.
True Grit Quotes
Lookin’ back is a bad habit.
“If you want anything done right you will have to see to it yourself every time.”
There is no knowing what is in a man’s heart.
“I know what they said even if they would not say it to my face. People love to talk. They love to slander you if you have any substance.”
“Do you need a good lawyer?”
“I need a good judge!”
This is another book with an amazing movie based on it, starring Kevin Costner. And Michael Blake, the author of the novel, wrote the screenplay as well, so the movie and the book are one in the same. In short: John Dunbar, a private in the American army, is stationed at an abandoned outpost beyond civilization. Finding himself alone, he soon befriends a wolf he names “Two Socks” and eventually meets a Native American tribe and community who change his life forever. A great novel, well worth the read.
Dances With Wolves Quotes
He thought of himself as a single current in a deep river. He was separate and he was whole, all at the same time. It was a wonderful feeling.
It was a magnificent sight, this great moon, bright as an egg yolk, filling the night sky as if it were a whole new world come to call just on him.
But when she felt around for her heart, she could tell by the stabbing that it was broken. It would have to be healed if she was to continue in this life, and that could be best accomplished with a reasoned and thorough mourning. She must mourn for her husband.
Every day begins with a miracle, he thought suddenly.
Other horses would follow, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime animal. There would be no replacing him once he was gone.
Yet another book which was later turned into an amazing movie starring Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellwegger and Jude Law (among others.) From Goodreads: Cold Mountain is the tale of a wounded Confederate soldier, Inman, who walks away from the ravages of the war & back home to his prewar sweetheart, Ada. His odyssey thru the devastated landscape of the soon-to-be-defeated South interweaves with Ada’s struggle to revive her father’s farm, with the help of an intrepid young drifter named Ruby. As their long-separated lives begin to converge at the close of the war, Inman & Ada confront the vastly transformed world they’ve been delivered.
I will say, the book is a bit different from the movie – the characters are different to an extent. This book and movie include one of my favorite characters of all time, the daring and feisty Ruby Thewes. Cold Mountain is one of my favorite movies of all time, and the book was great as well. I love them both, in different ways. I’d definitely recommend giving it a read if you’re looking for a book set in the 1800s.
Cold Mountain Quotes
“What I’m certain I don’t want,” she finally said aloud, “is to find myself someday in a new century, an old bitter woman looking back, wishing that right now I’d had more nerve.”
Of living a life so quiet he would not need ears. And if Ada would go with him, there might be the hope, so far off in the distance he did not even really see it, that in time his despair might be honed off to a point so fine and thin that it would be nearly the same as vanishing.
“This world won’t stand long,’ the captive hollered in conclusion to his tale. “God won’t let it stand this way long.”
He had grown so used to seeing death, walking among the dead, sleeping among them, numbering himself calmly as among the near-dead, that it seemed no longer dark and mysterious.
The world was such an incredibly lonely place, and to lie down beside him, skin to skin, seemed the only cure.
While this classic 1936 American novel is known to be controversial due to its racist language, and it’s not exactly a western novel, it is set in the 1800s during the American Civil War and eventual Reconstruction period following. Though many people may hate this book, and though it was difficult to read at times, I personally loved this novel. It takes courage for an author to make their protagonist someone as spoiled and selfish as Scarlett O’Hara is. And as daft as Scarlett O’Hara is, you still find yourself rooting for her. And Rhett Butler?! Don’t even get me started; scoundrel or not, I’d marry him in a heartbeat.
Gone with the Wind is a sweeping novel of survival, jealousy, war, and the discovery of what love really means. And of course, there’s also the incredibly famous 1939 movie adaptation of this book as well. In fact, the movie Gone with the Wind is still the highest grossing movie of all time, adjusted for inflation.
Gone with the Wind was one of my favorite books that I read in 2022- hell, it’s one of my all time favorite books, now. I realize my love of this book is probably not a popular opinion in today’s current culture. But hear me out: I believe it’s all right to love Gone with the Wind. Why? See my note about this.
Gone with the Wind Quotes
“Death, taxes and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them.”
“Sir,” she said, “you are no gentleman!”
“An apt observation,” he answered airily. “And, you, Miss, are no lady.”
Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect. We take what we get and are thankful it’s no worse than it is.
“Child, it’s a very bad thing for a woman to face the worst that can happen to her, because after she’s faced the worst she can’t ever really fear anything again. …Scarlett, always save something to fear— even as you save something to love…”
“You should be kissed and by someone who knows how.”
After all, tomorrow is another day!
This is not a famous book, unlike the books listed up to this point. I found it by chance and gave it a read, and I absolutely fell in love with it. From GoodReads: The Overland Trail, 1853: Naomi May never expected to be widowed at twenty. Eager to leave her grief behind, she sets off with her family for a life out West. On the trail, she forms an instant connection with John Lowry, a half-Pawnee man straddling two worlds and a stranger in both. But life in a wagon train is fraught with hardship, fear, and death. Even as John and Naomi are drawn to each other, the trials of the journey and their disparate pasts work to keep them apart. When a horrific tragedy strikes, decimating Naomi’s family and separating her from John, the promises they made are all they have left.
Where the Lost Wander Quotes
My mind is empty, but my heart weighs a thousand pounds.
“The pain. It’s worth it. The more you love, the more it hurts. But it’s worth it. It’s the only thing that is.”
I’m convinced everyone is a little vile, if they are honest about it. Vile and scared and human.
Hating never fixed anything. It seems simple, but most things are. We just complicate them. We spend our lives complicating what we would do better to accept. Because in acceptance, we put our energies into transcendence.
I realize now that life is just a continual parting of the ways, some more painful than others.
by Téa Obreht
This is another book I found by chance and totally fell in love with. The story revolves around two vantage points: that of Nora, a frontierswoman raising her family in a desolate landscape where water is scarce. Then there’s Lurie, a former outlaw and a man haunted by ghosts. The two stories are both told so vividly, descriptively, yet very differently. And both stories are tied together in the end in a way that I most definitely did not see coming. I love Téa Obreht’s work- it’s so beautifully written- and I would recommend this novel to anyone. I simply could not put it down. Also check out my review of Obreht’s other book The Tiger’s Wife, another phenomenal novel.
The older she grew the more she came to recognize falsehood as the preservative that allowed the world to maintain its shape.
That was the funny thing about death. The wake of its altered mundanities could keep surprising you long after it had swept through.
But we remembered, you and I. It saddened me. Who would speak of these things when we were gone? So, too, must the makers of those distant fires have asked themselves as they fought the fading of their world. I began to wish that I could pour our memories into the water we carried, so that anyone drinking might see how it had been.
Bloodlust or mercy, the result would be the same: with both of us dead, we would wander alone, each unable to find the other again.
Too much contentment is apt to make you think you can have more. And worse, make you wonder: when will it be taken away?
The Orchardist is another lesser known gem of a novel that I could not put down. From GoodReads: … [a] novel about a man who disrupts the lonely harmony of an ordered life when he opens his heart and lets the world in. Transcribing America as it once was before railways and roads connected its corners, [this novel] weaves a tapestry of solitary souls who come together in the wake of unspeakable cruelty and misfortune, bound by their search to discover the place they belong. At once intimate and epic, evocative and atmospheric, filled with haunting characters both vivid and true to life, and told in a distinctive narrative voice, The Orchardist marks the beginning of a stellar literary career.
The Orchardist Quotes
She sat up in the grass now and peered, her head spinning slightly, toward the cabin. These days she thought she was bored or restless, but she was neither of these things. She was waiting. But for what, exactly, she did not know.
He did not expect her to be happy—how that word lost meaning as the years progressed—but he only wished her to be unafraid, and able to experience small joys.
In his grief he might forget to begin work: but when he began, it was difficult to get him to stop. He had pulled out of that grief, eventually—out from under the suffocating weight of it. Suffering had formed him: made him silent and deliberate, thoughtful: deep. Generous and kind and attentive, although he had been that before.
Things might get very bad, things might be worse than she ever imagined, but the stars existed, and that was something.
Why are we born? she thought. What does it mean to be born? To die?
This is the first book in the epic Lonesome Dove series. Similarly to Lonesome Dove, I couldn’t put this book down. It’s brutal and it’s raw- I would say there’s much more violence than in Lonesome Dove. This is a true western novel. And here, we meet the villain Buffalo Hump- Blue Duck’s infamous father. From GoodReads: As young Texas Rangers, Gus and Call have much to learn about survival in a land fraught with perils: not only the blazing heat and raging tornadoes, roiling rivers and merciless [Native Americans] but also the deadly whims of soldiers.
Dead Man’s Walk Quotes
The land before him, which looked so empty, wasn’t. A people were there who knew the emptiness better than he did; they knew it even better than Bigfoot or Shadrach. They knew it and they claimed it. They were the people of the emptiness.
Gus was wishing he’d never come to Texas—what was it but one danger after another?
“Love’s a terrible price to pay for company, ain’t it, Matty?” Caleb said. “I won’t pay it, myself. I’d rather do without the company.”
He didn’t understand why women had such a need to question. He himself preferred just to let life happen, and act when opportunity arose.
Buffalo Hump had been listening to the death song with admiration—he had never heard one so loud before. The song came back off the distant hills, as if the singer’s ghost were already there, calling for the singer to come.
… And finally, the second book in the Lonesome Dove series, Comanche Moon. Comanche Moon is even more brutal than Dead Man’s Walk and probably my second favorite in the Lonesome Dove tetralogy. The viciousness and savagery is hard to read at times… but, oh, such an enjoyable read. From GoodReads: Texas Rangers August McCrae and Woodrow Call, now in their middle years, continue to deal with the ever-increasing tensions of adult life — Gus with his great love, Clara Forsythe, and Call with Maggie Tilton, the young whore who loves him. Two proud but very different men, they enlist with the Ranger troop in pursuit of Buffalo Hump, the great Comanche war chief; Kicking Wolf, the celebrated Comanche horse thief; and a deadly Mexican bandit king with a penchant for torture.
Comanche Moon Quotes
“It’s the quality of the opponent that makes soldiering a thing worth doing,” he said. “It ain’t the cause you fight for—the cause is only a cause. Those torturing fiends down there are the best opponents I’ve ever faced. I mean to kill them to the last man, if I can—but once it’s done I’ll miss ’em.”
“Why will people die on days this pretty?” Sunlight poured down on them; the sky was cloudless and the air soft. No one had an answer to Gus’s question. Darkness and death seemed far away; but war had been declared between South and North…
Several times in his life he had felt an intense desire to start over, to somehow turn back the clock of his life to a point where he might, if he were careful, avoid the many mistakes he had made the first time around.
There was no changing men—not much, anyway; mainly men stayed the way they were, no matter what women did.
“I suppose she’s just dying of living—that’s the one infection that strikes us all down, sooner or later.”
Good lord, was this book brutal. I can’t say I enjoyed it, exactly; rather, I slogged through it (albeit quickly,) reading from one terrible horrific encounter to the next. The novel is based around the nameless protagonist ‘the kid,’ who stumbles through the American west from Native American attacks to battles with Mexicans and everything in between, just trying to survive. He eventually joins up with a troop of scalp-hunters (yes, scalp-hunters… this book is NOT for the faint of heart.) It’s brutal to its very core. It’s also very racist and the n-word is mentioned often, which I was obviously not a fan of.
Blood Meridian Quotes
Kindly fell on hard times aint ye son? he said.
I just aint fell on no good ones.
I was sickern a dog, the boy said. I was afraid I was goin to die and then I was afraid I wasnt.
I know of one old boy up on the Llano near the dutch settlements, they caught him, took his horse and all. Left him to walk it. He come crawlin into Fredericksburg on his hands and knees buck naked about six days later and you know what they’d done? Cut the bottoms of his feet off.
In the days to come the frail black rebuses of blood in those sands would crack and break and drift away so that in the circuit of few suns all trace of the destruction of these people would be erased. The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, nor ghost nor scribe, to tell to any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place died.
This is a terrible place to die in.
Where’s a good one?
The first line in this book is what drew me in: “In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw.” This is sort of a feminist take on the great American western style of novel, with some magical realism thrown in. It’s definitely the most progressive “western” I’ve read. I really enjoyed it, although after reading some of the hardcore westerns, it felt a little light. From GoodReads: …after a year of marriage and no pregnancy, in a town where barren women are routinely hanged as witches, her survival depends on leaving behind everything she knows. She joins up with the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, a band of outlaws led by a preacher-turned-robber known to all as the Kid. Charismatic, grandiose, and mercurial, the Kid is determined to create a safe haven for outcast women. But to make this dream a reality, the Gang hatches a treacherous plan that may get them all killed. And Ada must decide whether she’s willing to risk her life for the possibility of a new kind of future for them all.
In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw. Like a lot of things, it didn’t happen all at once.
I tasted disappointment like metal in my mouth.
When all the sorrow and anger were wrung out of me and I was almost hoarse from sobbing, then, like the thunder that follows lightning, came the fear.
It hurt, almost, to remember what I’d been like at their age, not so long ago, a woman-child—my body beginning to change, my mind, like theirs, still full of tricks and gossip. The darkness of the grown-up world just starting to seep in.
I imagined my hate as a flame racing along the dirt road until it licked at their door.
In 1852, Maggie joins forty-three other women and two pious reverends on the dangerous 2,000-mile journey west on a wagon train solely made up of women. The women are traveling west in search of husbands. Maggie is secretly running from her abusive husband- who she may or may not have murdered. The women aren’t prepared for the hardships they face on the trek through the high plains, mountains, and deserts. Or for the triumphs of finding strengths they did not know they possessed. And not all will make it.
Westering Women Quotes
Sometimes the unknown ahead is preferable to the known we have left behind.
The world was unfair. Why was it all right for him to beat her so savagely but wrong for her to fight back?
“In protecting her and wanting her to have a happy life, I have failed her.”
“Perhaps not,” Maggie said. “You have shown her love. That is a great gift.”
“Is it? Love imposes hardship.”
“I do not know the meaning of death, but there is meaning to life.”
Maggie would have sacrificed anything for her children. She knew too well that it did not matter how much you loved them, however. Love did not keep them safe.
Written by the author of the wonderful memoir The Glass Castle, this book was a great adventure. From GoodReads: By age six, Lily was helping her father break horses. At fifteen, she left home to teach in a frontier town — riding five hundred miles on her pony, alone, to get to her job. She learned to drive a car and fly a plane. And, with her husband Jim, she ran a vast ranch in Arizona. […] Lily survived tornadoes, droughts, floods, the Great Depression, and the most heartbreaking personal tragedy. She bristled at prejudice of all kinds — against women, Native Americans, and anyone else who didn’t fit the mold.
Half Broke Horses Quotes
They were a bunch of pious hypocrites, he thought, who declared all men equal but kept slaves and massacred peaceful Indians.
“Most important thing in life,” he would say, “is learning how to fall.”
He hadn’t drawn the best of cards, but he’d played his hand darned well, so what was there to grieve over?
There was nothing finer than the feeling that came rushing through you when it clicked and you suddenly understood something that had puzzled you. It made you think it just might be possible to get a handle on this old world after all.
Anyone who thinks he’s too small to make a difference has never been bit by a mosquito.
I enjoyed this book; it’s an American western but there’s a whole lot of magical realism thrown in, which is always fun. From GoodReads: Battered, heartbroken, and yet defiant, Ming partners with a blind clairvoyant known only as the prophet. Together the two set out to rescue his wife and to exact revenge on the men who destroyed Ming, aided by a troupe of magic-show performers, some with supernatural powers, whom they meet on the journey. Ming blazes his way across the West, settling old scores with a single-minded devotion that culminates in an explosive and unexpected finale.
The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu Quotes
There are things on this earth far worse than the simple livin and dyin of men.
In time all things are forgotten, all things are scoured away. If memory were all creation I might be troubled. But memory is something what lies beyond man’s compass.
“Have we met?”
“In another life, perhaps,” the woman replied. “In another life everyone has met everyone.”
When he closed his eyes to rest the bottom fell out of the world and half-waking and half-sleeping he began to dream in memories. They came to him without order or reason, presenting themselves one after another like resurrected ghosts.
Judgment clouded by fury was no judgment at all.
This isn’t really a western novel, but it is set in the 1800s just after the conclusion of the Civil War. I enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it. It’s heartbreaking, and sweet, and beautifully written. From GoodReads: In the waning days of the Civil War, brothers Prentiss and Landry—freed by the Emancipation Proclamation—seek refuge on the homestead of George Walker and his wife, Isabelle. The Walkers, wracked by the loss of their only son to the war, hire the brothers to work their farm, hoping through an unexpected friendship to stanch their grief. Prentiss and Landry, meanwhile, plan to save money for the journey north and a chance to reunite with their mother, who was sold away when they were boys.
The Sweetness of Water Quotes
No one was more reliable, and if that was not the ultimate act of compassion, she did not know what was.
He wished to feel the joy he’d felt then, but it was gone to him. Nowadays the only memories that got his blood rushing were the ones he so badly wished to be rid of.
That was the beauty of nature—it was always a step ahead, privy to a joke he did not know, a riddle with no answer.
A life without motion, without expectations—it was the secret she kept from the outside world, for no one else comprehended the great joy in abandonment, in giving up and starting over with a blank page, a page that might never be filled.
It was dark enough that the forest merged with the blackness of the sky and the world had no beginning or end, as if he might sleep upon the ground and wake up staring down from the stars.
Let me know your thoughts!
What’s on your list of best western novels? Have recommendations of other great books set in the 1800s that belong on this list? Let me know in the comments! Or follow me on GoodReads here to stay up to date on what I’m reading. Or, if you’re looking for historical fiction books relating to World War II, check out my post The Best World War II Historical Fiction Books.
*** Note on Gone with the Wind: Taken from this article: “This novel has a message that is deeper than a love story or a coming-of-age-fable, and perhaps the greatest difficulty that I and many other readers have with it is that, although we may love the novel, we choke on its message. But the redeeming factor– the reason I can love Gone with the Wind without guilt– is that I believe the author herself did not agree with her intended message: she undermines it even as she declares it.“
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