Suppose you are tasked with providing a five-title reading list of western literature for someone who—gasp!—has never read any. What would you select and why?

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Okay, this is sacrilege. The program director of Humanities Montana and the Montana Festival of the Book is not a huge fan of "western literature" and is not even sure how that is defined, in academic circles or in the reading public's mind. But here are some books that come to me: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, which is not only one of the great novels of the 20th century, but also has some of the most incredible descriptions of the northwest ever. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey which, to my mind, captures the crisis of the land barons as they meet the new generation, and is definitely Kesey's great work--don't even try to argue with me about that. Of course, Winter in the Blood by James Welch, which is the first novel that absolutely presents an Indian perspective on what the west has become from the vantage of those who know it best. I love Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Last Crossing for its absolutely new and yet historically dead -on version of the west. And then, I guess I'd hand a friend The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir by Richard Hugo to truly get to the heart of it all. I know these are all fairly contemporary, and my betters will come up with the historical canon. But speaking as a middle-aged woman who grew up in Montana and couldn't wait to get out, and then couldn't wait to return, these books speak to me--the ambivalence of living in the Great West.
No need to apologize for your list, Kim--outstanding works all.

I'll throw in a few other suggestions, more a supplement to Kim's list than a standalone.

Andrew Garcia, Tough Trip through Paradise--Montana frontier shortly after the Indian Wars--the cross-currents of attraction and repulsion among the diverse peoples trying to live off the land

James Welch, Fools Crow--I often read this novel as the necessary "prequel" to Winter in the Blood--the historical and emotional prehistory of the narrator's story in the novel set on the Hi-Line--flat-out gorgeous prose about an indigenous way of inhabiting "Montana"

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose--easterners transplanted in the mountain West in the late 1800s--mining, irrigation, lust and loss

Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior--we often forget the trials and impact of immigrants from the east--affecting stories of immigrant families trying to find their way on "Gold Mountain"

Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony--my favorite contemporary Indian novel (Love Medicine, Winter in the Blood, and House Made of Dawn are close behind)--a young Indian made sick by contemporary culture finds a way to healing
I had a real experience that was much like the hypothetical you propose, Ken. To add variety to my regular schedule I taught a non-credit course entitled "The Montana Novel." This was at the University of Tennessee so my students had very limited experience in western literature. I wish I still had the full list of titles I discussed with the the students. Here's what they chose, along with my assessment of what they learned about "the western experience."

--The Big Sky, A.B. Guthrie. A glimpse of the fur trapping era that provides a graphic description of wanton exploitation of the land.
--English Creek, Ivan Doig. A portrait of life in the rural west during the depression.
--Montana 1948, Larry Watson. Insight into the trauma of discovering that racial bigotry permeates one'w own family.
--A River Runs Through It, Norman McLean. An exploration of family tragedy in the contest of stunning descriptions of the Montana landscape and fly fishing.

I also considered, but never got around to a Montana non-fiction course. Here are some of the titles I would have proposed:

-- This House of Sky, Ivan Doig.
-- All But the Waltz, Mary Clearman Blew
-- Montana High, Wide and Handsome, Joseph Kinsey Howard
-- Bad Land, Jonathan Raban

Were I teaching such a course now, I certainly would add: Full Court Quest, Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith
OK, so I need to think some more before I can suggest my fab five, but while I am thinking I have a few questions. This is not to pick on the selections, which all have merit, but...

If the question is western literature, didn't we go rather quickly to Montana lit? If we include Kesey, certainly an excellent choice, what about other writers from the left coast? Is "Grapes of Wrath" a western?

Is Cormac McCarthy on the list? Should he be? If so, which one?

And how much non-fiction can we let slip into the list? Stegner has some great essays, for instance. And could we even go so far as to include a work of history (gasp!) as part of the literature of the region?
Building a conversation around an undefined term like "western literature" obviously invites a variety of points of view -- a healthy variety. I focused Montana literature because it's what I know best. I'm a great admirer the authors others have nominated and can include them under the rubric of western literature. I thought it a bit strange that Ken framed the question on western literature instead of Montana literature. After all, this is the Humanities Montana roundtable.

When they encounter the word, "literature" most people think of fiction, but they certainly don't mean exclude poetry, and I doubt that many would deny that a lot of non-fiction rise to deserve the label.

Although I mentions several titles in my initial post, that was just a report of some of my experience. I have yet to come up with a top five. But I'm enjoying thinking about it and I we can have a robust continuing discussion.
I like the idea of putting Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian on the same list. Both are so heavily invested in—while simultaneously resisting and recasting—the mythology of the West, but in very different ways.

I really like Doig's This House of Sky, and also Stegner's Angle of Repose, and I stand with Kim re. Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. That one appears on all my lists of recommended reading.
I agree with Mark--a lively conversation. Quick note about why "Western" and not "Montana"--the discussion is keyed to "The Write Question," a terrific radio program that covers writing and publishing in the West, not just Montana. The topic was proposed by that mysterious avatar "Humanities Montana"--someone I'll allow to remain anonymous!
Okay, I'm ready to offer five titles to introduce a neophyte to western literature. I've taken my charge to be listing of high quality texts that most people would label western literature. I define western literature as writing that elucidates the experience of the American west with an emphasis on frontier or rural life. Here goes (in no particular order):

-- Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner.
-- The Big Sky, A.B. Guthrie.
-- Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
-- This House of Sky, Ivan Doig.
-- The Power of the Dog, Thomas Savage.

My list describes a varieties of western experiences including fur trapping, mining and ranching and explores a variety of themes including exploitation of the land, friendship, family relations, and sexuality.

I am chagrined that it includes no women or Native Americans. Also, I confess to a Montana bias. I will continue to contemplate the assignment and invite suggestions for rectifying my shortcomings.
Good points all! I was obviously thinking more Western than Montana lit in my list, and yet my rather arbitrary 5 are all definitely Northwest. I guess this is my problem with Western literature courses in general. How much, really does the literature of the Southwest have to do with the Northwest. Or is the literature of much of wyoming and western montana really more similar in nature to much literature of the Great Plains. Is it enough that all these locations are fairly wild and unpopulated (by European standards)? Is a more valid distinction simply rural and urban literature? Or, if we posit that Western literature is Western because it focuses on the great invasion of others' lands, with a variety of topographies, then does Western literature have as great a kinship with Colonial literature in general as with books set in certain states? And how do we define the "new Western literatue?" Novels that are set in arid landscapes near freeways?
I had hoped someone would suggest a way to patch up the problems on my list and maybe someone did. As I was scanning my bookshelf I came to the Louise Erdrich section. Smack on the forehead time. Of course! A native American woman who writes marvelously about the western experience.

Erdrich has written so many great books that it's hard to choose one. Finally I picked Love Medicine because that's where she introduced Fleur Pillager, one of the most compelling characters in contemporary literature.

The problem then was to decide which book to pull off my list of five. Finally I decided to remove Thomas Savage--a tough choice for I admire his work greatly. But it's a relatively short list.

With the change I'm satisfied with my list. Certainly these books would prove to a reader first encountering western literature that there is a grand panorama to choose from. If he or she found one book in the set to love she would find a whole list of other books by the same author.

I'll continue to contemplate the question. Let me know if you have thoughts.
I am loving this discussion! Here's another question for you:

Which books written by Montana authors during the last ten years make your top-five list?
That's a great question Chérie. I'll offer some quick observations now, but plan to give a considered answer to your question later.

Montana not only has a long standing tradition of contributing to the literary arts, it also has a vibrant current group.When considering the productivity of Montana writers, it is natural to make comparisons with other states. Montana looks good in such comparisons, but we should correct for population. Some examples of comparison standards: to equal Montana's productivity California would have to produce 53 times as many writers as Montana. I doubt that it does.

Some best sellers by Montana authors in just the last couple of years include:

-- Jamie Ford, The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
-- Reif Larson, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
-- Greg Mortenson, , Three Cups of Tea, and Stones Into Schools.
-- David Quammen, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

Of course, a book doesn't have to be a best seller to be high quality. Consider (again from just the last couple of years):

-- Wendy Parciak, Requiem for Locusts.
-- Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, Full Court Quest
-- David Allen Cates, Freeman Walker.
-- Craig Lancaster, 600 Hours of Edward
-- Kevin Canty, Where the Money Went

That's just some of my favorites. Doubtless others will name different authors. I look forward to seeing their lists.


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