Many people find a real appeal in what I’ll call Westerns, whether books, film or television. Even if you don’t care for them yourself, you no doubt know that they have a strong following. There are arguably several reasons so many people love Westerns, just as there are a lot of reasons for which people have moved to ‘the wide open spaces.’
One of the allures of Westerns and their settings is the chance to start over in beautiful, open land. We see that, for instance, in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. It’s 1806, and William Thornhill, his wife Sal and their children have just arrived in Sydney Cove, Sydney, to start their lives over. Thornhill is a former London bargeman who was sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing wood. He and his family have experienced real poverty in London, so even though transportation is nerve-wracking, it’s also a chance to build new lives. Before very long, Thornhill finds work delivering goods up and down the local waterways; his wife opens a makeshift pub. One day, Thornhill finds a piece of irresistibly beautiful land, and sets about to claim it. And therein lies the problem. People have been living in what is to become New South Wales for many thousands of years, and it’s not long before there are serious, even bloody and brutal, conflicts between the two groups. Grenville doesn’t make light of the crimes committed in the name of new land and new opportunities. At the same time, we see just how tempting that land can be.
Even today, people are drawn to the prospects of open land, the chance to put the past behind, and the opportunity to start all over. That’s arguably part of what makes Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series popular. It’s also, of course, highly regarded as a well-written set of novels. But as we learn about the characters, we see a pattern of people who’ve chosen to live in Absaroka County, Wyoming because it’s beautiful, because it gives them a chance to build their own kinds of lives, and because the open land appeals to them. For instance, Longmire’s deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti is originally from Philadelphia, where she served as a police officer. She’s had her share of ups and downs in life, but she’s found a certain kind of contentment if you will in Absaroka County. Philadelphia may at times offer more conveniences, but Moretti has chosen to start over in the west. I know, I know, fans of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series and of Margaret Coel’s Wind River series…
‘Going West’ offers other kinds of opportunities too. As you’ll no doubt know, many people have taken the risks involved in starting over because of the discovery of gold and other precious metals. Vicki Delany’s historical Klondike series, set during the Klondike Gold Rush, has this theme as a backdrop. These novels feature Savoy Dance Hall owner Fiona MacGillivray, who’s originally from Scotland. She’s got a past that she’d just as well leave behind, and a teenage son Angus. Together, they’ve started over in Dawson, Yukon, just as the area is feeling the full effects of the gold rush. She herself isn’t in search of gold, but she knows that there are a lot of other ways to profit from the surge of newcomers. Taverns, restaurants, food and supply purveyors, dance halls, and of course assayers are all benefiting from the search for riches.
Patricia Stoltey’s Sylvia Thorn isn’t really a westerner. She’s a retired judge who lives in Florida. But in The Desert Hedge Murders, she certainly gets a taste of the Old West. She travels with her mother’s traveling club, the Florida Flippers, on a sightseeing tour to Laughlin, Nevada. The group gets caught up in a case of murder when the body of a dead man is found in the bathroom of one of hotel rooms the club is using. Then, one of the members disappears and is later found dead in an old mine now used as a tourist attraction. As Thorn helps her mother and the rest of the group, she also experiences ghost towns, information about mining and prospecting, and legends. And burros.
For some people, the appeal of Westerns also comes from the ‘good guys v bad guys’ tension. Cattle rustlers, sheriffs, posses, outlaws and so on can tap the desire a lot of us have to see the ‘good guys’ win and the ‘bad guys’ get their due. Of course, it certainly wasn’t that simple; a quick glance at history makes that clear. But for a lot of readers and viewers, there’s a real appeal to following the adventures of ‘larger than life’ characters.
And it’s that sense of adventure that also draws many people to the Western. A lot of series and novels feature the sort of cliffhangers that you might see in old-style Western serials; one of them is Stark Holborn’s Nunslinger series. The protagonist in these stories is Sister Thomas Josephine, a Roman Catholic Vistitandine nun from St. Louis, Missouri. As the series begins, she is making her way to start a new life in Sacramento. Everything changes when the wagon train she’s on is attacked in Wyoming. Left stranded there, Sr. Josephine ends up being falsely accused of murder. She goes on the run and is drawn into all sorts of dangerous situations. Sr. Josephine is definitely not your ‘garden variety’ nun… I admit I’ve not (yet) read these stories. But I’ve already gotten a solid sense of them from the terrific Col, who blogs at Col’s Criminal Library. You’ll want to check out his great blog and see for yourself why it’s one of my must-visits.
There are also plenty of readers/viewers who are interested in Westerns because they want to know more about the people who have always lived in those areas. Novels that depict the lives of Indigenous people in the West can give readers a window on a fascinating perspective on life. And they fulfil the important role of sharing information that doesn’t always make it to the textbooks. Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series, for instance, will know that those novels depict life in the modern US West/Southwest, often from the point of view of members of the Navajo Nation. Those stories give an important perspective on aspects of Western life such as mining, oil prospecting, and land and water rights. They also share the culture and lifestyle of the people who’ve lived in that area for a very long time.
We also see that perspective in Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels. Those stories give readers a look at mining, ranching and prospecting in Australia. Very often they feature the point of view of Bony, who is half White/half Aboriginal. So we see several ways of looking at the same places and events. Adrian Hyland’s books feature Emily Tempest, who’s an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) in Australia’s Northern Territory. Those novels give readers a look at modern life in the ‘great wide open’ parts of Australia.
Whether it’s the myths of the Western or the actual history of settlement, there’s something about the Western in all its forms that can draw people in. Does it have that effect on you? If so, what appeals to you about the Western? If not, what puts you off?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Ballad of Billy the Kid, a song he refers to as ‘completely historically inaccurate.’ Still, for my money, it captures all of the adventure, danger and myth of the Western.