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The orphan son of Chinese immigrants, Ming Tsu is brought up to be an assassin by a California bandit in Tom Lin’s one-of-a-kind Western, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu. Ming hopes for a better future after he elopes with Ada, the daughter of a railroad mogul. But when Ada is abducted and Ming is forced to go to work for the Central Pacific Railroad, he’s determined to seek retribution. Supernatural elements blend seamlessly with the epic plot, which makes room to note the prejudices of the 19th century. 

Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse looks at the life of an orphaned Ojibway boy in 1960s Ontario, Canada. Saul Indian Horse attends a bleak Catholic boarding school. A professional sports career becomes a possibility for Saul after he joins an Ojibway hockey team, yet he faces prejudice and hostility due to his heritage. As he comes of age, he must also come to terms with his past—and prepare for an uncertain future. Wagamese draws upon Ojibway language and lore as he traces Saul’s remarkable personal journey, and the result is a starkly beautiful neo-Western novel.

Set in the American West during the gold rush, C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold tells the epic story of a Chinese American family. When their father, a hardworking miner, dies, orphans Sam and Lucy decide to give him a traditional Chinese burial. After being forced to leave their home, they embark on a quest to find the right place to lay their father to rest, traveling through harsh terrain with his corpse carried on horseback. Zhang plumbs myths about the American West as she dissects themes of nature, home and immigration in this rewarding book club pick.

Anna North reimagines the traditional Western with Outlawed. In an alternate 1890s, happily married Ada finds that she’s unable to bear children. Afraid that she’ll be charged with witchcraft—a typical occurrence for childless women—Ada flees her home and eventually joins the Hole in the Wall Gang. A collective of female and nonbinary fugitives, the gang hopes to establish a town where marginalized people can flourish. Ada’s adventures with the gun-toting band make for great reading, with gender, community and identity being but a few of the novel’s rich discussion topics.

These innovative takes on the Western breathe new life into the genre and will spark enthralling group discussions.
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Leyna Krow’s 2017 book of short stories, I’m Fine, but You Appear to Be Sinking, is an eccentric mashup, complete with giant squid and space travels, told with a down-to-earth candor. Krow brings that same practical empathy and eye for the odd to her debut novel, Fire Season, a picaresque story of three schemers whose paths cross in 19th-century Spokane just as the Washington Territory is striving for statehood.    

For sad sack bank manager Barton Heydale, the 1889 fire that devastates Spokane is a blessing in disguise. Paranoid and unpopular, Barton is on the verge of taking his own life when he realizes that, because of the disaster, the citizens of Spokane will be flocking to the bank for loans to rebuild. He takes advantage of their desperation by charging exorbitant interest rates and hiding the extra money in his house. 

Barton also opens his home to Roslyn Beck, an alcoholic sex worker, after her residential hotel burns down. Unable to continue working without a room to call her own and determined to control her addiction, Roslyn is savvy enough to see through Barton’s intentions and also nurse her hidden talent: levitation. Barton and Roslyn must face the limits of their manipulative powers when they meet Quake Auchenbaucher, a con artist who’s impersonating a government fire inspector. Quake realizes that with statehood on the horizon, his days as a grifter might be numbered. 

Within this darkly whimsical reimagining of the American West, Krow places microvignettes—miniature tales of magic, trickery and deception—in and around the novel’s main action. She plays fast and loose with the tropes of the frontier novel, leaning in to the notion of the unsettled West as a place where people could reinvent themselves. In Fire Season, con artists risk getting caught in their own traps, and the “fallen woman” lacks the proverbial heart of gold, but she emerges as the one character who can remake herself enough times to make it through. 

Leyna Krow plays fast and loose with the tropes of the frontier novel, leaning in to the notion of the unsettled West as a place where people could reinvent themselves.
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The new audiobook of Melissa Lenhardt’s groundbreaking 2018 novel, Heresy (14 hours), will transport you to the Old West of the 1870s through stellar performances from a diverse cast. Telling the tale of a gang of female bandits, the seasoned group of seven narrators (Barrie Kreinik, Bailey Carr, Ella Turenne, Nikki Massoud, Natalie Naudus, Imani Jade Powers and James Fouhey) brings their characters to life, whether reading from the journals of gang leader/former aristocrat Margaret Parker or from a 1930s interview with elderly former outlaw Hattie LaCour.

If you love the action and grittiness of this genre but long for more novels about the women, people of color and Indigenous people who shaped the American West, then this is the audiobook for you. Women didn’t have many options in the Wild West, but this gang of outsiders carves their own path, taking the law into their own hands and forming strong bonds along the way.

Read our review of the print edition of ‘Heresy.’

The new audiobook of Melissa Lenhardt’s groundbreaking 2018 novel will transport you to the Old West through stellar performances from a diverse cast.

In the last couple of years, the Western genre has been enriched by the appearance of protagonists beyond the John Wayne-type figure, such as the all-female band of desperados in Anna North’s Outlawed and the Chinese American sisters in C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold. A welcome addition to the evolving genre is The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, a classically structured Western that’s tinged with the supernatural, starring a Chinese American assassin who roams as far as Utah to kill the men who broke up his marriage to a white woman.

On his journey of vengeance, Ming Tsu is accompanied by an ageless Chinese prophet who calls Ming “a man out of bounds”—someone who has managed to cheat death many times. Together they join a motley circus crew that tours from town to town along the transcontinental railroad line. The troupe includes a shape-shifting Pacific Islander, a ventriloquist who cannot hear or speak, two Mexican and Navajo stagehands, a mysterious white ringmaster and a white woman who falls in love with Ming.

Ming is a unique figure. He’s a murderer with a strange personal code who gains the loyalty of the circus folk but also earns the full ugliness of his enemies. As the son of Chinese immigrants, he helped to build the railroad, a familiar role for Chinese characters in early Westerns, but he’s also a score-settling outlaw worthy of True Grit.

The story’s supernatural elements never get in the way of the action, as first-time novelist Tom Lin displays remarkable skill in maneuvering his plot and characters so that readers continue to believe the tale even when it seems impossible, as when a cougar befriends Ming and shares its water and food with the man. This is a major work that enlarges our view of the Wild West and marks Lin as a writer to watch.

Following a Chinese American assassin in pursuit of revenge, Tom Lin’s debut is a welcome addition to the evolving Western genre.

This ain’t no Louis L’Amour tale of the Wild West. Outlawed, the third novel by Anna North, is a gender-bending, genre-hopping yarn that’s part frontier novel, part Handmaid’s Tale and all ripsnorting fun.

North’s tale is set in a world in which women are expected to procreate and are persecuted if they don’t. Furthermore, a devastating flu-like illness has killed nine out of every 10 people. The women who survive and remain fruitful, it’s said, will be spared further sickness. Unfortunately, 18-year-old Ada, who assists her mother as a midwife, fails to bear a child for her husband after a year of marriage. Accused of witchcraft, she flees to a convent to atone for her “sin” but then learns of a place that may be more fitting, known as the Hole in the Wall.

It turns out to be less of a place and more of a cultlike gang of fellow outcast women. The leader of the group, who is regarded as “Not he, not she,” but simply the Kid, promises to build a nation of the “dispossessed, where we would not be barren women, but kings.” At first Ada is received with suspicion and skepticism, but when the Kid needs a doctor, her skills as a midwife and familiarity with medicines make her a useful addition to their clique. Before long, the Kid becomes a mentor figure to Ada, teaching her to ride, shoot and fight, while preaching the gospel of Christianity.

The novel takes its time in establishing the world and its characters, in particular Ada’s place in her new nonbinary world. But once the setup is complete, North picks up the pace with the Kid’s plan to rob a bank and, in doing so, take over an entire town. Ada becomes the tiebreaking vote among the gang in favor of the Kid’s plans, giving way to more customary Western shootout action against the sheriff who has been pursuing Ada from the start.

North, a renowned journalist who won a 2016 Lambda Literary Award for her novel The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, easily subverts expectations as her characters struggle to find their identites in a patriarchal world.

This ain’t no Louis L’Amour tale of the Wild West. Outlawed, the third novel by Anna North, is a gender-bending, genre-hopping yarn that’s part frontier novel, part Handmaid’s Tale and all ripsnorting fun.

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Just after the Civil War, a crime brings together four men searching for peace and justice in Kevin McCarthy’s gripping Wolves of Eden.

Failing as farm hands following the war, Irish immigrant brothers Michael and Thomas O’Driscoll enlist in the Union Army and are sent to help build the new Fort Phil Kearny. Lieutenant Molloy and his right-hand man, Corporal Kohn, are also sent to the fort to investigate a triple murder of the secretary of war’s sister, her husband and his assistant. As the soldiers struggle to defend the fort against Sioux attacks—based on the real Battle of Red Cloud (1866-68)—battles between good and evil rage on a more personal level as well.

The book dramatizes the ironies of war by contrasting these two sets of men. The storylines are out of sync, adding to the novel’s suspense, and alternate between entries from Michael’s journal and a third-person perspective focused mainly on Kohn. Throughout the novel, grim violence is offset by Kohn’s staunch devotion to Molloy, Thomas’ love for a Sioux prostitute and the brothers’ camaraderie with a camp photographer.

At the moment of truth surrounding the crime at the heart of the novel, the details add up to a tense jumble of passions and uncertainty. This Western-inspired historical war novel deserves recognition alongside the works of Patrick O’Brian and Hilary Mantel for its dynamic exploration of the depths of human depravity and compassion.

 

This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Just after the Civil War, a crime brings together four men searching for peace and justice in Kevin McCarthy’s gripping Wolves of Eden.

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By now, most people know that the myth of the Wild, Wild West was indeed a myth. Melissa Lenhardt’s Heresy presents yet another interesting take on the Wild West circa 1877 through a story of female outlaws—and not just one or two like Cattle Annie and Little Britches, but whole bands of them, many of whom were better at robbing banks than men were. The women’s planning was brilliant and done well in advance. They never stole from ordinary people and were generally nonviolent. They also lasted longer than male gangs, mostly because no one believed that women were capable of banditry.

The leader of the gang in Lenhardt’s novel is Margaret Parker, a transplanted Englishwoman who prefers the more androgynous and sexier name of Garet. Proud, smart, stubborn, loving and persistently bitter over being dismissed by men who don’t take her criminal activities seriously, Garet almost wants to get caught. She and her husband were both members of the British aristocracy before they moved to the States to stake a claim. Then he died, and her ranch was stolen out from under her by a Salty Sam type. It was then that Garet figured out that robbing stagecoaches and banks was a good way to keep herself and her family from starvation.

Garet’s family is her gang of thieves, which is composed of complex, lusty women of diverse backgrounds. The men around them, most of whom are smug in their male chauvinism, underestimate the women at their peril. The gang’s story is told many years later by Henrietta “Hattie” Lee, Garet’s sister-in-arms. Lenhardt cleverly intersperses Hattie’s recollections, told to a reporter from the Works Progress Administration, with journal entries from Garet and a female “travel writer” and snippets from old newspapers.

Heresy, which is also the name of the horse ranch where the women live between heists, is a rollicking, engrossing book that’ll keep you reading well past your bedtime.

By now, most people know that the myth of the Wild, Wild West was indeed a myth. Melissa Lenhardt’s Heresy presents yet another interesting take on the Wild West circa 1877 through a story of female outlaws—and not just one or two like Cattle Annie and Little Britches, but whole bands of them, many of whom were better at robbing banks than men were. The women’s planning was brilliant and done well in advance. They never stole from ordinary people and were generally nonviolent. They also lasted longer than male gangs, mostly because no one believed that women were capable of banditry.

Western novels are cool again, and Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison is a perfect example of why.

Set in 1885 in the heart of the Midwest, the novel shirks the traditional white-hat-versus-black-hat shtick for a more grounded, emotional view of life on the range. In this instance, we experience the wild country’s hardships through the eyes of 17-year-old Jessilyn Harney as she wrestles to find her place in a man’s world.

The only woman in the Harney household after her mother dies while giving birth to her, Jess does “the woman work” of “washings and stewings and mendings and tendings,” while Pa and her older brother, Noah, labor in the fields. Pa’s overbearing demeanor ultimately drives Noah away, leaving Jess to care for her father as the farm suffers. After her father is killed in a fall from his horse, Jess attempts to carry on by herself before ultimately realizing she needs help; she needs Noah.

Disguising herself as a man by cutting her hair short and binding her chest, Jess sets off on her faithful mare, Ingrid, with a meager supply of rations, her pa’s fiddle and the deed to the Harney land. “I was a Harney, dammit, and my destiny was to find my brother and bring him home and thereby save our family land.”

Carrying out the feat is easier said than done. Noah, for starters, has become the outlaw leader of a wild gang with a $10,000 bounty on his head, while Jess, who takes on the manlier moniker of Jesse Montclair, discovers the harsh brutality of life in the West. Even after she is beaten and robbed, Jess’ determination—and skill as a sharpshooter—pushes her onward.

Like Philipp Meyer’s The Son or Robert Olmstead’s Savage Country, Whiskey When We’re Dry draws on Larison’s own experiences with the “cowboy arts” to paint a vivid portrait of the American West as witnessed by an unforgettable character.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Western novels are cool again, and Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison is a perfect example of why.

Our lives are always one step from being displaced—and replaced—by something new and unexpected, and it’s up to each of us to determine if and ultimately how to adapt. Tatjana Soli, the bestselling author of The Lotus Eaters, The Forgetting Tree and The Last Good Paradise, weaves two such tales together in her stunning new historical novel, The Removes. Beginning during the Civil War and continuing into the height of the Indian wars in the 1870s, the novel follows two women whose old lives are forfeited—one by choice, one not.

In the case of 15-year-old Anne Cummins, her life-changing event occurs when Cheyenne warriors brutally attack her homestead, killing her parents and siblings, friends and neighbors, before taking her captive. Facing starvation and abuse from her captors, Anne quickly learns to become useful to the tribe’s survival—or else she may be “quickly dispatched.”

Libbie Bacon, by contrast, voluntarily gives up a life of refined luxury as the daughter of a small-town judge to marry flamboyant Civil War hero and longtime beau George “Autie” Armstrong Custer, even going so far as to accompany his half-starved, desperate troops to the bloody fields of battle. Heralded as heroes at the conclusion of the war, Libbie and Autie face removal once again with the assignment to the 7th Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas, trading their fame “for the empty prairie, crude clapboard buildings, and poor rations.”

“It was a reckoning,” Libbie mused. “As if their pride had grown out of proportion, and they were being slapped down into their places.”

For these women, with devastating losses on both sides of the war and with their own lives in horrific turmoil, “it seemed easier to die than to live.” But neither Anne nor Libbie is the type to give up, even as their lives ultimately race toward an unavoidable collision on the frontier. Soli’s novel is both gut-wrenchingly violent and heart-wrenching, but above all, it’s an unforgettable journey of loss and hope.

Our lives always are one step from being displaced—and replaced—by something new and unexpected, and it’s up to each of us to determine if and ultimately how to adapt. Tatjana Soli, the bestselling author of The Lotus Eaters, The Forgetting Tree and The Last Good Paradise, weaves two such tales together in her stunning new historical novel, The Removes.

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In the first scene of In the Distance, like the first mark on a blank sheet of paper, Håkan is the only speck of color blotting an otherwise white winterland. After emerging from his ice bath, Håkan tells his life’s story to fellow passengers on an icebound vessel headed to Alaska.

Upon arrival in America from Sweden, teenage Håkan sets out to find the brother he lost track of before his voyage. He is taken in by a family of gold diggers, then captured by a band of robbers. After his escape, he assists scientist-doctor Lorimer, who teaches him about the origins of the universe through anatomy. Then he joins a caravan under the direction of a controversial guide. After defending these travelers from marauders, he earns his legendary reputation as a giant, a beast, a baby killer, the infamous Hawk, a wanted man. He avoids civilization, living off the land, trapping and skinning beasts to cover his ever-growing body. After years alone, he approaches a town, where no one recognizes that he is the star of the play citizens enact about him. Reminiscent of the “the only organism ever truly created” and distorted by all that follow—that which Lorimer searched for in the salt flats—Håkan leaves town, reassured that his own self is his best disguise.

Debut author Hernan Diaz depicts a bonafide Western character, an original born in the spirit of expansion and innovation and formed by “the business of being that took up all his time.” Jorge Luis Borges’ influence on Diaz is palpable in his pithy prose; lists convey the sparsity of Håkan’s surroundings and the emptiness that feeds him again and again on his circular path. Diaz is bound to join ranks with Borges on the literary scene with this mythical personality, still at large in our consciousness long after we’ve put down the book.

Hero, stranger, legend

A rattlesnake causes a horse to throw its rider. A lightning bolt strikes a man sitting by a campfire. A rabid skunk bites another man in the face, giving him rabies. A flash flood threatens to sweep away men and supplies both. Racial tensions escalate among workers. The remnants of an Indian massacre are found. And thousands of buffalo are casually slaughtered day after day.

It’s a savage country.

Or, to be more precise, it’s Savage Country, the new novel by Robert Olmstead. The acclaimed author of Coal Black Horse, which won the Heartland Prize for Fiction, Olmstead weaves a grim, visceral portrait of life in Midwest America in 1873 with powerful, brutal and often beautiful prose.

Across this bleak, untamed frontier come grizzled Civil War veteran-turned-big game hunter Michael Coughlin and his gutsy sister-in-law, Elizabeth Coughlin, determined to save her late husband David’s land from the biggest threat of all: a greedy, treacherous man called Mr. Whitechurch. Along with an assortment of unsavory and unusual characters as allies, the pair leads a massive wagon train cross-country, braving torrential rains, Indian attack and their own selfishness to find the great buffalo herd that will be their salvation. Their plan: kill as many buffalo as they can, then sell their hides, meat and bones to repay David’s debt.

While Olmstead pulls no punches when it comes to the absolute brutality of their endeavor—the legendary buffalo hunts of the 19th century saw the Earth’s buffalo population plunge from 50 million to 500—he somehow finds a way to craft a deeply emotional experience for the reader. Elizabeth journeys from helpless widowed homesteader to a determined yet compassionate entrepreneur, even as the cold-blooded slaughter serves to humble Michael’s nature.

Savage Country is an unforgettable, unflinching, yet distinctly moving story of human greed and desire.

Savage Country is an unforgettable, unflinching, yet distinctly moving story of human greed and desire.

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