By Rhonna Hargett, Adult Services Manager, and Marcia Allen, Technical Services and Collections Manager
Consider the great American West: a place with a rugged backdrop and unbelievably colorful characters who experienced stunning hardships as well as unexpected good fortune. Manhattan Public Library’s adult collections include many excellent books, both fiction and nonfiction, that explore those early days in the wilderness. Let’s take a closer look at some appealing fictional titles.
In The Bones of Paradise, Jonis Agee takes us back to the Nebraska Sand Hills in the early 1900s. Rancher J.B. Bennett is estranged from his wife, Dulcinea, and on difficult terms with his two teenage sons when he is discovered in his pasture, shot in the chest and lying next to a young Sioux woman. His death forces Dulcinea to face her family’s problems, including the father-in-law who drove her and her husband apart. She is joined in her attempt to solve the mystery of her husband’s death by Rose, long-time friend to Dulcinea and sister to the Sioux murder victim. Rose’s persistent grief from the massacre at Wounded Knee, the Bennett’s rocky marriage, and the enigmatic circumstances of the deaths bring tension to the friendship between the two women. Agee’s novel evokes the rugged beauty of the landscape and the harsh life of those that settled there.
El Paso by Forrest Gump author Winston Groom is an epic tale of railroad and ranching tycoon, John Shaughnessy, also called the colonel. The colonel has been yachting while his adopted son Arthur manages his struggling business interests, but when Pancho Villa raids his ranch, stealing cattle and murdering the ranch manager, he rushes in to investigate. He arrives to chaos and the situation gets worse when Villa’s men return and kidnap his grandchildren. When President Wilson ignores Shaughnessy’s call for help, father and son head off into the desert and mountains of northern Mexico to retrieve the children and get revenge, joining forces with Johnny Ollas, a matador trying to rescue his wife who has also been kidnapped by Villa’s men. El Paso brings remarkable personalities to life and records a significant shift in the history of the West.
If you prefer your fiction in smaller bites, Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink is a collection of short stories set in Wyoming and Montana. In the title story, we jump right into the action with construction worker Sid, running naked through the woods to protect a dog that he’s stolen from a neglectful owner. Wink goes back and forth between Sid’s adventure of running through the night and the events that led him to this challenging and awkward moment. Obviously this tale has its share of humor, but there are also ponderings about life and what could bring someone to make such a choice. Exploring the beauty of the West and the human spirit, Dog Run Moon is a quick read with a lot of heart.
For those who prefer nonfiction tales of the great West, one need look no further than books written by Robert M. Utley. Utley, the long-time chief historian of the National Park Service, wrote a number of critically acclaimed books about characters and events of the West. The Story of the West, edited by Utley and published by the Smithsonian Institution, is a glorious compilation of history, photographs, and artwork concerning events such as the westward migration and the building of the railroad. This is an exceptionally fine volume.
On more specific concerns, Utley penned an excellent biography of Sitting Bull entitled The Lance and the Shield. Born of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux tribe, Sitting Bull lived in tumultuous times when various tribes fought for control of the buffalo hunting grounds. He was also a major figure at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, and he later toured the world with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. This carefully researched tribute, which won the Western History Association’s 1993 Caughey Prize, is well worth your reading time.
For those interested in the lives of trappers and traders who lived in the West during the 19th century, one can do no better than reading Utley’s A Life Wild and Perilous. Larger-than-life stories of Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and Kit Carson immerse the reader in exquisite natural beauty and unimaginable danger in an unexplored territory. There are even a couple pages devoted to the deplorable misfortunes of Hugh Glass, the trapper who encountered a grizzly sow with cubs.
Other books by the renowned Utley include volumes about George Armstrong Custer, the American military in the West, forts, and villains of the West. All have the writer’s meticulous research and lively writing style.