We continue our “Books Authors Read” series with Kathleen Kent. Kathleen is the author of three best-selling novels, The Heretic’s Daughter, The Traitor’s Wife, and The Outcasts, which was the recipient of the American Library Association’s 2014 top choice for Historical Fiction. She was also awarded the David J. Langum Sr. award for American historical fiction. (Not too shabby!) Enjoy some of Kathleen’s favorite reads! – Emily
Growing up in Texas, I was always fascinated with books of Western lore. Whereas a lot of my childhood friends were reading Nancy Drew and National Velvet, I loved the more adventurous and dangerous novels by Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, and the stories of J. Frank Dobie. As I got older, two of my favorite authors became Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy. Their Lonesome Dove and Border Trilogy became classics of the genre. Recently, I’ve read some novels and one non-fiction book that carry the spirit of the Western myth in their teeth. Some of these are:
1) The Thicket, by Joe Lansdale. One of my favorite reads of last year. Set in East Texas at the turn of the century, a young Jack Parker is orphaned through a string of tragic events. His lot is further worsened by being set upon by a group of bank robbers who kill his grandfather and kidnap his younger sister, Lula. Jack’s search to recover his sister is aided by a charismatic, bounty hunting dwarf named Shorty and his crew. In Lansdale’s capable hands, East Texas is painted as a wild and untamed place, inhabited with rich, complex characters, by turns dark and funny. I especially loved the tale-telling Shorty, recognizing in his mannerisms and speech the authentic expressions of the true sons and daughters of the Big Thicket.
2) In the Rogue Blood, by James Carlos Blake. Written in gorgeous prose, this book is set in the 1840’s during the Mexican War. Two brothers, Edward and John Little, one fighting for Mexico, the other fighting as a scout for the United States, traverse a world in where the rules of survival are simple: kill or be killed. In the vein of Blood Meridian, this book is dark, violent and at times bleak. This is not a feel good Western, but a portrait of a country inhabited by brutal men and set upon women, with brief flashes of compassion and humanity, which is surely an accurate accounting of how the West was won.
3) Little Century, by Anna Keesey. Like the best of Westerns, this novel begins with an escalating conflict: the violent war over water and rangeland in Oregon. Another orphan, eighteen-year-old Esther Chambers travels west in search of her only living relative. In the lawless town of Century, she’s met by a distant cousin, a cattle rancher named Ferris Pickett. She begins a new life as a homesteader, in the hope that her land will one day join Pick’s impressive spread. As incidents between the sheep and cattle ranchers turn to bloodshed, Esther’s sympathies are divided between her cousin and a sheepherder named Ben Cruff, sworn enemy of the cattlemen.
Here’s what I said on the book jacket cover: “Little Century is rich and true and achingly beautiful. Its heroine, Esther Chambers, is the kind found in the best classic literature: an innocent caught against the backdrop of escalating violence whose essential goodness and loyalty shine through the savagery around her.”
4) Spirit of Steamboat, by Craig Johnson. Part of the Walt Longmire series, this book is a bit of a departure from the previous books, as it’s a shorter novella, and a bit of a “Ghost of Christmas Past” remembrance for the sheriff. The story takes Walt back to Christmas Eve 1988, and a record-breaking Montana blizzard where three people die in a terrible crash. In the accident a young girl is injured and may die unless she can be transported to a hospital via a broken down WWII transport plane, flown, of course, by a whiskey-sodden, broken down old WWII pilot. A modern Western, this book has suspense, killing elements, and good guys waiting to be resurrected from their own character flaws to save the day.
5) The Gates of the Alamo, by Stephen Harrigan. Suspenseful, beautifully written, extensively researched, this is my favorite of the Alamo retellings. The characters of that seminal drama, on both sides of the conflct—Bowie, Crockett, Travis, Austin, Santa Anna, Telesforo Villaseñor—are given depth and new energy in Harrigan’s book. His landscape descriptions, as well as the recounting of the battles and the final siege, are breathtaking, exciting, poignant and memorable.