Books on the West we think you might like

Some brand new, some from the shelves, some for the kids and some for you.


When you live in the West, with its magnificent mountains and sublime deserts, sometimes you feel like you need darkness as an excuse to stay inside instead of enjoying another afternoon in the great outdoors. But now that Daylight Saving Time has ended, the season of early evenings has arrived — and the time is right to plunge into the pleasures of reading. Since there are so many great books about the West out there, we asked staff what drew them in this year, either for the first time or once again. We hope you’ll find something to keep you informed, inspired and entertained, at least until the snow flies and it’s time to wax up your skis. Until then, happy reading!

Site Fidelity: Stories 

by Claire Boyles
208 pages, hardcover: $16
W. Norton & Company, June 2021 

I loved these interconnected short stories, which cover decades and distance but keep returning to the high plains of northeastern Colorado. The characters wrestle with the landscape — with its beauty, its vulnerability, its harshness — and with each other, and while few find peace, all discover new means of coexistence. The audiobook, performed by a varied cast, is a delight. 

—Michelle Nijhuis, contributing editor

Raven’s Witness: The Alaska Life of Richard K. Nelson

by Hank Lentfer 
Hardcover, 256 pages: $22
The Mountaineer Books, 2020 

Richard K. Nelson was a devoted student of the Athabaskan and Alaska Native people he lived with and learned from. As an anthropologist, he bucked convention every step of the way, and his life and work were richer for it. Fellow Alaskan Hank Lentfer does a wonderful job teasing out the poignant moments from Nelson’s life and work, weaving them into a lovely tribute that illuminates what makes a life extraordinary.

—Jennifer Sahn, editor-in-chief

Dangerous Subjects: James D. Saules and the Rise of Black Exclusion in Oregon

by Kenneth R. Coleman
Softcover, 240 pages: $20
Oregon State University Press, October 2017

I’m a stickler for good historical work that reads like fiction. The story of James Saules, a Black whaler who settled for a stint in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1800s seems just as relevant in 2021. I love how it challenges Oregon’s origin myth, painting a picture of a diverse, multi-ethnic society in the midst of a battle over identity, belonging and race.

—Sarah Sax, climate justice fellow, North Desk

Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote

by Duncan Tonatiuh
Hardcover, 32 pages: $18
Harry N. Abrams, 2013 

Drought, border politics, corruption and agricultural justice don’t usually appear in children’s books, but Tonatiuh has crafted a vivid adventure story around a boy’s perilous journey to El Norte to find his father, a migrant worker who’s gone missing in the great carrot and lettuce fields. It’s engaging for children pre-K and up, and promotes themes of familial devotion, bravery, togetherness and determination.

We Are Water Protectors

by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goad
Hardcover, 40 pages: $14
Roaring Brook Press, 2020 

Gentle enough for preschoolers while still true to the seriousness of pipeline issues, this book has garnered heaps of acclaim for its poetic presentation of contemporary Indigenous protest movements. This year Goad became the first Native American to win the Caldecott medal for the lush illustrations that evoke the book’s themes of resistance and resilience, biodiverse interdependence, courageous vulnerability, stewardship and the triumph of life. 

—Brian Oaster, staff writer, Indigenous Affairs Desk

The Way Winter Comes: Alaska Stories 

by Sherry Simpson with photos by Charles Mason
Hardcover, 164 pages: $26
Sasquatch Books, 1998 

I returned to this book after the unexpected death of the author and my one-time mentor this year. The collection takes you deep into the quiet of Alaska’s land and its diverse wildlife. If you’re looking to discover intimate details about the state or fall in love with the place once again, this slim volume won’t disappoint. Personal in nature and written in lyrical prose, the stories delight and calm like a first snow.

Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West

by Lauren Redniss
Hardcover, 288 pages: $23
Random House, 2020 

This visual nonfiction book gives a personal look at the fight against a copper mine at Chi’chil Bildagoteel, or Oak Flat, in Arizona, a culturally significant site for the San Carlos Apache Tribe and other Indigenous people. While High Country News has covered the topic, Redniss’ evocative illustrations of place add depth to the story as she follows three generations of Apache tribal members, and others, in their effort – political, emotional and spiritual – to stop the mine. The book remains timely as the dispute is ongoing. A paperback version was released this month.

—Gretchen King, managing digital editor

Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

by Lulu Miller
Hardcover, 225 pages: $17
Simon & Schuster, April 2021 

In this part biography, part memoir, Miller explores questions in her own life while attempting to find answers in the life of an ichthyologist that’s been dead for almost a century. In a tale that bridges centuries, and coasts, it is paradoxically grounded by the force of chaos. When I first sat down with the book in the middle of last winter and the pandemic, it felt like a comfortably intimate and yet excitedly winding conversation with a good friend.

Battleborn: Stories

by Claire Vaye Watkins
Softcover, 304 pages: $16
Riverhead Books, 2012 

Battleborn’s banal yet otherworldly short stories can be revisited frequently, transporting the reader into the desperate lives of Vaye Watkins’ characters. Flavorwire said it best, that her stories “carry the weight and devastation of entire novels.” A decade after its publication, Vaye Watkins’ debut is still radiant. 

—Luna Anna Archey, associate photo editor

Idaho: A Novel

by Emily Ruskovich
Softcover, 336 pages: $11
Random House, 2017 

Intimate and unsettling, Ruskovich’s debut book made the hair on the back of my neck stand up several times. Set in the mountains of north Idaho — inspired by where the author grew up — a story of family grief and reckoning unfolds against the landscape’s vivid backdrop. It’s a gripping tale that all begins with a seemingly innocuous trip to cut firewood. If you like Celeste Ng’s domestic fiction, mystery and suspense, this just might be the Western novel for you. 

Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West

by Justin Farrell
Softcover, 392 pages: $17
Princeton University Press, March 2020 

A year later, I can’t stop referencing this book. Farrell goes deep into the attitudes of the ultra-wealthy in Jackson Hole, and his analysis of their approach to conservation, open space, Western tropes and the small towns they descend on is absolutely fascinating. I’ll never think about conservation easements the same way again, and I find myself applying thoughts from this book to areas across the region grappling with income inequality. Although it sometimes reads more like an academic article than an accessible work of nonfiction (Farrell is a professor, after all), the way Billionaire Wilderness ties together themes of privilege, the Western U.S. and nature is worth a read.

—Kylie Mohr, intern, North Desk

Floating Coasts: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait 

by Bathsheba Demuth
Hardcover: 448 pages, $16
W. Norton & Company, 2020 

Floating Coasts is my favorite book of the year. In this intricate history of Beringia, its people, and the lively ecosystem of a contested Arctic, Demuth explicitly refuses to treat history as stories of human progress. She includes the vibrant landscape in its entirety, shaped by the modern ideologies of U.S. Empire and the Soviet Union, as well as by geologic forces. Demuth wonderfully narrates the story of resource extraction and control, perpetrated by foreigners and their vision for progress, through animals, people and ideas.

—Theo Whitcomb, intern, South Desk

The Unreality of Memory and Other Essays

by Elisa Gabbert
Softcover: 256 pages, $16
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020

Julien Green (or someone else) once confessed: “Unquestionably, I buy too many books. What a pity I can’t buy the time to read them.” That’s always true, but every now and then a book pulls you into it and refuses to let you go. Denver-based writer Elisa Gabbert does exactly this with The Unreality of Memory, which the back cover aptly describes as a collection of “provocative, searching essays on disaster culture, climate anxiety, and our mounting sense of doom.” Gabbert analyzes doomscrolling and our strange obsession with catastrophes past, present and future, from the plague to Chernobyl. These essays made me look at this strange world and see it, and myself, with eyes — and mind — wide open.

The Cold Millions

by Jess Walter
Hardcover: 337 pages, $28.99
Harper, 2020 

Fiction has an extraordinary ability to transport us into other times and places. In The Cold Millions, Jess Walter sweeps us into the lives of two brothers caught up in the violent labor struggles of the early 20th century. Spokane, Washington, and Butte, Montana, are brought vividly to life, as are real-life figures like the activist and feminist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. I sought out this book because my own grandfather was jailed for IWW activity in Spokane when he was about the age of the two idealistic young protagonists, but impulsive Gig and cautious Rye soon won my heart for their own sakes.

—Diane Sylvain, copy editor

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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