« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

A Western primer


The Rocky Mountain Land Library asked a panel of Western writers a simple question: What books would you recommend to the next president? What does the next administration need to know about the American West?

Our respondents were both generous and inspired with their suggestions. Although I'm sure they would all agree with author Rick Bass, who wrote: "Anything I recommend would be freighted with its omissions," I think this list contains an expansive Western primer that we can all use, with essential titles that White House librarians should have on hand for the next administration.

The president-elect faces many challenges, and we wish him well. And we hope the new administration knows, in its heart, that it doesn't need to have all the answers. There's benefit, and joy, in listening and learning.

 --Jeff Lee, director, Rocky Mountain Land Library, an 18,000-volume natural history library focused on land and community in the American West

Laura Pritchett (author of the novel Sky Bridge and editor of Home Land: Ranching and a West That Works):

Dear President-Elect,

To get you in the right mood for the job ahead, I suggest you start by reading Truck: A Love Story by Michael Perry. You won't stop laughing for weeks, and you'll find yourself captivated by the West and some of its more unruly inhabitants. Immediately following, I would read any of Rick Bass' works for their sheer humanity and grace. The Lives of Rocks is a good choice, as is The Sky, The Stars, The Wilderness.

Next, Alexandra Fuller's new book, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant. Good to know about the land and what's being done to it. Where the Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg will take your mind off your own woes by enthralling you with other people's woes.


Teresa Jordan (artist, rancher, author of Riding the White Horse Home: A Western Family Album):

The rangeland conflict between ranchers, environmentalists and land agencies has been one of the most brutal disputes in the contemporary West. Today, however, successful models of collaboration and restoration show us a way to create healthy land and vibrant communities, not only for the West but also for the nation at large. Please, Mr. President, start with the just-released Revolution on the Range: The Rise of a New Ranch in the American West by Courtney White, an up-to-the-minute overview of what works on the ground. Other essential reading includes two books by Daniel Kemmis, Community and the Politics of Place and This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West; Beyond the Rangeland Conflict by Dan Dagget and Jay Dusard; and Working Wilderness: The Malpai Borderlands Group and the Future of the Western Range by Nathan Sayre.

Stephen Trimble (photographer and author of Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America):

Start with Wallace Stegner, our wise elder, and Marking the Sparrow's Fall, a collection of his best essays. For a case study about the consequences of hubris and denial (useful lessons after the Bush years), see Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California by William deBuys and Joan Myers.

That the West is rural is now a myth. Atlas of the New West by William Riebsame is 10 years old, but lays out the facts of this changing landscape and introduces two crucial commentators, Patricia Limerick and Charles Wilkinson. For more of Limerick, move on to Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West. For Wilkinson, start with The Eagle Bird: Mapping a New West. Photographer Mark Klett brings the ideas in these books to vivid life by matching historic photos with his wry modern images in Third Views, Second Sights: A Rephotographic Survey of the American West.

For a range of authentic Western voices and visions, read This House of Sky by Ivan Doig; Who Owns the West? by William Kittredge; The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy; Storming the Gates of Paradise by Rebecca Solnit; and, for one complicated and eloquent Indian voice, From Sand Creek: Rising in This Heart Which is Our America by Simon Ortiz.


William deBuys (author of River of Traps: A New Mexico Mountain Life and Valles Caldera: A Vision for New Mexico's National Preserve):

Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt  -- on the power of the presidency. Wallace Stegner, Sound of Mountain Water and Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs  -- essays on the spirit and character of Western lands.

Jefferson Morganthaler, The River Has Never Divided Us  -- simply the best book on the border. Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony  -- for someone with time for only one novel. Peter Barnes, Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons -- how to protect common interests in the West (or anywhere). Tim P. Barnett, et al., Human-Induced Changes in the Hydrology of the Western United States (Science, 2/22/08)  -- fearsome challenges lie ahead as arid Western lands grow even more arid. Brookings Institution, Metropolitan Policy Program, The Intermountain West: America's Mega-Urban Future -- a surprising, even shocking, glimpse into the crystal ball of regional growth.


Dan Flores (historian and author of The Natural West: Environmental History in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains and Horizontal Yellow: Nature and History in the Near Southwest):

For a grasp of human nature applicable to the West: Robert Wright's The Moral Animal and William Kittredge's The Nature of Generosity. For an understanding of deep-time continental history and what the fate of previous empires in the American West can teach us: Charles Mann's 1491, Jared Diamond's Collapse, and David Stuart's Anasazi America. For a sense of the career of the greatest public servant in Western history, Donald Worster's River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell. For a critical look at how an activist federal government might tackle a great environmental crisis: Worster's Dust Bowl, and Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy of global warming novels, Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, Sixty Days and Counting. For the best modern understanding of Western history as it was lived: Richard White's It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own. And for a look into the future of the West as it might play out, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars novels: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars.


Linda Hasselstrom (rancher, poet, co-editor of Leaning Into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West):

Wendell Berry, Another Turn of the Crank: Berry has been writing about the importance of local economies, locally produced foods, and related topics throughout his life. This book is so succinctly applicable to the precise problems we face today that it may be his best. Kirkpatrick Sale, Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision: In these days of subdivisions, polluted imported food, climate change, and rising energy prices, Sale's vision of bioregionalism seems even more applicable than it did 20 years ago. Iroquois League of Six Nations, The Great Law of Peace of the People of the Longhouse: The Great Law, developed before whites arrived on the continent, outlines a system of government in which men, women and nature are all respected, playing strong and independent roles in social, political, and economic life, with citizens holding the primary power. This law served as one of the bases of our own democratic philosophy.


Barry Lopez (author of Of Wolves and Men, co-editor of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape):

The literature of the American West has eloquently resisted the homogenization that a "national character" or a "national geography" might imply. The forceful voice of resistance has come in our lifetime from the likes of Patricia Limerick (The Legacy of Conquest), Marc Reisner (Cadillac Desert), and Cormac McCarthy (The Border Trilogy), revisionists all. I would ask members of the next administration to peruse such writers, perhaps beginning with John Unruh's The Plains Across, not so much to be better informed about the American West but to rediscover the primacy of the local in American life. It is the integrity of the regional voice and the constant need to reconcile the voices of the country's many distinct regions that will make us memorable as a civilization, not the marketing of one voice for all.


Rick Bass (author, editor of The Roadless Yaak: Reflections and Observations About One of Our Last Great Wild Places) :

Anything I recommend would be freighted with its omissions, but for profiles in courage, read Doug Peacock's Grizzly Years  -- the story of post-war healing in the wilderness  -- and Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge, which, like Grizzly Years, gets at the heart of the intensity  -- the spirituality  -- that exists between Westerners and the land. John Graves' Goodbye to a River for its elegiac sweetness and incredible land-wrought language; Song of the World Becoming, poems by Pattiann Rogers; anything by Cormac McCarthy, but most topically, The Road; anything by Tom McGuane and Jim Harrison; Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. Last Stand by Richard Manning, to better understand Montana (and Western) politics. Plainsong by Kent Haruf, to celebrate decency. An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas by Diane Wilson, to celebrate valor.


Debra Utacia Krol (book editor, Native Peoples magazine):

Where the Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred Places by Peter Nabokov  -- discusses why certain places are held sacred by tribes and examines the failure of mainstream society to respect tribal religious practices. Rez Dogs Eat Beans and Fast Cars and Frybread: Reports from the Rez by Gordon Johnson  -- a Cahuilla/Cupeno, Johnson regales readers with his lyrical homage to daily life on a Southern California reservation. Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial that Forged a Nation by Paul VanDevelder  -- an outstanding tale of how one man managed the impossible: forcing the federal government to reimburse the tribes for their losses. Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations by Charles Wilkinson  -- one of the best legal histories written covering the rise of the tribal sovereignty movement in the mid- to late-20th century and the accompanying increase of tribes regaining control over water, land and wildlife management in their regions.


Aaron Abeyta (author of Colcha, a book of poetry, and the novel Rise, Do Not be Afraid) :

Bless Me Ultima and Tortuga by Rudolfo Anaya
Mother Tongue by Demetria Martinez
Making Certain it Goes On by Richard Hugo
Reservation Blues and One Stick Song by Sherman Alexie
Blue Horses Rush In by Mary Tapahonso
Y No Se Lo Trago La Tierra by Tomas Rivera
She Had Some Horses by Joy Harjo
Mi Abuela Fumaba Puros by Sabine Ulibarri
House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
Emplumada by Lorna Dee Cervantes
Black Mesa Poems by Jimmy Santiago Baca
When Living Was a Labor Camp by Diana Garcia