7 Modern Westerns for the Wandering Soul

Once upon a time I lived on a ranch in the heart of the California desert. The cows wandered up to the patio for table scraps in the evening, the herding dogs chased ATVs up the dusty driveways, and Geese cackled to each other moodily around a silvery pond. The work was backbreaking, the tan lines were infuriating, the mustaches were grand, and the country was raw, rough, and hauntingly beautiful.

It's been years since I worked with baby goats amidst the cacti, but as spring is here, my mind inevitably wanders back to those days spent dodging rattlesnakes and birthing mules. (My days were pretty nuts!) Spring is a time for adventures and new beginnings, for uncharted territory, and, most importantly, bad behavior.

In other words, spring is the perfect time for a good western. In all the hype over vampire tales and contemporary classics, the western seems to have gotten lost in shuffle, but that doesn't mean there aren't some fine examples of the genre out there. These seven spectacular contemporary westerns will give you a wild ride.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

Many Westerns have a hearty, wholesome feel to them redolent of homespun cloth and the work ethic required to get you through a cattle run... but Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers is not that kind of Western. Rich, dark, and outrageous, The Sisters Brothers reads like a Tarantino movie in slow motion, the perfect book for a picnic in a ghost town.

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Lonesome Animals by Bruce Holbert

Bruce Holbert's Lonesome Animals bings the very best western tropes out of retirement for a startling spin through the genre that will leave your heart racing. As a serial killer works his way through Native American corpses in the early decades of the 20th century, a dangerous lawman is called out of retirement to track the killer across three counties. A savage reinterpretation of the detective story in true western style, Holbert's Lonesome Animals evokes the rough-edged wisdom of Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis while remaining original.

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Ghosts of Wyoming by Alyson Hagy

Since the colonists first pushed westward in pursuit of prosperity, the West has been pressed into the service of the American dream. Wide open and drenched with light, the plains became the repository for all the possibilities this country could offer. Of course, the reality does not always live up to the romance, and no one quite captures the honest experience of modern life in one of America's least-populous states like Alyson Hagy. Brutally honest and powerfully present, Hagy's stories weave together time and place to form a vibrant picture of the true American West.

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The Hot Country by Robert Olen Butler

Like Lonesome Animals, Robert Olen Butler's The Hot Country brings a modern twist to the traditional western by taking the story way back to the turn of the century. Harboring an American journalist under fire in a foreign land, a Mexican laundress of breathtaking beauty, German spies, and the threat of war in the wide open country, Butler's daring thriller may just be the perfect antidote to an ordinary day.

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The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

Writing in the epic American tradition of William Faulkner, Marilynne Robinson, and John Steinbeck, Amanda Coplin captures the essence of place with her stunning historical novel The Orchardist. Following two teenage girls as they take refuge among the flowering fruit trees of the Pacific Northwest, The Orchardist hews closely to the tradition of intimate family portraits under the great gaping Western sky without turning a blind eye to the darker motivations for manifest destiny.

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The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Settling readers among the families of the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, Louse Erdrich's The Round House takes up the stories of Native Americans all-too-often left out of the traditional western tale. At once a coming-of-age story, a mystery, and a bold, captivating look at the modern family, Erdrich's novels will forever change the way you see the West.

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Juliet in August by Dianne Warren

There's nothing quite like the dusty magic of a small town to fire up the imagination, and Juliet is one of the smallest towns there is. Taking up the tale of daily life in a one-horse town, after most of the horses have come and gone, Dianne Warren's Juliet in August paints an elegant, intimate portrait of contemporary Western life. Wading deep into the quagmire of the day to day, Warren isn't afraid to climb the front porch or wander through the trailer park in search of the real lives of modern Westerners.

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Image: Kelsie DiPerna/Flickr