The 23 best western books, from cowboy classics to feminist reimaginings

Pattern of Best Westerns Books including Lonesome Dove, Cherokee America, How Much of These Hills Is Gold and The Gunslinger
Some of the best westerns include "Lonesome Dove," "The Gunslinger," and "How Much of These Hills Is Gold."

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  • Westerns are usually categorized as stories of cowboys during the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • This list has classic and contemporary books for western fans.
  • Want more books? Check out the best historical fiction books.

Westerns are classically known as stories about cowboys, outlaws, and shoot-outs brought to life in desert towns. Newer westerns, however, explore the untold stories of Native Americans defending their communities, outlawed women on the run, and unlikely romances set on desolate ranches.

To gather this list of the best western book recommendations, we looked at bestseller lists on Amazon and Bookshop, award-winning westerns, and favorites from Goodreads reviewers. So whether you're a "Lonesome Dove" fan or completely new to the genre, here are 20 of the best western books.

The 23 best western books to read in 2021:

A Pulitzer Prize-winning western
lonesome dove

"Lonesome Dove" by Larry McMurtry, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $14.69

The winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, "Lonesome Dove" is a western classic and the most popular Western, according to Goodreads members. The story follows Captain Woodrow F. Call and Captain Augustus McCrae, two retired Texas Rangers who live in a small Texas town and drive a cattle herd from Texas to Montana, exploring themes of friendship, resilience, and loss during their epic journey.

A western about a community coming together to face frontier violence
cherokee america

"Cherokee America" by Margaret Verble, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $8.59

This western is set in 1875 in the Cherokee Nation West as several stories unravel around Check, a wealthy farmer, mother, and soon-to-be widow. In this book loosely based on the stories told by the author's ancestors, a series of violent events intertwine in Check's life, pushing her and her neighbors to come together to protect the community, no matter the cost. 

A western about rebellious female outlaws
Heresy

"Heresy" by Melissa Lenhardt, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $15.99

Hattie LaCour and Margaret Parker are partners in crime, outlaw women running a gang of underdog outlaws who pull off a series of heists across the West, evading suspicion as no one imagines women could be capable of such elaborate crimes. When a rival male gang chases them down, determined to end their reign, the women must finish one last job to protect their outlaw family. 

A western set during the Gold Rush
how much of these hills is gold

"How Much of These Hills Is Gold" by C Pam Zhang, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $12.99

"How Much of These Hills Is Gold" is a new western set during the American gold rush about two newly orphaned immigrant siblings who flee their mining town shortly after their father's death. As they set off to bury their father, they encounter tiger paw prints, buffalo bones, and the unforgiving landscape while uncovering their family secrets — and their future. 

A coming-of-age western
fools crow

"Fools Crow" by James Welch, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $14.49

Written by revered Native American author James Welch and set just after the Civil War, "Fools Crow" is a 1986 western coming-of-age novel set in Montana. White Man's Dog is a young Blackfeet Native American whose community is being invaded by white settlers, forcing his band to either assimilate or fight to maintain their way of life. 

A popular 2021 western
outlawed

"Outlawed" by Anna North, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $16.40

Ada is a midwife in 1894 who loves her husband and her job but is struggling to do the only thing that seems to really matter in society: Have a child of her own. When Ada still can't get pregnant after a year of marriage, she flees her life under the threat of being tried as a witch and joins the Hole in the Wall Gang as an outlaw, determined to create a safe haven for women who have been cast out from society. 

A classic western about a vengeful daughter
true grit book cover

"True Grit" by Charles Portis, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $7.35

Mattie Ross was 14 when she began to seek vengeance for her father's murder, who was gunned down by a handyman named Tom Chaney. Joined on her mission by a US Marshal and a Texas Ranger, Mattie heads west to hunt down the outlaw and retells her epic journey 50 years later. 

A western set during the Mexican Revolution
el paso book by winston groom

"El Paso" by Winston Groom, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $12.99

From the author who wrote "Forrest Gump," "El Paso" is a historical fiction novel that wraps history around fictional and nonfictional characters during the Mexican Revolution. This story follows Pancho Villa, a revolutionary and feared outlaw who kidnaps a railroad tycoon's grandchildren in this thrilling western full of gunfights, armies, and an epic bullfight. 

A western adventure novel
news of the world

"News of the World" by Paulette Jiles, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $10.65

After the end of the Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd was traveling through Northern Texas delivering news of the world to small communities when he was offered $50 in gold to deliver a 10-year-old orphan girl to her remaining family in San Antonio. Raised in a Kiowa tribe and recently reclaimed by the US Army, Johanna has forgotten English, continually tries to escape, and is more than reluctant to make the 400-mile journey with a stranger.

An award-winning western
cormac maccarthy all the pretty horses

"All the Pretty Horses" by Cormac McCarthy, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $14.29

Cormac McCarthy is known for his profound and gripping westerns like "All the Pretty Horses," which won the National Book Award in 1992 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993. This western follows John Grady Cole, the youngest in a long line of Texas Rangers, who was primarily raised by a Mexican family that worked on his grandfather's ranch. When his grandfather passes away and he discovers that the ranch is to be sold, John takes off for the Mexican border with his best friend to find work as a cowboy. 

An adventurous modern western
the sisters brothers

"The Sisters Brothers" by Patrick deWitt, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $12.19

"The Sisters Brothers" is an adventurous and delightful western about the Sisters brothers named Charlie and Eli, assassins for hire who have been set on a mission to kill Hermann Kermit Warm. Though both brothers are disillusioned by the brutality of their work, Eli dreams of a calmer and simpler life as the two set off for gold-mining Sacramento in this novel loved for its compelling dialogue. 

The first in Stephen King's western series
the gunslinger stephen king

"The Gunslinger" by Stephen King, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $13.83

The first of Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" series, "The Gunslinger" introduces readers to Roland of Gilead, The Last Gunslinger, who has spent years chasing the man in black. Blending traditional western themes with elements of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, this series grips readers from the first installment as Roland meets new and interesting characters on his quest.

A collection of western short stories
close range

"Close Range: Wyoming Stories" by Annie Proulx, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $11.39

Nominated for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, this western short story collection about Wyoming ranchers is told with Annie Proulx's profoundly wise yet dark tone. This collection contains the short story "Brokeback Mountain," which was later adapted to the 2005 film of the same name. 

A Nebraskan western classic from 1918
my antonia

"My Ántonia" by Willa Cather, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $4.99

Published in 1918, "My Ántonia" follows Jim Burden, an orphaned boy, and Ántonia Shimerda, the eldest daughter in a family of Czech immigrants. Brought to Nebraska on the same train, Jim and Ántonia are both brought to the midwest to pioneer the land, navigating the challenging and affecting first year in the brutal west.

A fantasy western set during the gold rush
walk on earth

"Walk on Earth a Stranger" by Rae Carson, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $10.99

Nominated for a National Book Award, "Walk on Earth" is an epic adventure that mixes fantasy and western elements to tell the story of Lee Westfall, a girl with a special power to sense gold anywhere around her. When her life changes completely, she sets off for California- where gold has just been discovered- in the hopes that she can finally be herself amongst those lost in the gold rush. 

A thrilling, newly-released western
the thousand crimes of ming tsu

The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $13.99

Ming Tsu is the son of Chinese immigrants but was raised by the leader of a California crime syndicate and trained as a deadly enforcer. When Ming's wife is kidnapped in a violent raid, Ming partners with a bling clairvoyant, traveling across the west to settle long-buried scores and rescue his wife in this thrilling contemporary western. 

A multi-generational western
the son

"The Son" by Philipp Meyer, available at Amazon, from $10.99

"The Son" is a Pulitzer-Prize nominated western about Eli McCullough who was 13 when he was taken captive by Comanche natives and adopted as the chief's son, becoming part of the tribe. Years later, when armed Americans destroy Eli's tribe, he's left alone in the world and must make his own way in this multi-generational novel that spans from the 1800s to the oil booms in the 20th century. 

A magical, genre-bending western
the devil's revolver

"The Devil's Revolver" by V.S. McGrath, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $21.95

This fantastical western begins with a tense shooting competition and takes off after a double murder and kidnapping, setting 17-year-old Hettie on a mission for revenge. Joined by her crew of underdogs, Hettie sets out with her father's revolver, cursed to take a year off Hettie's life each time she fires it. 

A steamy queer western romance
long winter

"Long Winter" by Rachel Ember, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $12.87

Robbie lives alone on Riverside Ranch, braving the harsh winter with his cats and horses to care for and keep him company. When he gets a call to pick up his little brother's best friend from jail, old flames reignite as another snowfall traps the men in Robbie's one-room hayloft apartment. 

A gripping western mystery novel
the cold dish

"The Cold Dish" by Craig Johnson, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $7.48

Craig Johnson is known for his thrilling western mysteries and "The Cold Dish" is one of his most popular novels —  and the first in his "Walt Longmire" starring crime-solving Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire. When Cody Pritchard is found dead two years after he and his friends assaulted a Northern Cheyenne girl, Walt considers this may be an act of vengeance, a theory solidified after a second boy from the assault is murdered.

A contemporary western cowboy romance
cowboy rising

"Cowboy Rising" by Mia Hopkins, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $7.09

Georgia Meyers is a journalist writing an article about MacKinnon Ranch (a last-ditch effort to save her job at the newspaper) when she meets Daniel MacKinnon, the cattleman's son who recently turned down a promising oil career to take over his family's farm. Though fifth in the "Cowboy Cocktail" series, "Cowboy Rising" can absolutely be read as a standalone novel, as the one-night-stand between Georgia and Daniel takes off to become so much more. 

An equally funny and serious satirical western
little big man

"Little Big Man" by Thomas Berger, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $15.64

Narrated by the 111-year-old Jack Crabb, this satirical western is about a white man who was raised by the Cheyenne Native Americans and describes his life in the west. As Jack Crabb encounters a cast of famous characters from Buffalo Bill to General Custer, he continually leaves and returns to the Cheyenne community as he considers the entirety of his identity. 

A classic western children's book
little house on the prairie

"Little House on the Prairie" by Laura Ingalls Wilder, available at Amazon and Bookshop, from $8.27

"Little House on the Prairie" is a classic 1935 children's book about Laura Ingalls, who moves from Wisconsin to Kansas as her father builds their family a little house and a new life. This nostalgic and beloved book follows Laura as she and her family explore their challenging new life in the midwest. 

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