What are your favorite books about the American West

Review of Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt

  • The compelling prose in this memoir about growing up on a northern Montana ranch makes you catch your breath in wonder. In Judy Blunt‘s telling, the landscape and its climate become a living breathing thing, dishing out both beauty and horror in Jekyll-Hyde extremes.  Frozen cattle, rescued from the harrowing blizzard of 1964 while barely alive, slowly rot away while giving birth to still-born calves.  Ring-necked pheasants “dig their own graves under blankets of snow,” the stronger ones managing to “crack their sealed coffin like an eggshell and burst upward into the jaws of the storm, dropping within seconds, gaping, the air too thick to pull through the slim nares at the top of their beaks.”  You’ll be gaping too by the end of this can’t-put-down, white-knuckle chapter.  Then there’s doing the work of men while still rustling up supper for hubby and three kids at days end, wondering if there’s a better life in a place where the nearest neighbor isn’t twenty miles away.  There’s anger at a female townie friend who doesn’t have a clue about ranch life, and alarm about nearly losing a sick child when unable to get to a doctor on wet, gumbo roads that suck pickup tires into immobility.  Yet for all her gritty realism that eventually drives her away from the ranch into a writing career (happily for us), there’s a love of the shortgrass prairie in spring, the wild and domestic animals that graced her childhood, and the family bonds formed in adversity that pull her, and us, into a wistful, if unromanticized, picture of ranch life under Montana’s big sky.
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Author Anne Hillerman Visits Sylvan Dale

New York Times bestselling author Anne Hillerman spent two days at Sylvan Dale Ranch during her September 18-19 visit to Colorado as the “Loveland Loves to Read” author of the year.

From left: Peg Isakson, Loveland Loves to Read, David Jessup, Anne Hillerman, Diane Lapierre, Loveland Library Director

Hillerman spoke to a sold-out crowd at the Rialto Theater on Monday night, and to another sold-out lunch at the Ranch on Tuesday.  She is the daughter of Tony Hillerman, author of 18 mysteries set on the Navaho reservation in New Mexico.  Her first novel, Spider Woman’s Daughter, includes characters Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn that her father created, while moving a female Navaho police officer, Bernadette Manuelito, onto center stage.  The book was enthusiastically received by the Loveland Community.  It received the prestigious Spur Award from Western Writers of America in 2014.

Anne’s parting comment when leaving Sylvan Dale:

“You guys are such a generous, professional, thoughtful bunch. I didn’t know what to expect at the ranch, and even if I had, you would have exceeded my preconceptions tenfold.  It was especially nice to be in a place where we could relax and be taken care of.  I have recommended your outfit highly to my brother and sister-in-law and will continue to sing your praises far and wide.”

Gun Control in the Wild West

Irony of ironies.  The town of Tombstone, Arizona, recently proclaimed itself “America’s Second Amendment City” to celebrate its gun-toting past and Arizona’s current status as “the most gun-friendly state in America.”   Ironically, the famous gunfight at the OK Corral occurred because the outlaw Clanton gang violated Tombstone’s 1881 gun control law, which required visitors to check their guns at the sheriff’s office until they left town.

Wyatt Earp

Tombstone’s legendary hero, Wyatt Earp, was attempting to enforce this law when the gunfight erupted.  By celebrating guns, Tombstone seems to be siding with the cattle thieves and stage robbers against its own historic law enforcement officers.  For a great historical novel about Tombstone, check out “Epitaph,” by Mary Doria Russell.

He Began to Die When He Was Twenty-one

Forget every stereotype you may hold about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp.  Forget you may not even like “westerns.”  Read Doc, the 2011 historical novel by Mary Doria Russell:  you’ll be richly rewarded.

No need for me to add another in-depth review to the many enthusiastic ones found in the Washington Post, the Washington Times (they agree for a change), and in a dozen other publications and 36  screens worth of reader comments on Amazon.  Instead, in the course of several blog posts, I’ll dissect a few passages that especially intrigue me.

If I love a book, I’ll read it a second time as a writer, asking myself how the author manages to make me cry or laugh or keep turning pages far past my bedtime.  It’s how I hone my own craft.

In Doc, Russel uses the omniscient voice.  That’s where the author is the narrator, the all-knowing guide who dips in and out of different characters’ heads and tells the reader things about them they don’t know about themselves, and who interjects her own opinions about their circumstances, motivations, and the setting in which the story unfolds, present, past and sometimes future.

I’ve never tried writing from this point of view myself—too intimidating.  You have to be cocksure of your ability keep the characters straight in your readers’ heads, and confident that your narrator’s voice is entertaining enough to justify taking the reader on excursions outside of your character’s heads and your main story line.

Here’s an example from Doc.  In the middle of an episode involving Johnnie Sanders, a young Indian-black half breed who’s a whiz at cards and later, the victim of a murder, Russel drops this bit of interpretive history:

Johnnie Sanders’ daddy had told no lies.  The Indians were crazy gamblers.  For numberless centuries and uncounted generation, the Choctaw, the Zuni, the Crow, the Arapahoe, the Navajo, the Dakota, the Mandan, the Kiowa, and a hundred other tribes had whiled away countless days and nights playing a thousand games, betting on anything with an outcome that was not assured.  Blame boredom.  Blame the timeless unrelieved monotony of land so devoid of tress that owls burrow in the ground for want of better accommodation.  Blame vast herds of ceaselessly chewing ruminants who walked with the unsyncopated beat of a Lakota chant.  However you explained it, never and nowhere else on earth had gambling occupied the attention of so many for so long as in this flat and featureless land. 

Then in a geological instant—just five years’ time—the American bison had been replaced on the prairies by European domestic cattle.  Dead red Indians made way for live white bankrupts lured west by the promise of a fresh start on land free for the grabbing.  Kate had watched it happen and felt no pity.  The Indians all but wiped out?  Good riddance.  A danger eliminated, nothing more.  Millions of buffalo rotting on the plains.  Who cares?  They were filthy brutes, huge and stupid.

Neither Johnnie Sanders nor his daddy have any clue about all this; it’s clearly the author speaking.  Does this daring tangent take you out of the flow of the narrative?  It didn’t for me.  I found it nearly as riveting as the story itself, a way of looking a Plains Indians I’d never considered.

But note how, in the second paragraph, Russell brings us back into the head of Kate, Doc Holiday’s partner and lover, so we see the tribes’ decimation through her uncaring eyes.  We’re back into the story again, having enjoyed the brief side trip into history—a well written one at that.

Moral:  If you’re going to use the omniscient voice, make sure your side tracks are compelling and your story train returns to the main track without much delay.

Doc Holliday’s grave in Glenwood Springs, CO.

Next:  Boxing on the frontier

My Review in Roundup Magazine

My review of Epitaph, by Mary Doria Russell, was published in the December 2016 issue of Roundup Magazine, by the Western Writers of America.  You can’t view the magazine online, so I’ve included an image of it here.

Cool Writing Exercise from Author Kent Meyers

Kent Meyers

Kent Meyers

Instead of using abstract words like “hate” or “fear” in your writing, try drawing a image of it instead. Then write a detailed description of the image without using the abstract word. This was one of the writing exercises offered by author Kent Meyers at an October 11 workshop sponsored by the Loveland Library. For example, “fear” might be depicted as a black hole at the end of a gun barrel.

Here’s the off-the-cuff image I came up with for “anger”:  “his hands took on a life of their own, fluttering demons, the first finger on the right hand jabbing ever closer to her face, the fingers on his left clenching and unclenching until, closing into a fist, it crashed into the door frame beside her.”  Fun to play with words like this.

Meyers’ book, The Work of Wolves, was the Loveland Loves to Read selection for 2016.  A terrific story, which Linda and I recommend.  Four boys from different backgrounds–a horse trainer, a German tourist, and two Native Americans–grapple with a cruel act of vengeance by a rich landowner, and discover their true selves in the process of doing the work of wolves.  work-of-wolves


Book Review: Epitaph, by Mary Doria Russell


So much has been written about the OK Corral I almost passed this book up. Now I consider Epitaph one of the best historical novels on the American West I’ve ever read.

EpitaphHistorical fiction often suffers when authors dwell too much on historical fact at the expense of a good story, or as in the case of most accounts of the OK Corral, allow the fiction to run away from the facts.   Mary Doria Russel achieves a perfect balance.  Learn and be entertained at the same time.  It’s “edutainment” at its best.

Ever wonder what these famous characters were really like?  How they were raised, what drove them, Read more

Tour de Pants – Mariano’s Crossing

It’s Historic Preservation Month in our fair community, and this year’s focus is on Mariano Medina, the major character in my historical novel, Mariano’s Crossing.  I’ll be reading a passage from my book at the event, which takes place in P…eter’s Park across from the Loveland Museum, around 10 am on Saturday May 3.  There will be a viewing of Mariano’s 150-year-old leather breeches; hence, the title “Tour de Pants.”  Should be fun!  See http://www.cityofloveland.org/index.aspx?page=2129

Successful Launch for Mariano’s Crossing, David J’s historical novel.

Buy This Book

Publishing your first novel is a bit nerve-wracking.  First you get an ego adjustment from your critique group as they pick apart your precious prose.  Then you get more character-building experience by having your finished manuscript rejected by scores of harried agents and editors.   When you finally get published, expectations sufficiently lowered, you wonder whether anyone will come to your book launch.  You’d be happy with a crowd of three, over and above your immediate family.

 So it was with a sense of wonder and gratitude that I peered out at a crowd of over one hundred book enthusiasts who elbowed into Loveland’s Anthology Book Company Friday night, October 12, to hear about my historical novel, Mariano’s Crossing.  Thank you thank you and thank you.  The book store thanks you.  They sold some eighty books, and not a few beers.  And let’s add the thanks of the Loveland Historical Society, who will receive my part of the proceeds of your generous purchases.

 Now the euphoria is fading, and I’m wondering if anyone will like the book. 

 Attention, readers:  If you do like it, feel free to infect the social media with your viral accolades.  Tweet away, however that works (it’s a mystery to me).  On the other hand, if you don’t like it, contact me privately.  I’m used to it, but why spoil it for others?  Heh, heh. 

 David J

 PS.  You can buy autographed copies from my website at www.davidmjessup.com.  The book is also available at Anthology Books, 422 E. 4th Street in Loveland, CO, and will be distributed through regular channels to bookstores and on-line retailers after November 26.

Book Favorites – Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River, a novel by Leif Enger

Eleven-year-old Reuben Land narrates this harrowing cross-country journey prompted by his older brother’s murder of a bully. Davy, the brother, becomes a fugitive. The rest of the family—father Jeremiah and Reuben’s younger sister Swede–set out from Minnesota to find him. We chewed our knuckles listening to this book-on-tape during our own drive back to Maryland, as Reuben’s family tracks Davy down, one step ahead of the law.