Shelf Life: Welcome to the “wild, wild West”

Published 4:10 pm Tuesday, November 14, 2017

I have always loved books and movies set in the “wild West.” Maybe it’s because I grew up in the era of the super popular Oregon Trail computer game, but since I could read chapter books I’ve devoured anything set in 1800s America, such as “Little House on the Prairie” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Here are a few of my favorites that you may enjoy.

Two young adult authors who have written novels set during this time period are Rae Carson and Stacey Lee. I highly recommend the Gold Seer trilogy and as the third one was just released, you can binge read them all now! This series is not only historical fiction but also fantasy, as the main character Leah has a magical talent… She can sense the presence of gold. Which sounds awesome, but proves troublesome as her evil uncle knows about her ability and chases her on a dangerous journey across Gold Rush-era America. I’ve read several of author Stacey Lee’s books, but my favorite is “Under A Painted Sky.” A Chinese American teenager and runaway slave in the 1800s disguise themselves as boys to make their way across the Oregon Trail to California.

There are several local authors who write captivating historical fiction, such as Charles Frazier and Ron Rash. Frazier is most well-known for “Cold Mountain” due to the movie adaptation, but “Thirteen Moons” is my favorite. Born and raised in western North Carolina, I have also always been interested in Cherokee history. “Thirteen Moons” is based on the life of the only white man to be named chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, William Holland Thomas. Rash has also had one of his books adapted into a film, “Serena.” Unfortunately, the movie was a box office failure; however, the book is amazing. Set in the 1920s, newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton plan to create a timber empire in the North Carolina mountains and ruthlessly eliminate anyone who stands in their way.

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Another great author of Westerns is Jim Fergus. “One Thousand White Women” is an interesting concept, an alternate history of sorts. Apparently, in the late 1800s, the Cheyenne chief Little Wolf asked President Grant to trade 1,000 women for 1,000 horses. In real life, the president refused of course but in this book he agreed, and the main character May Dodd and other women from mental institutions and prisons (or who had nothing to lose) joined the “Brides for Indians” program. From doing research for this column I discovered that there is now a sequel, “The Vengeance of Mothers,” which I will be checking out promptly. Another book by Fergus, “The Wild Girl,” is set in the 1930s. The main character Ned joins an expedition to find a boy who was kidnapped by Apaches. Along the way, they encounter a traumatized Apache girl who refuses to speak, a victim of a massacre that left her orphaned.

A few more! Christina Baker Kline’s Western “Orphan Train” was captivating and has even been adapted into a Young Readers’ Edition, “Orphan Train Girl.” In the late 1800s, orphan trains ran from the East Coast to the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children who would be adopted, such as Vivian, a young Irish immigrant. “The Son” by Philipp Meyer is one of those sweeping epics that encompasses many years and several generations. According to, the story that follows the rise of a Texas family from the Comanche raids of the 1800s to the oil booms of the 20th century is soon to be a TV series on AMC starring Pierce Brosnan.

And I didn’t even have time to describe all of the great Western movies out there! From “Dances to Wolves” to “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” to “Into the West,” I could have written a whole column on films set in that time period. Maybe I will…

Jen Pace Dickenson is the Youth Services Librarian for Polk County Public Libraries. For information about the library’s resources, programs, and other services, visit or call 828-894-8721.