My Top Five GRITTY Westerns for kids.
Everybody has their own definition of a “western”. Here’s my definition:
A Western doesn’t have to have cowboys or Indians but it
should have horses and/or mules.
should be set in the American west in the 1800s.
should have six-shooters, smoking, gambling and drinking.
should have a hero who fights against overwhelming odds.
should have some harsh but beautiful landscapes & big skies.
Because Westerns are usually about survival of individuals in the extreme situations of a frontier world, they are usually too violent and politically incorrect for children. The ones that ARE aimed at children are often too sanitised for my liking. I like gritty reality with a dollop of danger. So here are five of my favourite Western books; ones suitable for kids but which also have grit, grime and menace. I’ve placed them in order of ascending grittiness.
1. The Little House on the Prairie (U) by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I know you're thinking this is saccharine sweet but it isn't. Although safe enough for a 6-year-old, it is magnificently evocative account of pioneer life with all its hardships and joys. Wilder's descriptions are so vivid and compelling that it seems she has stepped back into her six-year-old self to describe the sights, sounds, smells and emotions of her extraordinary life. If you've been put off by the TV series, don't be. Put aside your prejudices and try this. There is a good reason it's considered a masterpiece.
2. Hondo (PG) by Louis L’Amour
Louis L’Amour is considered one of the greatest Western writers and this is one of his greatest books. The story follows a strong, silent hero named Hondo who helps a woman and her son living in hostile Apache territory. The best bit of the book is a section at the end where Hondo teaches the boy how to track and hunt Indian-fashion. The John Wayne movie is good but doesn’t have the tips about tracking and desert survival.
3. True Grit (PG) by Charles Portis
This deadpan masterpiece by Charles Portis is one of my top ten fave books of all time. It recounts the story of a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie Ross who hires a fat, half-blind Marshal to help her avenge her father’s cold-blooded murder. Both of them have ‘grit’, (which can mean ‘courage’ as well as crunchy dirt.) True Grit is one of those books you can read over and over and always find something new. Both movie versions are good, but the book is better. Best of all is the audio book, read by American author Donna Tartt. She captures Mattie Ross’s voice perfectly.
4. Boone’s Lick (PG) by Larry McMurtry
Like Charles Portis, Larry McMurtry is another great American author. His Pulitzer-prize-winning Lonesome Dove was made into a highly-acclaimed TV mini-series. His screenplay of Brokeback Mountain won an Oscar. Boone’s Lick is based on the real events of an Indian massacre in 1866, a year after the Civil War ended. The narrator is fifteen-year-old Shay. Some scenes are quite brutal, but it’s suitable for readers 10+. As with True Grit, there is a superb audiobook version, read by actor Will Patton, who makes McMurtry’s drily funny characters even better than they are on the page. No mean feat.
5. St. Agnes' Stand (15) by Thomas Eidson
WARNING: This book has harrowing scenes of torture by Apache. It made me understand why you always save the last bullet for yourself in an Indian attack. (gulp!)
But if you have a strong stomach, it is a beautiful Western with a powerful message of love and redemption.
And don’t forget my new book, The Case of the Deadly Desperados, which falls between True Grit and Boone’s Lick on the True Grittiness scale.