The best ‘traditional western’ in a nontraditional era

Gary Schanbacher won a Spur Award for his traditional western novel “Crossing Purgatory."
Gary Schanbacher won a Spur Award for his traditional western novel “Crossing Purgatory.”

Imagine westerns and romance novels staring each other down at the O.K. Corral: Once upon a time, Louis L’Amour might have been the fastest draw, but nowadays E.L. James can snap that Colt .45 right from his grip with her bull whip. (Stop that metaphor!)

The audience for western fiction (not Western literature) probably peaked in the 1960s, and you rarely see the once-mighty genre listed separately in industry stats.

But the good folks who belong to the Western Writers of America are not letting the campfire die. Johnny D. Boggs, editor of the WWA magazine Roundup, says, “Westerns have often been considered the ugly stepchild of genre writing, but we’re trying to change that perception. It can be great literature.”

He’s shootin’ straight. One of The Washington Post’s top five novels of 2013 was Philipp Meyer’s “The Son,” a spectacular western about a Texas oil family. And Mary Doria Russell’s “Doc,” about Doc Holliday, was one of my favorite novels of 2011.

Which brings up a change that Boggs notes with pride: “It’s far from a good-ol’-boys club. There are more women and minorities writing about the West, tacking new issues, new themes, new settings or putting new spins on traditional themes. Plus, WWA’s incoming president, Sherry Monahan, and our executive director, Candy Moulton, are women nonfiction writers.”

Perhaps to reflect the different forms and themes that westerns now address, this year the WWA redefined its Best Novel category to include Historical (before 1940 based on actual people and events), Contemporary (1940 to the present) and Traditional (before 1940 without historical figures or events).

Last week, Gary Schanbacher’s “Crossing Purgatory” (Pegasus) won the WWA’s Spur Award for best “traditional western novel.” But it turns out Schanbacher stumbled upon that honor almost accidentally.

“I had no intention of writing a ‘traditional western’ or an historical novel of any sort,” he says. “I started with a vague notion to write about the intersection of the ‘new’ and ‘old’ West, about the dissolution of a contemporary urban Denver family with deep roots in Colorado history  — think, ‘Pioneer’ license plates.”

(Courtesy of Pegasus)
(Courtesy of Pegasus)

A brief sketch about an Indiana farmer who moved west in 1858 got him wondering why a man would give up everything he knew for an uncertain future. “I began the ‘what if, what then’ questions, one thing led to another, and the book refused to leave the time period.”

Raised in Virginia, Schanbacher says he’s never read many westerns, but he appreciates “the spare, lyrical prose of writers who may be considered western,” such as Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Kent Haruf and Louise Erdrich.

He speculates that we’ve grown a bit too cynical for the larger-than-life, white-hat heroes of the mid-20th-century westerns. “But the genre never really left us, it just evolved,” he says. “Elmer Kelton and Louis L’Amour have sold well for decades. And don’t forget that Larry McMurtry‘s ‘Lonesome Dove’ came out in 1985 and re-set the bar.”

For now, Schanbacher has no plans to ride out of this genre. “My current project is a western,” he says, “but contemporary.”

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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