The good guy in white and the bad one in black chase each other, shooting across their shoulders as their horses race across the desert—the genre of westerns has some pretty strong tropes. Draw closer from classic images toward characters and you’ll discover more specific archetypes: the gunslinger who never misses his mark, the cowboy with a deep distrust of society, the gambler whose high risk tolerance adds tension to the plot, the lone Native American in the distance on his pony, either impeccably moral or indubitably evil, depending on the story. There’s also the doctor (whose name is often “Doc”), the preacher, the sheriff.
However, aside from the random call girl with a heart of gold or someone’s wife, there’s a remarkable dearth of female characters in westerns. And feminism?
Here’s a list of novels that work against the rules of western tropes and archetypes to create a subgenre: feminist westerns.
By Anna North
Set in an alternate version of 19th-century America that has been decimated by a plague, Outlawed is a dystopian/western mashup. Fertility is highly prized, so when Ada fails to conceive within a year of her marriage, she’s labeled a witch and must flee civilized society to save her life. She ends up working with The Hole in the Wall Gang, a notorious group of bandits led by The Kid who steal and blow up trains and make all sorts of mischief.
By Mary Doria Russell
The Earp brothers and the infamous shootout at the O. K. Corral is the stuff of western storytelling legend. Here, novelist Mary Doria Russell tells the story through a different perspective, that of Wyatt Earp’s love interest, Josie. Rather than romanticizing this violent time in American history, Russell uses the legend to examine the nation’s trajectory toward possible, if bloody, enlightenment.
By Sarah Gailey
Rather than marry the man who was engaged to her best friend Beatriz—who was hanged for the crime of possessing Unapproved Materials—Esther flees her small hometown. She stows away in the Librarian’s wagon, hoping that living with the morally upright women who carry approved literature between towns will help her overcome the feelings she had for Bea. But she discovers that the Librarians are not who she thought they were. This post-apocalyptic American Southwest is a cruel setting; it demands tough characters willing to resist, and Esther must figure out if she is brave enough to accept who she really is.
By Charles Portis
“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood,” begins this novel; incredible, perhaps, but fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross does just that. When her father is shot down in Fort Smith, Arkansas—his horse and his $150 bank roll stolen—she heads out into Indian Territory in the company of the meanest U. S. Ranger she can find, Rooster Cogburn. Told by many different characters that seeking revenge isn’t the business of a “little girl,” Mattie stays determined in her quest. The outcome of her adventures is the very definition of “grit.”
By Terese Svoboda
We never learn our protagonist’s real name in this lyrical imagining of the west. Instead, she takes the name of a fellow captive who died. Harriet went to live with a Pawnee tribe when her father lost her in a bet with a Native American who was obsessed with building a mound. She escapes when her dancing saves her from a pyre and journeys through Nebraska in search of her father, meeting characters who teach her the wide range of humanity and might help her find her place within it.
Written by Amy, Assistant Librarian